Daily Anecdote: Bargaining 101

Inflation and currency appreciation have killed my game. I used to come to China for annual wardrobe updates on the cheap. Now China is so expensive that I’m resorting to the markets for a good deal. (The department stores long ago exceeded my willingness to pay for domestic brands and Shenzhen factory quality). Although I didn’t find what I needed (a fake North Face bag to replace my broken real one) at the right price at Silk Street market, the trip did refresh my memory of just how varied bargaining styles are. Here’s a modest catalogue of bargaining strategies for novices…

The Aggro
Shopkeepers like to wear you down with loud and persistent haggling. After a while I usually figure that my eardrums are worth more than the measly dollars I’m trying to bargain down, so I pay up. But the Aggro bargainer never caves in. He counters the seller’s strategy by being even more unbearable himself. My cousin Evan is an expert Aggro. He’ll plants himself firmly in a stall and shout ludicrous things until the vendor gives him the discount, just to get him out of there. A typical Evan line, “What? 30RMB? For 30 RMB I’ll make one and sell it back to you! 5RMB, that’s all I’m going to pay!”

The Poor Card
The polar opposite to the Aggro, the Poor Card approach is an exercise in solemnity and silence. The buyer remains uncomfortably stoic while the vendor chatters away. He doesn’t engage in the two-way negotiation, he just reiterates a desired price when the seller takes a breather from talking. A classic line is, “But this is all the money I have,” said over and over again. There’s also a Poor Card expert in my family — my mom. Her skillful silence got me a fancy set of bedding (pillow cases, cushions, sheets, the whole shebang) for 300 when the seller asked for 900.

“This Sucks”
This strategy works for people who can bring themselves to shamelessly nitpick. The buyers see something they like, try it on, decide it is a good thing, and then proceeds to disparage it. Disdainful body language is a helpful complement — holding up the item with two fingers, shaking it, screwing up your face to say, “Look at this shoddy stitching” all work. Disdain quickly turns to glee when the seller gives up and hands you that piece of clothing you really didn’t want just half a minute ago.

The Cutesies
This occasionally works for pretty, young girls. You’d have to try the clothes on, look dazzlingly good, prance about the stall attracting other shoppers’ attention, and sweetly ask “Ayi” (auntie) or “Jie” (older sister) to please give you a discount. Shopkeepers are pretty immune to buyers’ tricks, but once in a while they soften to a pleading girl.

The Non-bargaining Bargain
This works surprisingly well for foreigners. Often you see big white men shrugging their shoulders with an “I don’t know what I’m doing” expression, smiling guiltily, tentatively saying “No, no, I can’t pay that much.” These buyers don’t know the rules, don’t know how much things should be, don’t know how to set their price…and it works! They’re blissfully and ignorantly playing the “how low will you go” patience game.

For every buyer bargaining style in the book there’s probably a dozen matching sells. Let’s take a look at how the merchants hold up their end of the bargain.

The Linguists
Walk down any crowded alley way at Silk Street and you’ll see foreign buyers delighted with the shopkeepers’ linguistic dexterity. These guys work hard for their money, learning how to say, “Your wife is beautiful!” and “You’re killing me with your prices” in English, French, German, Spanish, Japanese, Russian, just to name a few. The sight of so many vendors speaking so many languages to lure buyers may be the number one draw at the markets.

The Soft Sell
I learned about this first hand when Geoff and I were separated for a few brief minutes at Silk Street. When I found him again he had three salesgirls on his arms, tugging at his shirt, rubbing his biceps, pulling him into their stall. They don’t do this to couples but any time an unsupervised male shows up the shopkeepers pounce and show them what it means to “sa jiao.” (If you don’t know what this is, ask a friend who has dated a Chinese girl, or wait for a future posting!)

The Flatterers
White lies, even blatant lies, are rampant as sellers stroke buyers’ egos. “This dress could only work on a figure like yours! Bigger girls come by and I don’t even let them try it, I know it won’t fit.” If a piece is too big on you the vendors says, “It’s perfectly breezy for the summer.” If it’s too tight, “You don’t want to wear things loose and dowdy!” If you’re wondering about how a linen skirt will fare when the weather cools, vendors reply, “This is heavy linen, it’ll work well into the fall.” If it’s wool you’re fingering in the summer, they say, “This is good material, it’s seasonless.”

The Poor Card
Just as buyers cry poor, so do sellers. Shopkeepers love to mutter, “I tell you, I’m not making any money on this, I’m giving it to you at cost (or at a loss)!” as they start to wrap up your purchase. Right after a smile appears as he bids you adieu, and you know you might’ve asked for an even lower price.

“This Quality!”
Even though 99.9% of the goods in the big markets are made in shady factories somewhere down south (Dongguan?), that doesn’t stop the sellers from asking a high price for superior quality. Over the years I’ve heard, “This is imported.” “This is export quality.” “This is a famous Italian brand, Goocci.” “That’s a Nordic model, that’s why the sizes run big.” “This (fake) is better than the real thing.”

This last pitch threw me into some trouble at Silk Street this time. I found some North Face copies but balked when the sellers demanded RMB380 (~$55). I blurted, not as a bargaining tactic but out of pure surprise, “But a real North Face costs only $30 on sale at a US outlet.” This really didn’t sit well with the shopkeeper who insisted that his bags were made at the same factory as the real ones, with better materials.

After huffing and puffing at me for a while, the vendor resorted to the last bargaining ploy, The Dismissal. He waved me away with one hand, saying, “If you don’t have money to buy good quality why don’t you just go buy the real one.” This must be one for the ages, a fake goods peddler telling me that the real goods are cheaper!

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