The 10 Secrets to Bargaining in China

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Bargaining in China is an art form — a scripted performance in which everyone has a role to play. Follow our shopping guide to nail your lines and get the best deals. The more you save, the more jade, tea, silk, pearls and other Chinese specialities you can bring home.

1. (Almost) everything’s negotiable

When can you haggle in China, and when are prices set in stone? Wares at any open-air or indoor market are fair game. This includes the tourist-trap Silk Market, quirky Panjiayuan Flea Market and the lone entrepreneur who, during a sudden downpour, appears on a street corner to hawk umbrellas. Even if vendors have labelled their goods with ambitious prices, they’re flexible. Any time you’re in a brick-and-mortar store, however, the prices are less bendy.


2. No business like show business

Haggling is all a show. You act out the role of disinterested buyer while the seller plays the victim. If you toss out a lowball price, vendors may furrow their brows or shake their heads dismissively. Don’t be discouraged, it’s all part of the performance. You can still pull their prices down.


3. Act the part

Stay in character — remember, you’re a casual browser. If you spot something you love, even (or especially) if you’ve found the perfect souvenir for your hard-to-shop-for sister, hide your enthusiasm. Don’t even talk about it quietly with a friend; any vendor worth his or her salt speaks enough English to understand, and then some. (Once, a Danish friend was walking around by himself at the Silk Market, and a jeans merchant started calling out “Pants!” to him in Danish. To this day he has no idea what gave him away.)


4. Rule of thirds

If a seller quotes you a price of 100 yuan (about $20) or lower, divide it by three. Your starting price should be no higher. If they throw out a number closer to the 400s or 500s, consider dividing by five before you gear up to bargain. Once they cross the four-digit threshold, don’t hesitate to divide by 10; remember, in many cases, those “designer” goods are only impressive imitations.


5.  Language-barrier breakdown

Don’t stress about haggling in a different language. Sellers will always have a calculator on hand to pass back and forth and act as your translator. After all, what is bargaining but a conversation of numbers and body language?


6. Key phrases

If you do want to sprinkle in some Mandarin phrases to add some flavour to your negotiation, here are two essentials:

  1. Tai gui le! — 太贵了!, pronounced “tie guay luh,” which means “That’s too expensive!”
  2. Neng pianyi yidian ma? — 能便宜一点吗?, pronounced “Nung pyanee ee dien ma?”, which means “Can you lower the price a little?”

7. The “walk away”

So you think a merchant really wants to make the sale, but (despite your tactics) she’s still quoting a too-high price. You still have one more trick up your sleeve: the “walk away.” After she’s rejected your latest offer, walk away, but walk away slowly. She’ll run after you about 70% of the time saying she’ll stomach your number. (That probability increases significantly if you’re browsing at the end of a low-traffic day.)


8. Partner in crime

Your bag of tricks doubles if you shop with a friend. Ask them to pretend to hurry you along, or to criticize what you’re trying to buy. This additional pressure will give you more ammunition to deflate puffed-up prices.


9. Bulk buys

Need to buy a bunch of souvenirs? Knock them all out at one stand. The more you buy from one merchant, the lower your price-per-unit will be. Team up with your tour companions; if you all want the same keepsakes, have an emissary haggle for the group and split the cost afterward. Be sure to begin by asking for the price of just one item, though – that way you can calculate the discount you’re getting by purchasing multiples.


10. No hard feelings

You’ve done it. Nailed the sale and walked away with a steal. But now you feel bad. Don’t worry – as my Chinese-American, hard-bargaining mother once reminded me, they’ll only sell it to you if they’re still making a profit. The haggling show can have a happy ending for everyone.


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