They are not all out to get you…

Bargaining, haggling, fighting, attempting to screw one another, getting ripped off – all common expressions in the world of street market shopping.

China, as the country that experienced the first commercial revolution (all the way back during the Song Dynasty – check out the scroll: Along the River During the Qingming Festival, 清明上河圖, to see the extent of commercial development). My favorite part of that long scroll painting is the bridge at the center. Stalls line both sides of the bridge selling and hawking all manner of goods. My favorite is a grey shirted merchant near the front of the bridge. He stands in the middle of the road, gesturing towards his cart. You can almost hear him saying: “Sir, sir, come and see my wares – only the best price just for you!”

Mercantile activity, circa 1150 AD

Nine-hundred years later, not much has changed, although the merchants are now likely to speak a smattering – if not quite a fair bit – of English as well as market Chinese.

I have met many travelers who say they hate shopping in China, especially in the smaller stores and street markets, because “They always try to rip off the foreigners.” No, foreigners are willing to pay more because many foreign tourists have no idea what the goods for sale are actually worth. thus, as rational economic actors, they expect to earn similar margins off similar customers. It is not something racist, just simple economics. If foreigners generally pay more, then the expectation will be to set the price higher for that particular demographic.

In truth, like our smiling and gesticulating friend in the Qingming scroll, a savvy merchant will try to charge all outsiders more. In China, as in ancient Palestine (see how the people around the fire figured out where Peter was from based on his Galilean accent) or Britain (where people can immediately tell where someone is from based on their accent), accents are a dead giveaway. If you are not speaking the local vernacular, you are an outsider. This means you probably do not know the actual value of the goods or their approximate price, hence you should pay more. Thus a visitor to the shops in a back alley in Guangzhou who does not speak Cantonese will likely – unless the proprietor happens to be a migrant him/herself – be asked to pay more than a local would. Its just the way things are.

So my foreign friends, let’s try to relax a little bit. They are not all out to get you. Indeed, they are simply in the bargaining game to make higher margins wherever they can.

How then can one ensure they get a better deal? There are a few tactics:

1. DON’T SHOP WHERE TOURISTS SHOP!! This is the easiest, and most obvious rule. The areas most frequented by tourists, particularly foreign tourists, are the most likely to charge higher prices. The merchants know their demographic has money to spend (why else would they be in China) and that they are unlikely to know one type of good from another. Hence, what normally would be a 20 RMB freshwater pearl necklace suddenly costs 200. Places which attract large numbers of foreign tourists include:

Beijing: The Silk Market (at Sanlitun), the Yashow (Yaxiu – near the Workers’ Stadium) Market, Hongqiao Pearl Market (near the Temple of Heaven), the Ghost Market (Panjiayuan)

Shanghai: The Yu Garden area (trust me – good for a stroll but not really for trying to buy anything), Nanjing Road Pedestrian Street

These areas are famous for attracting hard-nosed entrepreneurs who know how to drive a hard bargain. They also have become jaded on negotiating with tourists who seem unlikely to make a purchase near the desired price. While it is still possible to negotiate a “final price”, don’t expect too much bargaining power. They know their desired margins (stall rental prices in these areas are VERY high so they need good margins) and will not hesitate to not sell if they think it is not worth their time.

2. Don’t be belligerent. The fact is, they have seen it all before. Whatever your antics, whatever your approach, it is nothing new. Getting mad doesn’t help you get a better price. Being honest and forthright helps.

3. Be polite: contrary to popular belief, friendliness and politeness are good things when negotiating. If you can say even a few words in Chinese, do so.

4. Don’t be afraid to walk away. When you examine what you wish to buy, decide in advance on what is your ideal price, and what is the absolute highest you are willing to go. If you can’t reach a deal, you can’t reach a deal. Just walk away. In the old days, many travelers claimed the merchant would then chase you down to accept your offer. Not likely anymore. But stick to your guns, decide if your desire for the good in question is worth paying more than you wished. If so, compromise, if not, go without.

5. The goods are not antiques. The fact is very few antiques can be legally sold and taken out of China anymore. In general, all items from before 1911 cannot be purchased and taken out of China. For ethnic minority items like Tibetan art, the limits are even more strict (I have heard minority goods from before the 1960s cannot be exported). Let merchants know you are aware of this regulation. The reproductions look great on the mantle so I encourage everyone to buy them – buy know what you are getting.

In general, use your head and keep a smile on your face. Shopping in China can be a pleasure and indeed it should be. But I have heard enough of the “they try to rip you off” type talk. Hey, welcome to the market economy. Good will be sold for whatever prices the market can bear. And for tourists, the market can bear a lot!


About redguide2010

While living in China's Guizhou Province I fell in love with the China, and travel more generally. I became especially enamored with the batik art of the Miao/Hmong and Buyi minorities. This love affair filled me with the desire to share this art form and the history, and travel foibles of China, with the world. For Batiks, check this out: I lived in China for more than 3 years doing work as an English teacher, translator, and political economist. In the course of these jobs I had the opportunity to see not only the Southwest (Guizhou, Yunnan and Sichuan) I called home but also to spend time on business in the megacities of Beijing, Shanghai and the Pearl River Delta. In my experience, even the most modern, industrial and seemingly bland concrete jungle contains a wealth of history and cultural experience - for those willing to scratch the surface. Let's take a peek together!
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