by Crikey intern Nicole Eckersleymao

For a nation accustomed to receiving blank looks when bargaining, and whose only haggling technique consists of asking “What’s your best on that?”, buying toothpaste in China can be a shock to the Australian system.

Before I landed in Beijing, I had been warned, but no mere warning could have prepared me for the blood sport that is haggling in China. My first bargaining experience, in an antique market, had me massively overestimating the value of a small clock. Having completed my purchase with the seller — who had a remarkable poker face — twenty or thirty other sellers descended on me, shoving similar items in my face. I was forced to cut short my browsing, and ended up running out of the place with my hands over my head.

If you haven’t experienced it, here’s a guide to how the transaction should go:

You, the shopper, look over the items with a callous eye, trying not to pause or look at any one item with more interest than the others. (Any lingering look will cause the item, once your eye slides onwards, to be picked up and thrust into your field of vision.) Once you have decided (covertly) which item or items you are interested in, you may pick them up. The game is now on.

Ask the price. It’s safer to let the vendor go first, since if you accidentally overestimate the item’s worth, game over. The price offered by the vendor will be grossly overinflated to a couple of orders of magnitude: if they say a thousand, you’re looking at around fifty. It’s about five yuan to the dollar; a good rule of thumb is to imagine the price of your item if it were gathering a layer of dust in a Hot Potatoe’s Everything’s Not Quite $2 shop, and then quarter that.

If your vendor speaks English, you will be subjected to stories of how you’re taking food out of their children’s mouths, and killing their sick grandmothers, and why do they even bother coming out when people are going to try to rip them off, and it costs more than that to make it. Note: for an English-speaking vendor, you may be up another order of magnitude on overinflated price. English speakers don’t work for peanuts, and any market where English is commonly spoken is a tourist trap. I found a pair of $3 sunglasses — the same model as in a small shop near my hostel — being shilled for $120 as ‘designer’ in an English-speaking market.

If no English is spoken, the gestures will get correspondingly more dramatic. Waved arms, pantomimed woe, upturned palms of impossibility, enthusiastic scribblings-out of written figures.

Remember, your job here is to remain stoic until you’re sure at least one person will be materially injured by your outrageous demands on price. You may want to consider gently drifting towards the next stall; this should bring material reductions in price, and can be repeated two or three times with the appropriate umming and ahhing.

Pointing out the item’s faults may lead to a long argument about quality; just saying you’re not really sure you like it is harder to counter. Having a critic with you — clearly bored, impatient or unimpressed by the goods on offer — can also help.

There are fixed price shops in China, if you (like me) prefer a short, uncomplicated transaction, but these may also be over-inflated and open to negotiation. A bit of delicate moaning about how you like something, but can’t possibly afford it, should reveal what kind of shop you’re in. You can also refuse to bargain entirely; naming a price and sticking to it will also leave you feeling like you’re starving someone’s child, but at least it takes out the uncertainty.

In Australia, one of my favourite techniques is to ask about the price of decoy items, and then reject them with contempt at the obviously outrageous prices. Once my chosen item comes up, prices have drifted pleasantly downward. Do not attempt this in China. I’m still trying to get rid of all the jade keyrings I was forced to buy.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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