The Beginners Booklet of Bargains: How to Haggle in China

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Dec 27, 2012 / 0 comments

The Beginners Booklet of Bargains

How to Haggle in China

Part 1: How to Haggle in China

All bargaining has the same basic format. You, the tourist, show interest, the seller offers a price, you balk, he lowers it slightly. Usually a counter offer is put on the table, and the back and forth continues. Each culture has its own variants of the classic bargaining, bartering. But no matter where you are, learning how to haggle is important as a traveler.

There’s a basic format of bargaining that works almost anywhere, from a colorful grocery market where a friendly man missing a tooth is attempting to sell you 4 kilos of tomatoes to the high class store selling wooden furniture for office conference rooms. Usually for common knickknacks, like scarves or rickshaw rides, the price will be bumped up to between 3 and 10 times what you should be paying. Here are a few strategies you can sprinkle in to your basic bargaining. I usually choose one from each category and use them with normal bargaining. If you’re bargaining for something small, one of these might be enough.


The Walk Away

This common and extremely effective method is pretty self-explanatory: walk away. There are three situations when you should this.

1) When you’re going for something cheap, you can use this pretty much right off the bat. Make one offer, and when he says no, you walk away. Generally they’ll come running after you, but if they don’t it’s not too big a deal. Did you really need that extra keychain?

2) For a bigger item, when the vendor won’t budge. After asking for a price significantly below his offer, if he lowers his price by some minuscule amount, this is the perfect response. A shrug or calculating look before you go away help sometimes. He wants to sell for the highest price he can get, but if you leave, he earns nothing! Unless you’re getting a genuinely good price or you walk so fast they can’t get an offer out fast enough, this generally helps lower the price by a good bit. The drawback of this move is that if you don’t get it right the first time, it’s hard to go back with your tail between your legs and ask the seller to sell it to you anyway. That leads us to number three.

3) When you don’t know the price of what you want to buy, especially if it’s something that can be bought in any of the surrounding stalls.  If they let you walk away, you know about what the price should be. Then you go to the stall next door, and know what your goal is.

The Awkward Silence

When the seller makes their second or third offer, just look at them. Don’t glare, but just look at them. Tweak your eyebrows up. Try going for a look that says “Really? Are you serious? Are you kidding me?” If there’s silence and eye contact for long enough, they’re bound to give you another offer.

Middle: after bargaining a few minutes

The Theatrical

If you’ve ever bargained in Beijing, you’re no stranger to the cries of “My children won’t eat for that price!” and “I make no profit this cheap!” as you hand over your money. The truth is that they wouldn’t sell it to you if they weren’t making profit.  These aren’t so much lies - they’re part of the game. The statement isn’t meant to convey the exact words, but rather just that they like the price you’re at now. It’s like storytelling. The thing is, two can play at that game. At their cries that they’re going to starve to death, you can make any dramatic claim of your choice. One of the most commonly used is “If I spend that much money, I’m going to have to live on the streets!” An especially easy line, and what I always use, is “I’m only a student, I’m poor!” Study Abroad students, this one’s for you!

Other Alternatives: “I’ve been saving up for the last month, and I can’t pay that much!” “My Mom/Husband/Roommate/Friend/Boss will kill me if I spend that much!” “That’s what I earn for a month’s work!” 

The Accomplice

This is the bargainer's version of “good cop, bad cop.” This works especially well if you speak some Chinese. After bargaining for a while, it becomes clear that you’re interested in the product. This works against you, because it’s pretty clear that the sale’s already made. After the seller makes a “final” offer, turn to your husband/roommate/whoever is shopping with you, and stage a mini discussion about whether the price is right. Make sure to make it clear that your accomplice is saying no. Hand gestures and tone help to get the message across. You can apologetically say that your friend is hesitant to pay that much, and blaming it on them, there’s nothing the vendor can do about it, but cajole you with a better price, offer an extra goodie, let the sale go, or tell you how pretty you’re looking today. I don’t object to any of the above!

Puppy Dog

The internet seems to have reached the general consensus that begging for the price to be lowered is a horrible thing to do, but I’ve never encountered a vendor who was in the least bit offended by it. A puppy dog face usually gets you a few giggles and then the price you want. However, I’m not sure how this would work out for the male population.

Last Grasp: just need a few more kuai?

The Fancy Pants

The guy selling statues wants 25 yuan for his little carved horse, but you want to pay 20. You’re close, because he presumably started by asking for 150, but you’re not quite there. While criticism of the craftsmanship or quality is not generally appreciated, saying that the piece you’re bargaining for isn’t perfect helps your case. Showing him the tiny scratch at the bottom that’s barely even noticeable: “Look! It’s scratched, give me five kuai off” works like a charm. After some inspection and disgruntled faces, you’ll get that last five off. If it’s not scratched you can go with “It’s pretty, but it’s not exactly what I was looking for. Maybe I’ll find something else...”

The Empty Wallet

As with many of these tricks, this only works under certain conditions. The object has to be pretty cheap, and you have to have exact change. Put most of your money in some place that’s not visible, and keep in your wallet exactly what you want to pay for that item. This requires some preparation. After bargaining for a while, when you’re at the point where the seller refuses to budge, you pull out your wallet and let him look in. “See, I only have 13, I can’t pay you 20!” Works like a charm, unless the amount you want it for is drastically too little.

Just one more!

When you’ve tried everything you know to get the price down, and you can’t possibly lower it any more, you stop trying to lower the price, and try to increase the quantity. For some reason that will probably never make sense to me, many vendors are more willing to throw a small trinket into the deal than to decrease the price. Granted, there’s no way this will work if you’re buying something for 10 kuai, because for that amount it’s not worth it to them. However, if you’re buying a few sets of pearls, it’s likely that you’ll be able to get a set of earrings thrown in as a little ‘gift.’

Last Tips

Bargaining is part of the experience in China. It can actually be tons of fun. In fact, the most important thing is that you keep it fun. Everyone is much more likely to be nice to you and give you good prices if you’re being nice to them. Smiles, a good attitude, and some confidence will get you farther than any of these techniques. It’s also to your advantage to talk to them. Creating a friendly atmosphere is to your advantage. Sometimes you can even become good friends with them, as people here tend to be extremely sweet. Last Christmas I got some tea in the mail from someone I bought a table from.

So use these techniques to get that low price you’re aiming for, but much more importantly, have fun with it!



Anne Driscoll is a member of the Youth Travel Blogging Mentorship Program.




Photo Wikimedia Commons: Stougard, adapted by Wandering Educators