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How to Bargain in China - Everything is Negotiable

Updated: May 18, 2020

“20 Kuai!” I say for the thousandth time. “No, you joke.” replies the frowning man. I start to walk away and he forcefully grabs my arm and shouts “Ok ok! 20 Kuai, you cheap.”……….

As the saying goes, “Everything in China is negotiable”, so the above scenario is something you’d probably experience several times whilst living in China. Bargaining can be a fun or tiring process depending how you go about doing it. Whilst bargaining in markets such as ‘Tao Bao City’ or ‘Qipu Lu’ in Shanghai, some sellers may scold you, telling you how ridiculous your offer is . On the other hand, some sellers may put on the waterworks and tell you how little they are making from the sale. Nevertheless, you should not take everything you hear seriously because at the end of the day bargaining is just a game that can be a win-win situation for both you and the seller.

Where can you bargain and why you should do it

Bargaining is generally accepted and expected of at markets and small family owned stores. For example, when asking a vendor for the price of a scarf at ‘Tao Bao City’, you’ll undoubtedly get an inflated price of 180RMB for one. However, the selling price may just be 10-20RMB. Therefore, if you decide not to haggle with the vendor, you could be paying 10 times over what you could’ve bought it for. In some tourist stores, such as the ones around YuYuan or on Nanjing East Road in Shanghai, prices are fixed and are clearly labelled so bargaining may not be possible there. Nevertheless, it’s best to be careful because in areas where there are many tourists, vendors may put an extortionately high number on the price tags to confuse unsuspecting foreigners.

On the other hand, bargaining at large department stores, supermarkets and restaurants are usually frowned upon. This is because the staff will have no incentive or authority to haggle with you. However, some people have had success with getting a reduced price for unpopular products after negotiating at some very well known clothing stores.

When should you go bargaining?

There are also good and bad times to go bargaining. The worst time to go would be during the sunny weekend afternoons when everyone is out shopping. Vendors are less willing to drop the price then because there’s a higher chance that another unsuspecting customer will snap up the thing that you wanted for a higher price than what you offered. Best days to go bargaining are Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday because these are the days where there won’t be many customers so vendors will be more willing to drop their prices. It’s also best to go near closing time (5-6pm for some markets and 9-10pm for others) because this is when vendors have less time for games and start being more realistic with their prices in order to increase their profits for the day. However, there is a superstition that a successful trading day will ensue if a low price is given to the first customer of the day. So early birds, take note!

Tips on bargaining

Now that you know where and when to go out bargaining, it’s time to go out and start doing it! However, there are some key points to keep in mind when bargaining to ensure that you get the best possible price.

1) Key phrases: It’ll be useful to arm yourself with a few useful Chinese phrases to increase your bargaining power. Some key phrases are:

  • 多少钱? (Duōshǎo qián) : How much is it?

  • 太贵了! (Tài guìle) : It is too expensive!

  • 我要试一试。(Wǒ yào shì yī shì) : I want to try it.

2) What is the maximum price that you are willing to pay? Make a mental note of the highest price that you are willing to pay for the product and stick to it. It’s easy to get lost in the moment and buy the product on impulse for more than you wanted to. A rule of thumb is to not pay more than 20-25% of the asking price. If you’ve bagged the product for less than 10% of the asking price, you most likely have bagged yourself a bargain.

3) Find out the lowest price: Now that you have a few phrases and a price in mind, it’s time to start playing the game! It’s best to test the waters with the first shop you go into by asking for the price of the product that you want. Listen to the price that they offer, say that it is too expensive and walk away. Don’t worry! In most markets, there will usually be other stores selling the same things. Whilst you’re walking away, the vendor will most probably start shouting lower prices at you. Take note of the final price they offer and go to another store offering 20-30% lower than the lowest price that you were previously offered. If you’re still not satisfied with the price, you can go into another store and offer an even lower price. However, you need to bear in mind that once you name a price, you may be obligated to pay for it. Therefore, it’s best to avoid naming a price straight away because the only way from there is up.

4) Don’t carry too many 100RMB notes with you: Carrying a wad of 100RMB notes and showing it off may be good in certain places but it’s definitely not a good move at the markets. Vendors that do see your 100RMB notes may hike up prices and are less willing to budge on their prices once they know that you can afford the price he/she asks. Furthermore, bringing larger denominations may mean that counterfeit money will have a higher chance of reaching your pockets. Therefore, it’s always better to bring smaller denominations to avoid this.

Most importantly, have fun! The bargaining process can be long and sometimes extremely frustrating. However, by arming yourself with a few key phrases, knowledge of the best days and times to go and a method on finding out the lowest price, you’ll soon realize that the ‘bargaining game’ is not so hard to win at after all.

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