Bargaining is a rule in China, at least, at the many markets and back-street clothes stores. Bargaining is an art, and all Chinese people are born sellers. So if you are unfamiliar with this process, you can easily spend a lot of money and buy practically nothing, while knowing some necessary tips will help you to come back from shopping with a bunch of bags and a smile on your face. I still remember my frustration when I first went shopping in China. My friend and I decided to separate, because the market was so huge. When we met again, she happily showed me her numerous T-shirts, pants and souvenirs, while I was standing with one bag in my hand. After a year studying in China, I became an expert in 讨价还价 (tao3jia4huan2jia4), which literally means “to talk and change the price”, and can be translated as “to bargain”.
Bargaining is a little time-consuming and sometimes troublesome, so it helps to be prepared. However, there is no need to be nervous. First, you should visit many different shops and markets to get a general idea about the average price of the things you want to buy, or you can ask Chinese friends, hotel staff and ex-pats. After that, you can bravely start your quest for cheap and good things. Having noticed a potential customer, the shopkeepers usually ask you what you are looking for: 你要买什么东西？(ni3 yao4 mai3 shen2me0 dong1xi0). You can say that you want to buy some new clothes: 我想买一些新衣服 (wo3 xiang3 mai3 yi1xie1 xin1 yi1fu0). If something catches your eyes, start to bargain by simply asking how much it is. If it is a piece of clothing, say 这件衣服多少钱？(zhe4jian4 yi1fu0 duo1shao3 qian2), or if it is another item, say: 这个东西多少钱？(zhe4ge0 dong1xi0 duo1shao3 qian2). Never express how much you would like the things you want to buy, as the seller may use this information to jack up the price. Pretend to be casual and indifferent while strolling around in the shops. The fact that you are a foreigner has already made them think that you do not know how to bargain and can afford to pay much more than an average Chinese person.
After the seller names the price, try to cut it down considerably. When you talk about money in Mandarin, you usually add 块钱 (kuai4qian2) after the number. For example, one hundred Chinese dollars (renminbi or yuan) will be 一百块钱 (yi1bai3 kuai4qian2). Remember that most sellers are from very remote areas in China, where they speak dialects. That’s why their mandarin leaves much to be desired, and they often pronounce “ten” like “four”, so it sounds like “si”. In that case, be careful of the tone: if it is the second tone, you are asked to pay ten renminbi, if it is the fourth tone, it is just four renminbi. If you don’t have an ear for that, a calculator or a paper and pen held in the seller's hand may make communication easier.
Once you've decided the price, you should then tell them a figure about 40% of the price you're willing to pay. Then you should go up in 5% increments until they give in. You can always say that this is too expensive, and offer your own price: “太贵了！50块钱怎么样？”(tai4 gui4le0! Wu3shi2 kuai4qian2 zen3me0yang4?). Continue convincing the sellers by offering to go a little cheaper: 能便宜一点吗？(neng2 pian2yi0 yi1dian3 ma0), or by asking for a better discount: 可以打折吗？(ke3yi3 da3zhe2 ma0). If you hear “给你打八折吧” (gei3 ni3 da3 ba1 zhe2 ba0), it means that the shopkeeper gives you a 20% discount. When you talk about a discount, it is a rule to say “ba” (8) instead of “bashi” (80), but it does not imply an 80% discount. The number between two characters “打…折“ is a percentage of an initial price that you are actually willing to pay. The smaller the number, the larger the discount.
If you are still unsatisfied with the price, tell the shopkeeper that if he sells to you at a lower price, next time you will come back: 如果便宜，下次我还来 (ru3guo3 pian2yi0, xia4ci4 wo3 hai2 lai2), or you will buy more items: 便宜的话，我多买一点 (pian2yi0 de0hua4, wo3 duo1 mai3 yi1dian3).
If you want the seller to reduce the price more quickly, try to find and point out as many flaws as possible in the product. The seller will always describe its excellence and will avoid talking about blemishes; but no product is completely perfect, and you should learn to identify all the flaws in order to gain bargaining leverage. If the price proposed by the seller is still unacceptable and outside your budget, you can always use the walk away technique. I tried this trick myself many times, and it generally works quite well in most shopping places. If the seller continues to hold his ground and says that the lowest price is 30 renminbi, take or leave it: 最少三十块钱，再低给不了(zui4shao3 san1shi2 kuai4qian2, zai4 di1 gei3bu4liao3), you can object that it is still very expensive: 还是太贵了 (hai2shi4 tai4 gui4le0), and pretend to walk away. Usually, you will be called back again, and the price you offer may be accepted by the shopkeeper. If you leave a seller with a look of real pain on his face, you have gotten the best deal possible. However, if you do not get called back, go to a similar stall and try again with a slightly higher price.
Paying with small change is always preferred. Do not show money of large denominations, and keep your small change separately in your pockets. Otherwise, the seller may hike the price when he discovers you can afford the price he asks. Never forget to stay relaxed but always polite in bargaining with a seller, and smile throughout the whole process.
I suggest bargaining every time you shop; you may get a great price reduction and enjoy the fun and pleasure of shopping. Please remember that bargaining is acceptable in most Chinese stores, except for the supermarket and some shopping malls in which the goods have fixed prices and the staff is not allowed to grant discretionary markdowns. Besides, sometimes you get a great deal by western standards even without bargaining. Why not pay the asking price without hesitation and leave with a thought that the seller and his family can eat a little better tonight?
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