Haggling is part of Chinese culture and it can be a fun – sometimes necessary – activity to do when purchasing items on our China backpacking adventure. But like any great skill it takes confidence; mumbling a timid ‘cheaper please’ just isn’t going to cut it. Here’s a guide to help with trip preparation to make sure you stride around markets with the confidence of a professional trader.
Picking your locations
In general, markets and small shops are the places for haggling. Locations such as Beijing’s silk market or Shanghai’s Yatai Xinyang market are locations where the vendors will be expecting tourists to haggle. If you go there and don’t make any effort then it’s likely you’ll spend far too much. If shops are well established or they’re part of a chain then that’s not haggling territory. (When was the last time you brought down the price of a latte at Starbucks?)
Haggling at restaurants is rare, especially if it’s one where waiters take your order. It’s possible to haggle for street food but often the prices are low enough that it’s not worth extending the wait for your food to save 1 RMB.
Don’t be too put off by price labels. It’s not uncommon for items in markets to have prices on them that are very ‘flexible’. This is especially true in cities’ touristy areas. If prices shown look like a rip-off compared to what you’ve seen elsewhere, that’s probably because they are.
Go in prepared
Get an idea of what your budget is before you go in. If you’re going to a famous market then it can be worth researching prices a little before you visit. Take these with a pinch of salt, as a tourist it’s highly unlikely you will ever get the same price as a Chinese local.
Decide how much you’re willing to spend while you’re there. Take it in smaller denominations of cash to allow you to be flexible with price. If you manage to haggle a product down to 10 RMB and then pay with a 100 RMB note it can be a little offensive to the seller.
Split your money up into different areas so it’s not all on show. Showing a street vendor that what you’re offering is all you have in your wallet/purse can work well as a technique. It’s unlikely they will believe you but it emphasises that you’re not willing to go any higher than the price you’re now at.
Haggling in China involves many of the same rituals as anywhere in the world. A lot of it is about acting and false pretences. Even if you know exactly what you want to buy then approach a stall without looking particularly committed to buying anything. Casually browse until you reach what you want and then either ask a price or state your first offer.
Don’t make your first offer what you intend to pay. Start lower and then, if all goes to plan, you and the haggler can perform the famous sequence of slowly changing the others price until you meet in the middle.
Some good techniques can involve pointing out flaws in the product to highlight why it is not worth as much as they are asking. If you’re in a large market you have the advantage of being able to point at other stalls and, probably lie, about the lower price they’re offering. If it looks like the vendor really isn’t budging anymore then you can do the classic ‘walking away’ act. By pretending you’re definitely not going to buy the product you force the vendor to change their price. Unless you’re genuinely indifferent to buying the product then this needs to be in a large market so there’s the possibility of you getting the same product elsewhere.
It’s common for market stalls to have a calculator that makes it easy for both of you to pass back and forth and type in prices. If that’s not the case there are a few other options, firstly you can use your phone to type numbers on the screen. If you don’t want to do this then Chinese numbers are easy to learn. However, Westerners can be very bad at getting the tones right in the Chinese language which can often lead to miscommunication. If you want to be absolutely clear when stating your price then it’s worth learning to count on your hands in Chinese.
While you can communicate a fair bit via shaking your head and pretending to laugh at prices, it can help a lot to know a few prices for the haggling game.
- Duō shǎo qián – How much money?
- Jià gé – Price, cost.
- Tài gui le! – Too expensive!
- Pian Yi Dian? – Can you give me this for cheaper?