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"Shop Til You Drop"

Excerpted with permission:  “China Survival Guide: How to Avoid Travel Troubles and Mortifying Mishaps" by  Qin and Larry Herzberg

When visiting any major tourist attraction in China, you will need to run the gauntlet of numerous street vendors.  These appear to have been ingeniously set up and placed in strategic locations for the sole purpose of enticing foreign shoppers. 
Many of these vendors have stalls set up on either side of the narrow street leading to a famous temple or historic site.  These professional salespeople are selling every conceivable kind of souvenir, from painted fans and painted scrolls to battery-powered panda and Tibetan hats.  They appear to be under strict instructions from the government to not allow any tourist to pass without trying to get them to enter their open-air shops.  As you walk by you will be assailed with cries of “haroo, haroo” or “just looking, just looking”.  Somehow they have picked up on the English-speaking tourist insisting that they were “just looking “and have twisted it around to mean “come in for a look and spend a pleasant hour or two admiring our merchandise.”  Should you stop to gaze at some picture postcards or a fake Tang Dynasty clay horse, they will be all over you like hair on a gorilla. The Chinese vendor immediately smells a sale.  He or she quickly and silent slithers over to you to close in for the kill.

There are some simple rules to follow: 

  • Only stop at a stall or open-air shop where there are some tchotchkes of real interest. 
  • Do not look the vendors in the eyes but continue to stare at the item.  Otherwise, like a snake charmer, they will start to weave their spell on you. They will tell you about the amazing qualities of the item, who made it, how many generations of artisans it took to perfect this craft, and why you should purchase at least two.
  • If you are interested in a particular souvenir item, never accept the price they offer. Always try offering the vendor one-fifth of their price as your staring offer.  Almost everything that’s for sale in China has a price that’s negotiable.

How to Bargain
You can haggle over the price for just about everything in China.  It’s a game that all Chinese play when they shop at a store or a vendor’s stall.  If you as a foreign tourist don’t play the game, they think of you as a real chump.  If you end up paying anything close to the original asking price, you’ve been had.  It’s as if every shop in China is like your local car dealer.  Your average car salesman asks you to pay $16,000 for a Honda Civic, knowing that you will eventually haggle the price down to $14,000 and ask him to throw in a free keyless remote and a free CD player.  Imagine if the card dealership had a sticker price of $80,000 for that Honda Civic, expecting you to be smart enough to know that it should rally go for $14,000 with the keyless remote and CD player added for good measure.   Now imagine that just about every store in American was like a car dealership.  The sticker price is only a starting point for a heated negotiation between the sales person and the customer over the final price of the item.  You then have a picture of what it’s like to shop in China. There are some major exceptions where haggling is not allowed, such as in hotels, restaurants, supermarkets, department stores, bookstores and pharmacies. 
In most other places of business, however, from giant electronic stores to small shops and street stalls, bargaining over the price is fair game.  
Here’s how the game is played.  You see a purse that you like.  You innocently ask the price.   If you were Chinese, the shopkeeper or vendor might ask for 30 yuan.  Seeing your foreign face, however, which looks to them like a giant dollar sign with a mouth, they asked for you 200 yuan.  A Chinese person would know from experience what a certain kind of items is probably worth and offer to pass a little less than that.  You as a foreigner have no idea.  200 yuan is only approximately US $25, so it actually seems like a good deal.  Wow, this may be a real bargain and you hand over the 200 yuan.  Man, did you blow it!  It’s not just that you have paid six or seven times what the item should have sold for, you have actually encouraged the vendor to continue to jack up the price of things for foreigners. 
Here is the way the Chinese would purchase the purse.  You should follow their example.   Since most things in China are usually not one of a kind, but available from countless other shops or stall in that same neighborhood—often a few feet away, -- never buy anything without comparative shopping.  See what other vendors will ask for that same purse.   The first vendor asked for 200 yuan, but at another shop you see the same purse and they ask you for 100 yuan.  In a third shop you overheard the shopkeeper offer the exact same purse to a Chinese tourist for 80 yuan and the Chines ends up paying only 25 yuan. Then you know what the going price should really be.  Below is a sample conversation between a Chinese shopkeeper and savvy tourist:

Shopkeeper:  You like that paining?  It’s by very famous local artist.  Very beautiful.
Tourist: How much?
Shopkeeper: (after a contemplative pause, for added effect):  I give it to you for 200 yuan.
Tourist:  That’s way too expensive.  How about 50 yuan?
Shopkeeper:  (shaking his head and laughing) No, no, way too little.  How about 150 yuan?
Tourist:  That’s way too much.  Forget it. (Starts to talk away)
Shopkeeper:  OK, OK. To make a friend, only 50 yuan.

Enjoy the game. The shopkeepers and vendors will respect you more if you haggle with them.  It’s a way of life.  Some foreigners don’t like the hassle of always bargaining for every souvenir.  It can get pretty tiring after a while.   The truth is that pretty soon, you will get used to the pricing system and barding eventually becomes easier.

The Aggressive Vendor
Of all obstacles the tourist faces on a Chinese city street, perhaps the most troublesome and the most annoying is the aggressive itinerant vendor.  Not all people who are trying to sell things in China have their own shops or market stall.  Many are small-scale sellers with only a few choice souvenir items they want to foist on tours.  The congregate around the famous tourist sites waiting for their chance to pounce. This is a true cat and mouse game and you’re the mouse!

Shopping in Large Stores
Say you decide to take refuge from the aggressive street vendors by shopping in department stores.  Or you’d like to buy something from a large bookstore or pharmacy. 
In these kinds of stores the sales people are far less aggressive than the small shop owners or street vendors. That because they’re not the owners, but only employees and often do not care that much whether you buy s something or not. They’re also behind counters, so they can’t easily seize you by the arm. You figure you’re safe now and it’ll be just like shopping in large stores in America. 
You’d be right except for one thing.  They way to pay for things.   In very large stores in China except for supermarkets, the Chinese have made the process of paying for what you’d like to buy as complicated and as time-consuming as possible.  Say you go to a department store.  On the first floor you find a lovely pair of earrings in the shape of panda bears. You decide that they’re a bargain at 80 yuan (around US $10).  You hold out 80 yuan to the store clerk, but instead of giving you the earrings, she gives you a bill for the earrings and motions for you to go thirty feet away to a cashier’s counter.  It’s there that you have to “wait in line” to pay for your earrings and get a receipt.  You then take the receipt back to the clerk who will finally hand over the earrings. It seems that the store doesn’t feel that you can trust one person to both handle the merchandise and handle money too.  No, those are separate jobs, each of which requires someone with specialized expertise.
Anyway, just in making one purchase you get in some pretty good exercise running back and forth between the counter with the merchandise, the cashier’s stand and back to the counter again. If you find a pair of swim fins on the second floor you’ll have to go through the same thing all over again on the second floor that you went through on the first.   Swim fins are a different section of the store and you must pay for each item at the cashier’s stand in each separate department. If you buy one items on all six floors of the department stores, you will have run pretty much the equivalent of a marathon by the time you’ve completed all your purchases. 


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