"Tài guì le!": Read and repeat. This phrase—pronounced "tie gway luh"—may save you hundreds, if not thousands of RMB. Meaning "too expensive," this is the most common refrain heard on the streets and throughout the markets of China and marks the opening of a bout of one the country's most revered pastimes: bargaining.
Though a Beijing housewife or Anhui ayi is less likely to suffer the kind of obscene losses encountered by the unassuming tourist, bargaining is a part of daily life in China. Outside of proper shops with marked prices, anything and everything is fair game. Unfortunately, as a foreigner and a tourist, you have a number of distinct disadvantages in that a) you have no idea of the market prices, b) you're probably still thinking in your local currency and trying to convert in your head (stop it!) and c) you're undoubtedly heading to tourist hot spots or markets where a foreign face sends prices through the roof.
Don't be put off. Bargaining is integral part of the social fabric of China and getting involved brings more than just financial rewards. It's a great way to interact with the local population and learn more about the culture, and even have some fun. Still it helps to be prepared and to know a few tricks of the trade.
1. Learn some Chinese: A few choice Chinese phrases can do wonders to position yourself as a serious bargainer. Learning to count in Chinese and to use the Chinese system of counting with your hands will earn you a few smiles, compliments and hopefully a more reasonable starting price. If counting starts to wear you down, then just grab the calculator that is no doubt close at hand and type your prices in.
Some key expressions to have in your artillery:
Duōshao qián? (多少钱？): How much is it? Be sure not to express too much enthusiasm for the item or you'll hear it reflected in the price.
Tài guì le! (太贵了！): Too expensive! Be sure to include a healthy measure of incredulity if it's clear that the price is way too high. An outraged "aiyooo" will also do the trick.)
Kěyǐ piányi yīdiǎn ma? (可以便宜一点吗？): Can you make it a bit cheaper?
2. Pricing: Bear in mind where you are shopping and remember that prices increase relative to the number of tourists around. Anything being hawked at the Badaling section of the Great Wall or alongside the Terracotta Warriors, for example, is going to have an outrageous asking price. As a rule of thumb, aim to pay around a third to a 10th of the asking price, according to the item and location.
3. How much is it worth to you? Mentally deciding on a price before you open negotiations is crucial... it's all too easy to get carried away in the heat of the moment and pay more than you wanted to. Look at the quality. Is it real? (Probably not.) Is it fake? Think about how much cash you're willing to part with and take into consideration the cost of a similar item back home. The chances are if you pay around a 10th of that price, you'll be happy you've bagged a bargain, even if the real cost should've been lower. Don't lose heart—in all likelihood, unless you've been around for a while or have the patience of a saint and the skills of a veteran haggler, you're going to pay a bit more than the locals.
4. Start low: Having settled on a mental price, it's time to dive in. Remember, asking the price opens the door to a sale and you need to be ready to buy if the vendor comes down to your price range. The trick here is to avoid giving a number for as long as humanly possible, forcing the vendor to decrease theirs.
If you name your price and the vendor agrees, that means one of two things: that your laser-like instincts hit the nail right on the head and that particular stallholder was not in the mood for games or, somewhat more likely, you've been had and they can't believe their luck. When offering a price, always start 50% lower than you're willing to pay to give yourself some room to maneuver. Their reaction will also be a good sign as to whether you're even in the same ballpark—if they roll their eyes and go back to what they were doing without a second glance, then you can rest assured you're way off the mark. A more dramatic response involves phrases such as "You kill me!" or "I lose money, no money to feed my family!" which leads to the next tip.
5. Ignore the melodrama: This is all part of the act and an effort to weasel a higher price out of you. There is about as much meaning in this as there is in the phrase "friend price." You can be confident that you are not anyone's "friend" here and nobody will ever sell to you at a loss.
6. Walk away: If you've given your final price and the stallholder stubbornly refuses to budge, then shrug and walk away. If they want the sale, they'll call after you. If not, consider it a reconnaissance mission and move on to the next stall with a more confident idea of the pricing. To hurry things along at this stage, you can throw in the price you were previously offered but say that it was too expensive and go from there.
7. Take your time and have fun! Perhaps one of the most important things to remember in any bargaining situation is to smile and be friendly. Rubbing the vendor the wrong way by sounding rude or angry won't do you any favors, whereas laughing and joking will, and at least you'll be enjoying yourself.
8. Get the best price: Just repeating your target number is not going to get you the best deals. Starting low is the way forward, but there are a few other little tricks you can use. Increase your offer in small increments, especially on lower ticket items. The tendency is to jump up in RMB 10 slots but remember, for a lot of people in China, that's almost an hour's wages. You can also try reminding them they are not selling genuine brands and point out any faults in the finish. Buying in bulk is also a surefire way to get prices down; combine forces with your pals and negotiate your buys together.
9. Bring small change: Handing over a redback often gives rise to calls to round the numbers up, with claims of "no change" or "just a little extra." Smaller denominations avoid this and also the issue of counterfeit cash, which can easily make its way into your hands in a market.
10. Timing: Come closing time, patience is wearing thin and vendors have less time for games, so you're likely to get better prices with far less effort. If they're packing up and ready to head home, any sale is a bonus. There are also good deals to be had first thing in the morning, and early birds can cash in on the superstition that giving a low price to the first customer of the day is auspicious and opens the way for a booming day of trade.
Check out the best markets in Shanghai to put your new bargaining skills to the test.