My grandmother went to China before I did. Sometimes she would recount one of her many stories. My favorite was her entertaining haggling one. She would then proceed to explain how surprised she was when she turned around to look for my grandfather. Instead, she saw a Chinese lady running down the street after her yelling, "You buy it, you buy it". I remember finding that story a little hard to believe at the time.
When I witnessed a small Chinese woman running after a huge American man yelling, "What your best price?", a frequently used phrase, I began to believe my grandmother. In fact, the exact same thing happened to me.
With those experiences fresh in mind, as I leave the Beijing Silk Market, I find myself wanting to dispense some advice.
Run Away. Stop laughing. Haggling in Chinese markets is not for timid, shy people, those who have “people” issues and those who value their personal space. It’s practically a sport.
Keep smiling. That is probably the most important piece of advice I can give. Chinese people have a basic grasp of English, and only seem to properly understand the word okay. Unless you speak Chinese, a smile is a universal sign that everything is okay – even if you are cursing in English.
Don't ask how much something is unless you really want it. Otherwise, you may find yourself running out of a shop with a shop assistant trailing after you calling out a better price. Asking the price implies that you want to buy the item. Once that is implied, Chinese don’t give up easily.
Don't bargain unless you want the item. It is almost impossible to walk away from a good haggling match without either upsetting someone or buying something. It is considered very rude to leave once the negotiations have begun. A good rule of thumb is to half the price they offer, work from there, depending on how much you desire the object.
Be prepared to walk away if the price isn't something you agree with. Nine of out ten times, the Chinese will call you back and lower their price. Haggling is part of how China works; getting upset is a waste of time. It’s in the Chinese culture to be pushy, loud and sometimes overbearing. It’s how they work.
Personal spaces do not exist. Don’t expect them. That was a real kicker for me, I will admit. I have a huge personal bubble. The Chinese are constantly touching you, pulling your arm, trying to lead you into their shops.
Think of bargaining as a game, or a television show. I was haggling, not very well I might add, in a clothing store. It wasn’t terribly crowded by China’s standard, obviously a slow day for the market. I could feel the eyes of the other shopkeepers watching me with the storekeeper. In usual fashion I was trying to leave because I didn’t know the rules. I had asked the price of a jacket, not really interested. However, leaving was getting difficult, as I kept getting dragged back into the store.
We continued haggling with the little hand held calculator; that is how it's conducted, so much easier with the language barrier. It does take some getting used to, seeing prices in the high hundreds, though. After a long match, we agreed on a price. And then the store merchants around us gave a little cheer. It was hilarious. Some people have television to entertain them. Here I was, on the Chinese afternoon soap opera, bargaining with one of their own.
Be a repeat customer. If you have time, shop at the same stall twice. I found a perfect little hole in the wall at the Silk Market and went nuts buying pearls, getting them for about two dollars Australian. After I had finished my shopping at that stall, I went around the rest of the market. Finding nothing as exciting as those pearls, I went back. I may as well have been royalty; a bottle of water was thrust in my face, and pearls set out in front of me – all because I came back a second time. The shopkeeper recognized me, not hard, I’m a redhead and tall. Coming back had changed our relationship.
On that first visit I had just been considered a customer, but now, we were friends. The haggling was even friendlier; I got better deals with the pearls.
There you have it. I hope it helps. I wish I had read some good advice; I would have been a better haggler. Not that I am now. Some people have it, and others, like me, just don’t.