Bargaining in Beijing

My wife Doris beads. She has her own studio where she creates her own glass beads. She also designs necklaces and earrings. Nearly all the beads and material she uses come from China. Since we were in China, we decided to look for bargains.

Our friends Judith and Shirley, both beaders, went along with us. Judith speaks passable Mandarin and Shirley is fluent. They are both astounding bargainers. It pays to go with the pros. Off to the Pearl Market, a four story building crammed with stalls selling EVERYTHING. Two whole floors have nothing but pearls, gems, and beads.

The first thing to realize about shopping in China is there really is no fixed price. What does something cost? It’s somewhere between the price the seller is willing to accept and the buyer is willing to pay. The question isn’t, “What’s it worth?” It’s “What’s it worth to you?”

The only way to find that out is to bargain. I wisely stayed on the sidelines, holding the packages while Judith, Shirley, and Doris did business. In some ways it’s almost like a dance. You look through the goods, sneering, frowning, as if you thought this was the most worthless junk imaginable. The seller calls your attention to other items. Look at this? How about this? You like this one? It’s beautifully made. I’ll give you a good price.

You respond with sneers, shrugs, grunts. Until you find what you want. How much? The seller quotes a price if you speak Mandarin. If not, she takes out a calculator and punches in a number. You laugh. That can’t be serious! You turn to walk away.

The seller punches in another number. Now the real bargaining starts. You consider it, then punch in your own number. It’s usually about a third of the seller’s offering. If you really want to be a tough cookie, make it a quarter. Now the seller may laugh and walk away. Or she may punch in another number.

You come up. She comes down. You come up. She comes down. Eventually you reach a number that makes everybody happy. The seller is getting a good price and the buyer is, too. You shake hands, peel off a few hundred “won” or “kwei.” (Most transactions in China are done in cash. There are plenty of ATM machines around. However, most of the smaller vendors and stores take only bills.) The happy seller gives you a bottle of water or a few interesting beads as tokens.

You head to the next stall, feeling that you’ve made a great deal. And you have—except that the difference between the seller’s first and final offers came to about two dollars. All this bargaining may seem to be a waste of time. But it’s not. Shopping is a social event in China. You really get to know the people you do business with. If they cheat you, you won’t be back. But if you know you can trust them to give you quality goods at fair prices, you’ll bring your friends. And if your friends are foreigners who invariably pay top dollar, that’s even better.

These days, with our economy tanking, I think we can learn a lot from doing business in the Pearl Market. American don’t like to bargain, but what’s wrong with asking a merchant, “Is that your best price?” Especially if there are other stores in town, or even in the same mall, selling the same goods? How badly do you want my business? Which would you rather do? Spend half an hour bargaining with a sales clerk, or half an hour on the phone talking to Voicemail?

Think about that when you go Christmas shopping this season. You might want to take your calculator with you.

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