The Art of Haggling

The Art of Haggling – Chinese-Style

As you explore China, it’s not unusual to feel intimidated by the locals’ haggling skills. The art of haggling is deeply ingrained in their culture, and it can be daunting for the uninitiated.

If I were you, I’d spend the two hours on the bus sleeping or doing anything more interesting. It will be incredibly helpful and time-saving. My second piece of advice, should you decide to see it for yourself, is that you should expect to bargain with some of the most clever marketers you’ve ever encountered.

Envision a huge, six-story mall stocked floor-to-ceiling with designer goods, from Nike sneakers to Polo shirts to Gucci bags to Coach wallets to Burberry scarves to the newest Marc Jacobs makeup bags and DVDs. Even though everyone knows they’re phony, locals and visitors flock to these stores daily for their favorite brands at reasonable prices.

After years of working as a buyer for American accessory and cosmetics companies, I was confident in negotiating favorable terms with vendors.

Now, I thought…

When a friend from out of town wanted to buy some wallets as presents, I got my first taste of the city’s culture and history. He trusted me to choose his clothing because I am a woman of refined taste (or maybe because I was the only one who could speak Mandarin).

Shopkeepers flocked to us as we walked by, all bearing identical Chanel and Louis Vuitton catalogs. Various languages, including English, Korean, Russian, and more, could be heard as they mumbled. Judging your origins based on a cursory glimpse and a hasty evaluation.


Still nothing?




Many shopkeepers have learned at least a few phrases in multiple languages to communicate with the vast number of foreign tourists. We overheard a Chinese vendor speaking rather fluent French as she explained her prices to a pair of Westerners. However, I can’t speak French, so don’t take my word for it. It sounded reasonable, at least.

Do you want LV? Which brand of Chanel are you after? “Come in and look around; we have everything,” they call out to passers-by.

We were both Chinese, but they still recognized us as outsiders. Please explain. Our wardrobe? How were we strolling?

My stomach lurched, and I felt as uneasy as a bird that had just stumbled into a fox nest. I was determined to see through their pleasant demeanor.

I explained to one of the storekeepers that we needed to begin our search with leather wallets, and that was all. We were barely in her stall before she began muttering a laundry list of brand names for me to choose from and forcing us to follow her.

She rummaged through cabinets and brought out the goods. Most of the displayed handbags were of a lower quality and price range. All the valuables were stashed away in secret compartments and storage areas.

I reasoned that since all the vendors were selling the same things if she didn’t take my offer, I could walk away and find someone else to sell me the item at a lower price. I put on my buyer’s hat while we perused the stalls, determined the pricing of materials and labor, and settled on 100 RMB (about $16) for two wallets. We both agreed that eight dollars were a fair price.

I could take no more. My friend and I shrug and start to go. In a low voice, he mentioned that 200 RMB was an acceptable price. But after we’d advanced no more than 10 feet…

The store owner reluctantly placed wallets in a black plastic bag. As he took out some cash, my friend seemed astonished, grateful, and perhaps a bit impressed.

And as soon as we left the shop with our two new wallets, other stall owners surrounded us, producing identical wallets and yelling, “you want more? I’ll offer you 40 RMB and have additional colors if you like. “You want?”


What a waste of time and effort those negotiating skills were.

I’ve learned that no matter how smart I believe I am, there are always smarter people out there.

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