China: The finer arts of haggling

By Duncan Gillies

Duncan Gillies finds he lacks the bargaining skills for Chinese markets.

Market traders expect you to haggle - but customers without the ability to bargain can expect to have their wallets lightened.
Market traders expect you to haggle - but customers without the ability to bargain can expect to have their wallets lightened.

I'm a sucker, not a fighter, so for me haggling is torture not sport.

If you're selling something, stick a label on it saying how much you want. If I think it's reasonable and I'm interested, I'll buy it. Chances are, I might even buy it even if I think it's too expensive and I don't want it, just because I feel guilty leaving empty-handed. I'm always buying things and later regretting it. I'm a danger to my own finances.

It seems hawkers in China can spot people like me from half a mile away. I hadn't been off the plane more than a few hours and I already had a picture book on all the must-see sights of Beijing and a packet of postcards. The hawkers seemed to steer clear of the people I was with. They seemed to have learned the look you give that lets them know you shouldn't be messed with.

You'd expect Dirty Harry to give that sort of look if someone asked him if he wanted to buy a bunch of postcards. It basically says: "Go ahead, make my day."

Within a couple of days I had postcards, books, bracelets, a carved walnut and a letter opener which were all nice but none of which I needed. I tried to develop the look but I only drew more attention to myself.

On a trip to the terraced rice fields of Longsheng in the Guangxi Region in the south of China I had 10 women in their 70s from the Yao minority group pulling at my arms after I showed interest in some of the jewellery they were selling.

I emptied my wallet and asked if that was enough for four bracelets. By the speed at which the transaction was completed I can only assume that it was.

The real test for me was to be on the day before our party left China. We were spending the night in Shanghai and were going to visit the 580 Nanjing Rd West market, three floors of shops where you can find fakes that will fool an educated eye, and sometimes the real thing, at knock-down prices.

The others in our group had their shopping lists and were ready to fight for the right price. I just wanted to observe, soak up the atmosphere. Silly me. The assault started almost immediately.

"Sir, sir, you want bag? I have just the bag you want. Come, come."

I smiled the naive smile of the uninitiated and carried on.

"Sir, sir, you want sunglasses? I have just the sunglasses you want. I show you."

Eventually I saw a shop selling shirts I thought my daughter and wife would like.

I went in and tried to look indifferent to the items on display.

"You like the shirts?" the woman in the shop asked.

"I'm just looking," I said.

"What are you looking for? I will find it for you" she said. "You buy for your girlfriend, your wife?"

I tried the look: "Go ahead, make my day."

She kept on talking.

Again, I tried: "You feeling lucky punk?"

Nothing seemed to work, though, maybe that was because I was actually interested in what she was selling.

Feeling under pressure and unable to do the exchange rate maths, I asked her how much a couple of shirts were. I tried bargaining but didn't drive her down much. I had seen people walk out of shops at this stage but I gave in and handed over the cash.

But I wasn't finished and bought a couple more.

That wasn't enough for her, though. The hard sell continued.

I channelled Clint Eastwood and produced my extra-special Dirty Harry imitation.

She didn't even stop for breath.

I tried one last time, but all I managed was something that seemed to say: "I'm sorry but I'm not sure whether I need five shirts or six or how many gifts to buy my family. Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I've kinda lost track myself. So take my wallet, give me what ever you think my wife and daughter will like and put it on the credit card."

At least I was popular when I got back home.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct to Beijing and Shanghai. Phone 0800 737 000.

Further information: The China National Tourist Office website has lots of information.

Duncan Gillies visited China as guest of Air New Zealand.

- NZ Herald

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