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10 Jun '13

Flight Attendant's Shopping Secrets for Bargaining in China

When my airline launched a new non-stop, flight from Seattle to Beijing three years ago, I jumped on the opportunity. Fast forward to today, I now have my own online jewelry business called Snake Twist with my daughter and many suppliers I can call friends, whom I regularly visit on my many trips over the Pacific.


Flight to Beijing with my daughter

First attempt at shopping in Beijing

On my first trip to a Beijing market, my intentions were clear. I needed a cheap watch. Nothing fancy, just a wristwatch. And, maybe, I thought to myself, I would look at some shoes I could wear to work. That's it. I swear.

An hour later I emerged from the market dazed and in a fog. I was holding two shirts, a jacket and just enough money to take the bus home. I still didn't have a watch. How could this happen? I didn't even really want the jacket—and I certainly didn't want to purchase it for 300 yuan ($48). I began to notice things about my new purchase that I hadn't seen before: bad stitching on the seams and a label that read wrong.

Before I came to Beijing, I had read about bargaining and knew that I should haggle over prices. I heard that sellers would inflate prices by 50 percent or more. I heard one should try walking away from a negotiation to get a good deal. My first attempts, however, were pathetic and went something like this:

Salesgirl: Hey! You would look great in that jacket. I'll give you a great price. Only 320 yuan ($51)!

Me: It's a really nice jacket. How about 250 yuan ($40)?

Salesgirl: ARE YOU CRAZY? This is the finest quality jacket in all of Beijing and you will never find anything as good anywhere else. Cheapest price: 300 yuan ($48).

Me: Ok.

I'm exaggerating, of course, but not by much. Rookie Mistake #1 was giving up too easily. I set myself up by admitting that I liked the jacket, and my counter offer was too high. After a few weeks of failure, I learned to tease out a lower price by acting disinterested and increasing my counter offer in smaller amounts. Another trick I learned was to add more items to my purchase during the negotiation. Smaller items can be used to sweeten the deal.

Shoe Shopping in the Beijing Silk Market

Second Attempt at Shopping in Beijing

My competitive streak emerged and I set out to be the best bargainer in Beijing. I learned all of the tricks and traps and within a few months I was scoring some sweet deals—which led me to Rookie Mistake #2:

Salesgirl: Hey! You would look great in that jacket. Only 320 yuan ($51)!

Me: ARE YOU CRAZY? I would only pay 50 yuan ($8) for that jacket. I saw three of those down the street for less. It's falling apart. The color makes me want to vomit. I wouldn't be caught dead in that jacket. I'm leaving.

Salesgirl: How about 275 yuan ($44)? It's a good price!

Me: If you throw in the shoes, hat and bag I'll give you 51 yuan.

Salesgirl: Please leave.

Lily in the Pearl Market, her jewelry is always fresh and trendy

When Bargaining Goes Too Far

Crew members hate to be mistaken for tourists because visitors are naive and pay too much. Getting a good deal is a badge of honor and means you have been here enough to know what locals pay. Sometimes, however, that pride can go too far. Bargaining is a sort of game and I've seen too many crew members get upset and angry during a negotiation, haggle over the smallest amounts and generally behave badly if they don't get what they want. You don't get a better deal by being rude. You don't do yourself any favors by being aggressive. Be polite and friendly and things may go your way. Don't swear you only have 20 yuan ($3) in your pocket and then hand them a 100-yuan ($16) bill expecting change. Be honest. 

Nobody seems to notice me as I enter a store in the US, I have become spoiled by the flattery of Beijing shopkeepers. No one whips out a calculator to negotiate a two-for-one deal. In fact, they seemed slightly offended when I tell them their bags are knock-offs and that I shouldn't pay more than half price.

I have surprised myself by learning to enjoy shopping in Beijing, scoring good deals is a way to bond with my Chinese neighbors and friends.  I hope as Beijing develops it will preserve its little markets and culture of bargaining.  In these days of chain stores and mega retailers, shopping has become impersonal.   In Beijing I have developed relationships with favorite shopkeepers with many good memories and friendships.   Here's too Happy Haggling.

Best, Cindy Smith.


Cindy with Po (Pearl Market, Beijing China)

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