A Beginner's Guide to Bargaining

May 6 2013

I still remember the first time my friends and I attempted to bargain at a local fruit vendor in Shanghai.

Guess what?

You can’t bargain at fruit vendors. I found out the hard way.

After moving into the off-campus apartment and meeting all my roommates, I became their unofficial translator and guide, as the only Chinese speaker among us. All was well in Changning district for the first bit of it—purchasing our Chinese cell phones, finding our way to Carrefour in the sweltering weather and figuring out how to get on Facebook, of course.

Anyway, we'd heard from other students that the street vendors behind Xuanhua Lu sold fruit for fairly cheap. They’d come home with plastic bags bursting with bananas, apples, grapes and kiwis—all of which looked so appealing to us under the hot August sun.

We soon found the vendor. It was a fairly typical-looking thing owned by a rather jaded seller, who sat behind the stand fanning himself with an old magazine...but the fruit! The fruits were all laid out with cardboard signs displaying the prices placed next to them.

Upon seeing the ripe pieces of juicy goodness, something awoke from deep within us. Suddenly our faces started to writhe and contort in every direction, and we began to sprout fangs. Our fingers morphed into claws before our bloodthirsty eyes until finally, we attacked. Lunging at the fruit stand, we ripped the helpless pears and plums from their homes like utter savages.

At least, that’s what it must have looked like to the Chinese man behind the stand.

When it came time to pay for our goods, we did what we had been told: start with an asking price of half the original amount, and eventually settle on no more than 75 percent of the original.

To be honest, it was pretty awkward, attempting to chat it up with the impatient Chinese seller while waiting on my more business-savvy, English-speaking friends to settle on an asking price. When I relayed to the man what my friends and I had finally decided was a reasonable price, I was in for a rude awakening.

Turns out, you really aren’t supposed to haggle too much on the price of fruits, as it’s already pretty cheap… A couple of kuai is fine, but half the price would just be thievery. Needless to say, the man was not happy, cursing up a storm and accusing us “westerners” of trying to swindle him.

I felt both awful for offending the man and confused as to what had gone wrong. It wasn’t until I told my RA what happened that he explained there are some situations in China when bargaining is a no-go. At all western retail stores and some clothing boutiques like the ones in Metrotown and Changle Lu, the prices are more or less set and nonnegotiable.

When you do find yourself in a situation where you can bargain such as the fake market below Metro Line 2’s Science and Technology Museum stop or the shopping paradise Qipu Lu (which should really be called Hell on Earth, if you ask me), feel free to go cray. My advice is not to use English with or around the seller. From what I’ve seen, sellers are nicer to those who attempt to speak Chinese and less likely to try to rip you off if you demonstrate at least some knowledge of the language.

In any case, you should approach bargaining as you would a conversation—that’s all it really is. Smile, crack a joke, make a comment about the weather, ask how business is doing, whatever. Employ all that you've learned in your mastery of English chit-chat when bargaining. The sellers secretly love it. Though it may seem daunting at first, eventually the craft becomes second-nature, and it can actually be sort of fun, even thrilling when you manage to lower the price of a 240 kuai bag to 60… True story!

Susan Cheng is currently a junior at NYU, studying Journalism and East Asian Studies. In her free time, she enjoys traveling and documenting her experiences through writing, taking photographs and sketching.