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Archive for May 18th, 2008





On a rainy Sunday morning, I ventured out to explore the largest antique market in Beijing. Even if the sun had been up, I could not have seen it through the fog, smog and my jet lagged haze. But with the promise of over 1000 vendors, I felt a sense of urgency to get at the site, scout out the goods and begin the haggle early. For indeed, almost all shopping in China, is a negotiation. Even at the green grocer you might be able to ask for a 10% discount.

The exception to that rule are the stores which sell the global luxury brands, like Louis Vitton, Chanel, Gucci etc. And since I don’t frequent those stores at home, and China slaps a luxury tax on those foreign goods, well, I think I will just wait until this weekend in Hong Kong to see if tax free and duty free translates to guilt free!

As you can see from the photos, there are an almost bewildering array of goods, that seem to go on forever. The Chinese merchant seems to have missed the whole concept of differentiation a la Adam Smith. Vendor after vendor sells virtually the same goods, at pretty much the same prices. Out in the city, this translates to long long city blocks of stores selling nothing but lace, then buttons, then zippers, then fabric, and on it goes. This situation is most unfortunate if you happen to be on the street that sells nothing but trophies. Or motorcycle parts. Or electrical cable. Or wedding parlours displaying what have to be the most atrocious gowns I have ever seen. They were almost camp they were so bad. But it you happen to discover the discount ladies shoes block, well, you can be happily occupied for the afternoon.

If you are strolling along the major pedestrian mall in Shanghai, and someone sidles up to you and says “watch a bag”, they are not cautioning you to watch your bag from pick pockets, although that is a real danger. No, they are trying to lure you into a 2 storey walk up where you can see a table laid out with rows of fake Rolexes of varying quality, and prices to match. All of the “touts” have little laminated cards or catalogs they will flash at you. I suspect that all of the inventory is held in the same warehouse somewhere in the warren of slum like buildings behind the flashy mega malls. You can certainly acquire one of these er sat watches or purses which purport to be Dolce & Gabbana or Gucci. But don’t be conned into thinking any of these goods “fell off a bus” from the actual factory. It is all fake. Period. Full stop.

As with my “antique” market. All fake. You will see porcelain “aged” by having dirt rubbed in it. I almost got caught on that one. Like the counterfeit goods peddled on the street, some of it is a better quality of fake than others, so tip number 1 is to spend some time looking over the item carefully. Check for obvious cracks, zippers that work, sewn on labels rather than glued, that patterns match up. That scrutiny does 2 other things. It gives you time to think about what you are willing to pay, and it confirms you as a serious shopper in the eyes of the vendor. Serious means that you intend to buy; it’s now just a matter of settling on the right price.

Most guidebooks will tell you that you must be prepared to walk away. In my experience, only in half the time will they run after you to give you your price. It also depends how many vendors are selling same goods near by – as I said earlier, there is a lot of a much of a muchness. But if you have found something that really intrigues you and appears unique, a better strategy is tip #2: find a couple of things that you would like to take a closer look at. That disguises your real interest, and again, gives you some time to think. From an opening bid point of view, some folks advice going in at 10% of what the vendor gives as his price. Or, knock the last digit off and you might be close to what she is actually willing to sell it for.

I generally ask for the best price on a couple of items, and keep looking at them carefully. Then I ask to look at a few more. Both of us have now invested enough time that she really wants to sell me something. Don’t worry about the language; they don’t speak much English, but they have big calculators with big LED displays. So after awhile, they will ask you to input the price that you are willing to pay. So the battle of dueling digits begins!

Never denigrate the product; that means you are being a rude foreigner, and it does not help your cause. And don’t overpay; that means you are a stupid foreigner, and that does not help the rest of us! Try not to think about what you would pay for the equivalent item in North America: the fact is, it will be much, much less expensive than what you would pay at home.

So be aggressive. Work with the 10% of the asking price in a market, and 10-20% off in a shop. Cash is all that will be accepted so bring lots, and make sure you have some small bills for change. Don’t show your wad of cash after pleading poverty: that’s just insulting. Try to buy in multiples for things like souvenirs, gifts, jewellery and accessories. You could accomplish all of your gift shopping for the entire year in one morning of hard bargaining and definitely get the best price. An added bonus; engaging the Chinese in a negotiation, even if neither of you speak the other’s language, will feel like a genuine cultural exchange!

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