In China if there are no clearly marked prices on items (and sometimes even when there are), you'll have to bargain for it. This may be a shock to the system for some, as Chinese sellers will often ask for absolutely extortionate prices based on what they think they can get out of the customer. They are not trying to insult your intelligence, they are simply trying to squeeze as much from you as possible. These people make a living from ripping off unsuspecting tourists, but that doesn't mean that you can't get a bargain if you're a savvy haggler.
For those with no Chinese, don't worry about not being able to communicate your price - most haggling with foreigners is done with the aid of a calculator that is handed back and forth between seller and buyer, with each typing in their desired price until the other gives in.
General haggling tips
Here are some general haggling tips, which come in especially useful in places like the (in)famous Fake Market on West Nanjing Road (Nánjīng Xi Lù):
- When haggling, it's much better to think of it more as a friendly game rather than an all-out aggressive, competitive transaction. Alienating or angering the seller will probably not get you a better price. Unless the seller is obviously trying to cheat you (e.g. by trying to convince you that an obvious fake is genuine, like the USB thumb drive scam), try to keep haggling as light-hearted and friendly as possible: you'll both come away happier for it.
- There is no general rule of thumb for how much you should pay: some people say that you should start by offering 10% of the seller's starting price and work your way up to 10-30%. Others say that if you come away paying less than 50% of their starting price, you've done all right. At the end of the day, you should always have a budget and a maximum price in mind. Don't fall into the trap that after haggling for 10 minutes, you have to buy the item - sellers will often try to tire out their customers by refusing to drop their price, and then at last dropping it to a more 'reasonable' price, which makes you think that you've 'won', even though the final price is still higher than it could (or should) be.
- Sellers will size you up from the moment you walk into their stall. If you are white, smartly dressed, clutching an iPhone, speak no Chinese and seem like you're unfamiliar with haggling for goods, the starting price will invariably be higher than if you're Asian, speak Chinese and seem more experienced in haggling.
- Knowing Chinese hand gestures for numbers, will show them that you're not fresh off the boat and are less vulnerable to being ripped off.
- Having Chinese friends who can 'play the game' for you will often help you get a better price if you'd rather not enter the fray yourself. Again, this isn't the sellers being racist, it's simply them playing the game, and trying to get as much out of the customer as they can.
- Perhaps the best and most effective tactic for haggling is "the walkaway". Even if you still intend to buy the item but the seller won't drop quite as low as you'd like, shrug and start walking away. More often than not, the seller will balk at the prospect of a lost sale and follow you, offering you the price you wanted. From personal experience, "the walkaway" works around 80-90% of the time. In most markets there are plenty of stalls all selling the same items, and they know that if you don't buy from them it's likely you'll be able to get your target price at another stall.
- In China, showing interest in a product is enough for the seller to assume that it's exactly what you're looking for. In western countries you can often ask how much something is, get your answer, shrug and walk on. In China, if you ask how much something is (or sometimes if you just look at a product for longer than a casual glance), they will give you their starting price, and if you do anything at that point beyond buying it on the spot, they will start the haggling process - even if it means starting without you. You'll soon have a calculator thrust into your face and they'll demand you type in your best price for the product - a product you were simply curious about, with no actual intention to purchase from the get-go. Some people let themselves be guilted into buying things they don't want like this.
In situations like these, having a few stock Chinese phrases up your sleeve like 不要 (bú yào - "do not want") will serve you well. See further down for some useful haggling phrases.
- Wearing smart clothes when going to markets will give off the impression that you are more wealthy in the eyes of the Chinese sellers. While it's not necessary to dress down for the occasion, you should know that the more expensive your outfit, the more dispensable income the seller will assume you have.
- It's an excellent idea to try to build relationships with sellers if you're going to be in the city a while and are likely to come back again. Personally, I have managed to get lower prices by telling sellers stuff like 如果我朋友来上海，我要带他们来这里 - rúguǒ wǒ péngyǒu lái shànghǎi, wǒ yào dài tāmen lái zhèlǐ - "if my friends come to Shanghai, I'll bring them here", or 我要回来的时候，我来这里买东西 - wǒ yào huílái de shíhou, wǒ lái zhèlǐ mǎi dōngxi - "when I come back, I'll come here to shop". Although some sellers don't realise the value of repeat customers, some are savvy enough to know that if they treat you well you're likely to come back and buy more stuff.
If you get a particularly good deal, it's a good idea to get the seller's business card (给我你的名片 - gěi wǒ nǐ de míngpiàn - "give me your business card"). This will not only allow you to find them again easily, but you can also call them in advance if you're looking for something specific.
Here are a few useful basic phrases to aid your haggling. For more general words and phrases, check out the article on useful Chinese phrases. If planning to stay in Shanghai for a while, it may be worth learning how to say some of these sentences in basic Shanghainese as you'll get a better deal and spend less time haggling.
- 这个多少钱？ - zhège duōshǎo qián? - "how much is this?"
- 太贵了 - tài guì le - "too expensive" (also 为什么这么贵？ - wèishénme zhème guì? - "why so expensive?")
- 再便宜一点，好不好？ - zài piányi yìdiǎn, hǎobùhǎo? - "Can you give me a discount?"
- 给我一个市价吧 - gěi wǒ yīgè shìjià ba - "give me the market price" (a polite way of saying "I wasn't born yesterday")
- 别给我老外的价格，给我中国人的 - bié gěi wǒ lǎowài de jiàgé, gěi wǒ zhōngguó rén de - "don't give me the foreigner price, give me the price you'd offer to a Chinese person" (a rather less polite way)
- 在别的地方可以买 - zài biéde dìfāng kěyǐ mǎi - "I can just buy it somewhere else" (useful when used in conjunction with "the walkaway")
- 我住在这里 - wǒ zhù zài zhèlǐ - "I live here" (also 我不是游客 - wǒ bùshì yóukè - "I'm not a tourist")
- 别宰我 - bié zǎi wǒ - "Don't rip me off"
- 虽然我是老外，但是我不傻 - suīrán wǒ shì lǎowài, dànshì wǒ bù shǎ - "I might be a foreigner, but I'm not stupid"
- 这个东西不正宗 - zhège dōngxi bù zhèngzōng - "this thing is not authentic" (useful if a seller is attempting to sell you a clear fake and claiming that it's authentic)
For the more adventurous, here are some more authentically Chinese phrases to use - the kind of phrases Chinese people use when bargaining (thanks to /u/sneakay for these):
- 你想光天化日之下抢钱 - nǐ xiǎng guāngtiānhuàrì zhī xià qiǎng qián - "you’re trying to rob me in broad daylight"
- 别蒙我了- bié méng wǒ le - "don't try to fool me!"
- 你报个底价吧 - nǐ bào gè dǐjià ba - "give me your bottom line"
- 最多 x 块。 不卖我就走了 - zuì duō x kuài. bù mài wǒ jiù zǒuliǎo - "the most I'll pay is x RMB, or I'm out of here"