Bargaining in China: What’s Fair Game?

Bargaining in China: What’s Fair Game?
Aug 31, 2013 By Jessica A. Larson-Wang

Bargaining is a concept that is quite foreign to many cultures, Western culture in particular. Our shopping malls, boutiques, and general distaste for conspicuous haggling, tends to produce shoppers who are quite uncomfortable bargaining. When we first arrive in China we learn quickly, and sometimes the hard way, that bargaining is an integral part of life here, and if you can’t do it, you’re going to be at a serious disadvantage. While numerous guides have been written detailing bargaining technique, and most people develop their own style that works for them, many foreigners are stumped by one simple question – what exactly can you bargain for in China, and what is off limits?

The simple answer is that in China, almost everything is fair game, even if the bargaining process is not always direct. I say “almost” because there are certain categories of shops where you can’t bargain: chain stores like Wal-Mart, brand name retail stores, supermarkets and any places with prices obviously posted are usually not going to be open to your attempts at haggling. Certain individually managed boutiques will have ambiguous policies on bargaining – many may claim not to bargain although you’re free to ask, and sometimes through sheer persistence you may get a store owner to come down a bit on the price. Smaller shops with no posted prices, outlet stores, any used items, fake items, and street vendors expect you to bargain as a rule.

Another thing to keep in mind is that big ticket items – cell phones, cameras, computers, etc. – are often open for bargaining, but you’ll need to be more subtle in your approach. Try asking for a discount, a “youhui”, and be prepared to accept whatever they offer. Chinese discounts, zhe, are offered backwards – a 40% discount would be stated as a discount of 6, or 6-zhe (折), so the best discounts would be the lower numbers. However, for a large item don’t be surprised if you’re offered no more than a 10%-20% discount at best, and keep in mind that, unlike individual sellers, these larger retailers are much more limited in how much of a discount they can legitimately offer. If you can’t decide whether or not you can bargain at a particular shop, simply ask. If bargaining is truly impossible the staff will make it quite clear early on.

Taxis, train and plane tickets

Outside of shops, however, there’s a whole range of commodities with their own bargaining rules – transportation, for example. Can one bargain for train tickets? Plane tickets? Taxis? Let’s look at these case by case. As a rule, anything where a ticket is sold at a ticket window and/or a ticket stub is given will not be subject to bargaining. Train tickets, for example, generally have a hard and fast price. While you cannot bargain for train tickets per se, you can get a discount by showing a student ID, and, during certain times of the year, you can get a discount by purchasing round trip train tickets. The only other way to get discounted train tickets is to buy them from unofficial sources. While you can certainly bargain down the price of a ticket being sold in front of the train station by the sketchy looking guy in the brown suit, you run the risk of buying a fake ticket, so it isn’t advisable.

Plane tickets, on the other hand, almost always have discounts available, and most ticket agencies will automatically sell you the discounted ticket, as they stand to lose nothing except your business by doing so. Still, when buying a plane ticket, it is always useful to ask “how much is the discount?” or, in Chinese “da ji zhe?” just so you have an idea of the sort of deals available and whether or not you’re paying too much for your ticket.

As for taxis, it is possible to bargain with the black cabs, or “hei che”, but unless you’re absolutely sure you’re getting a good deal – that is, you’re extremely familiar with the area you’re going to and how much the trip should cost, you probably should stick to metered taxis. Annoyingly, in some smaller towns running the meter is not the norm and there is an unstated rule that all rides within the city limits will cost a certain amount. Always try and find out ahead of time what the taxi standards are for the city you’re headed to. If you find yourself in a situation where you can’t use the meter, where you must take a private car rather than a taxi, are in a “bread car” (minivan), or even a pedicab, definitely bargain with the driver. Chances are that your driver will see a foreigner and will try and take advantage of the situation by offering an extremely high rate, but unless you know how much you should be paying, it will be hard to bargain accurately.

Bargain for hotel rooms and apartments

Finally, when on the road, keep in mind that bargaining for the price of your hotel room can save you some money as well. Take stock of the situation first – if you’ve been searching for a room during Golden Week and there are no vacancies anywhere, chances are you won’t have a lot of success bargaining down the price. However, if it is low season, or if you are booking in advance, it is always worth asking for a lower price. With hotels, staying for many days and paying up front can often secure you a better rate. For those who aren’t on the road, the same principle actually applies to renting an apartment. Negotiate with the real estate agency or the landlord to get them to come down a bit on the rent and you may be pleasantly surprised.

The thing to keep in mind about bargaining is that neither party is under any obligation to accept a price they are not satisfied with. We also need to be realistic, and not go overboard in our zeal for bargaining. While bargaining is indeed common in China, it is also important to show respect for salespeople who are just doing their jobs, and not insist on deals from people who are not in the position to provide them. If you cannot get the deal you want on an item feel free to walk away, but don’t assume automatically that you’re being treated unfairly because you’re a foreigner. I’ve seen many Chinese people being told “Sorry, no discounts” or who have had their attempts at bargaining shot down, so try not to take any refusals personally.

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Keywords: bargaining in China Chinese discounts


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on the other hand there is shopping center in beijing near sanlitun, where I was told there are no dicounts from some shop keepers. while shopkeeper did give dicounts to me. the truth was the shopkeeper who did not want to give me a dicount simply did not give discounts to foreigners. Stupid in my opinion because the products were not that great.

Aug 31, 2013 14:31 Report Abuse