Although everything already seems cheap to most foreigners living in China, that shouldn’t stop you from getting things even cheaper! Where you shop, how you ask, how you haggle and how you pay can work in your favour when shopping in the Middle Kingdom. Here we bring you some tips that are sure to help you grab the best bargains in town.
The logic behind Chinese discounts is the reverse of what you’ve probably experienced in your own country. When you see banners with big bold numbers ranging from one to ten, this doesn’t refer to the percentage of the price cut, but the percentage of the price remaining. A banner that advertises 7折 (zhé) in fact means there is a 30 percent discount on offer, not the 7, or perhaps 70 percent that you might expect.
Chinese discounts are counterintuitive, meaning smaller numbers do in fact mean larger discounts, although you’re unlikely to come across price cuts of anything over 50 percent while living in China. If you do, be skeptical.
Enter any shop in China and you’ll no doubt encounter multiple sales assistants waiting to pounce on any poor customer that wanders in off the street. They are all well versed in the ‘hard sell’, but why is it so aggressive here and what can you do about it?
The average local wage in China is very low. Unlike major developed countries that have a fixed minimum wage in place, China’s diversity and size means every region potentially has a different wage bracket, with some people toiling for as little as 10 RMB per hour.
Anyone working in the sales industry therefore is on a mission to boost their wage through commission, nurturing a kind of ‘sell or die’ mentality among staff. Foreigners who come from nations that provide a generous minimum wage are usually just not used to this level of ‘attention’.
Chinese sales assistants are very persistent and will usually harass you until (and sometimes after) you leave the boundaries of the shop. They will be quick to push products onto you, offer fashion advice and pick out products they think you’ll like. If you’re not keen on being harassed in shops or are easily persuaded, this can become a headache.
When stepping into Chinese shops, it helps to be upfront but polite. You can say, “I’ll have a browse first, thanks” (我先看下，谢谢, wǒ xiān kàn xià, xiè xiè), and then resolutely ignore them as they follow you around (they are only doing their job, even if it’s annoying).
You can, however, use the assistant’s desperation to your advantage if you have the patience. As you try stuff on/out, act like you’re unsure about the price and/or quality before asking, “is there any discount on this”(这个有没有打折, zhè gè yǒu méi yǒu dă zhé) or “can you give me it a little cheaper?”(给一点优惠，可以吗，gěi yī diǎn yōu huì, kě yǐ ma).
A number of Chinese shops have unadvertised deals, and if you’re lucky (and pushy) enough, you might get them down even lower. You don’t get if you don’t ask!
If you’re shopping at small shops, stalls or street vendors, haggling is common practice and well worth a shot. Many of these small vendors don’t advertise their prices, which leaves you vulnerable to inflated ‘foreigner prices’ if you can’t talk the talk.
When quoted a price, counter with a much lower amount (up to 50 percent) and gradually allow yourself to be haggled up until you reach a price you find reasonable (usually about 2/3 of the original quoted price). If you’re buying a number of items, ask for a discount for a bulk purchase.
Taobao’s price checker function will also be your best buddy when buying from vendors who don’t list their prices. If you suspect you’re being taken advantage of, load up the app and click the camera icon beside the search bar along the top. This will bring up two options: take a photo or scan the barcode. Once you’ve snapped/or scanned the product, Taobao will bring up a list of identical or similar products and their prices – very useful.
Once you’ve picked out what you’re after, China offers a variety of ways to pay for your goods. E-payment (such as Wechat Pay and Alipay) is accepted throughout the country and in some cases may be the only method of payment, as some shops and vendors nowadays reject cash.
If you’re staying in China for a decent amount of time and have the means to open a Chinese bank account (or have a friend with an account transfer you money), it definitely pays to use e-payments. Not only will you avoid getting fake notes (which China is rife with), but you’ll also often receive electronic hong bao with extra discounts and money back.
Alipay and Wechat payments are becoming widely accepted in other Asian countries, too. Even supermarket giant Walmart has began rolling out self-service checkout aisles for Wechat users.
If you want to pay by card, bear in mind that very few small Chinese shops will accept foreign cards. Some checkouts in larger stores may have stickers indicating which cards they accept. Sometimes you’ll also get an extra discount for using these cards.
If you just hate the hard sell and haggling, China’s vast online shopping scene is the place for you. Besides e-commerce giant Taobao, (read our beginner’s guide here), there are other websites to get to know, each with their own distinct advantages.
Xián Yú (闲鱼), a subsidiary of Taobao, is also C2C, specialising in second-hand goods. Tmall (天猫) is a B2C platform serving as a more trustworthy alternative to Taobao (kind of like Amazon is to eBay). While if you’re shopping for electronics, Dāngdāng (当当网) and Jd (京东) are reliable and competitively priced, especially for ebooks thanks to a price war between the two.
Any other tips for getting bargains while living in China? Share them in the comments section below.
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Keywords: living in China
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