Shanghai expats discover that local life really is no bargain
As a part-time flâneur and long-term resident of Shanghai, I often hear snippets of advice passed around with respect to how to shop and bargain in various public markets around the city.
I’m here to tell you that much of this advice is simply wrong. At the very least it’s usually misguided in its application, or more appropriately utilized in a Thai or Malaysian commodities market than a furniture store on Fuxing Road.
Shanghai newbies and old China hands alike appear prone to misinformation and urban legends surrounding the protocols required for dealing with Chinese vendors in neighborhood markets.
People with seemingly no aptitude for mathematical reasoning tend to embrace mysterious ratios and formulas when calculating prices here. “Whatever the seller asks, offer one-third of that,” is a common mantra. Others suggest one-fourth or even onetenth of asking.
Stick around long enough in this city and you will hear all sorts of apocryphal tales of the patented “buyer walkaway” or “eye contact” strategies for beating Chinese vendors at their own game. If it isn’t obvious to you by now, dear laowai shopper, if you are resorting to mental arithmetic or psychological strategies, then you are already hopelessly out of your depth.
Even the beloved “walkaway” tactic favored at bazaars across the globe usually fails in Shanghai, as most markets here are an intricate web of relationships among the sellers. Most share merchandise and many are related or friends. It’s not likely they will undercut each other just so that we can save money.
Market stall owners, especially ones dealing in grey-market items, take significant financial risks to sell their products and usually operate on shoestring profit margins. These are professional sellers and know to within 5 yuan ($0.76) to 10 yuan exactly how much a prospective purchaser is going to spend on an item.
There is only one effective defensive strategy against the eagle-eyed, sharp-tongued market vendor, and that is knowing the true wholesale value of the item being considered. Without this absolutely essential piece of knowledge, we are all just babes in the woods.
It isn’t unusual to see foreign visitors haggling fruitlessly with shop keepers in places where negotiating prices is simply not the custom. My suspicion is that even a Shanghainese speaking local will have little success in knocking down prices at their local Watsons or KFC.
At national chains, franchises or even long-established local shops, most Chinese utilize coupons for discounts. They used to be in paper form, but today most have switched over to group buying schemes or smart phone apps. In Shanghai’s fast-disappearing wet markets, the need for haggling diminishes even further as most vendors operate on tight profit margins and prices are relatively fixed. In my experience, sellers rarely bother to negotiate with buyers that they don’t personally know. With prices only budging in an extremely narrow range, they don’t have the discretion to play with discounts. Instead, loyal shoppers are rewarded with a smile and the toss of a free bulb of garlic with their regular grocery purchases. Truly favored customers – the ones who stand there and gossip with the vendor for 15 minutes every day – might be slipped in an obviously larger bunch of fresh green scallions than the one they have actually paid for. The only shibboleth that I have some sympathy for is the attitude that “It doesn’t really matter what the item you want actually costs; what matters is that you as the customer are at peace with the amount you paid for your purchase.” I like this advice for two reasons. Firstly, it acknowledges in some way the futility of trying to “beat” the system and win the bargaining game. The other is that it recognizes the potential disparity in income and purchasing power between buyers and vendors who run great risks and work in a precarious environment to put food on our tables.