Shang­hai ex­pats dis­cover that lo­cal life re­ally is no bar­gain

Global Times – Metro Shanghai - - FRONT PAGE - By John Harold Arm­strong The opin­ions ex­pressed in this ar­ti­cle are the au­thor’s own and do not nec­es­sar­ily re­flect the views of the Global Times.

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.

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