The Art of Bartering 讲价 jiǎngjià

Chestnut vendor in the city of Huai’an in Jiangsu Province

China can be an exciting place to shop, especially if you are willing to barter for a good price. In many markets, especially outdoor markets, prices are often not marked and can be negotiated through bartering or haggling.  

The disadvantage of being a foreigner in China is that as soon as any vendor sees a you coming, yuan signs will light up their eyes. When you ask how much something cost, the vendor will probably jack up the price as much as ten-fold or more, knowing that foreigners are often eager to spend money and usually are clueless about how much things should cost.

Bartering is to be expected at most markets, outdoor shopping areas like at tourist sites, some produce and meat markets, and anywhere where prices are not marked. Sometimes even when the price is marked you may try to talk them down. Bartering is not acceptable in department stores, convenience stores, large discount stores, restaurants, and other such places. While you do not barter at hotels, you can ask for a discount. This is typical in the off-season and many hotels will give you a discount just for asking. You can ask for a discount by saying,

可以打折吗?kěyǐ dǎzhé ma?                                     Can you give a discount?

(给)便宜一点吗?kěyǐ (gěi) piányi yīdiǎn ma?         Can you give it for a bit cheaper?

Jade dealers at the Chaotiangong Confucian temple in Nanjing

 Strategies for successful bartering 

1. Plan on using cash

It’s a good idea to have the exact amount you plan to pay in your pocket. It never looks good after a hot bartering session to pull out a thick wad of 100 yuan notes, especially when you have talked about how little money you have. It’s also a good idea to come equipped with your money in small denominations. Many vendors are unwilling to break large bills, nor are they eager to give you any change back.

2. Pretend that you are not that interested in the product

If the dealer knows you really want the item, she has the upper hand. So look at the item skeptically, notice and verbalize negative things about the item, walk around looking at other things, then casually go back to the item you would like. Next, offer a price well below what you are willing to pay. Remember that bartering is a two-way deal. Not only must you be satisfied with the price, but the seller must be satisfied as well. If you start low, then you are willing to go up in price, which the seller will expect. No vendor will sell something at a loss; they will always make sure to make a profit on all their deals.

 3. Offer a price well below what they are asking

The vendor will likely scoff, act disgusted, give you some line about how he or she has a family to support, and so on. Don’t take anything personally. This is just part of the script or game. They will probably say that they could never sell it for that low. They may even act offended at your offer.

 4. Walk away

The is an essential strategy. Simply start walking away. Remember, you have been pretending that you are not all that interested in the item anyway. The vendor will in most cases call you back, and offer a slightly higher price than what you originally offered. Now the real haggling begins. Continue to feign disinterest, that you could take it or leave it. Counter with another price lower than his. This may go on for awhile. The vendor at some point will refuse to go any lower. When this happens, tell the vendor to forget it (算了 suān le) and walk away again. Either the vendor will call you back again and offer a lower price, or he will let you go. At this point you need to be willing to walk on and find another vendor selling what you want. If you go back at this point, the vendor will know that he has you, that you really do want the item and probably won’t leave without it.

Selling bananas in Nanjing

Remember that this game is well known by everyone shopping in China and is expected behavior on both sides. Some people hate bartering and would rather just pay the asking price, and will get ripped off. Learn these basic bartering strategies and your dollars will go much further, and you’ll have a good time shopping.

Selling fruit off the back of a truck

11 thoughts on “The Art of Bartering 讲价 jiǎngjià

  1. I will definitely have to learn the art of bartering. I hope to be an expert by the time I travel to China. As a college student this will be very handy to know.

  2. When you’re a foreigner in China, vendors usually jack up the prices because foreigners wouldn’t know average prices.

  3. It’s funny that you can actually barter at a market place. I’ve only ever experienced a fix price when it comes to stores or restaurants, I’ve never had to negotiate over any number. But, in China it seems in dealing with smaller things it would be better to be knowledgeable at least about the process.

  4. Important advice if you’re in China long-term on a budget (students)! Bartering might be especially difficult for some Americans to get into the habit of doing since there are not many chances to practice it in the States.

  5. Bartering is really fun! I have my own skills that work in my country and I will try those skills in China someday!

  6. My ABC (American-Born-Chinese) father has used bartering tactics such as these for as long as I can remember, and I wonder if it originated from his father’s (born in Hong Kong) usage and whether Chinese culture simply rubbed off on my grandfather which prompted the chain reaction. I also wonder if the reason bartering is more occurrent in China due to many regions being less industrialized and commerce not being as horizontally integrated as it is in the United States.

  7. I like bartering and it makes business more interesting. it requires a really good communication skills. Many of those people haven’t got any education, but they know how to deal with customers.

  8. I was aware that bartering was a part of this culture and many others. However I had no idea how to act or what I should do if I was to barter for an item. Bartering can be very useful to the buyer of the product, it will help them save a little money if they do the bartering successfully. I am interested to try out bartering myself and see how I can do. You gave some really good tips on bartering and let us know that the buyer may not always get what they want, but that is just part of the process.

  9. This is really fascinating and I’m very glad you had given us these points and facts. I had once stumbled upon a store at a mall that was selling handbags, I was looking at the bags and found one that I had been interested in. I asked the price and he said something very high, me being young and not having any money at the time said ah, nevermind. He then lowered the price twice and I still denied. Getting ready to leave the store (because I actually had no money on me) he then drastically lowered the price and I was shocked, really wanting it but couldn’t get it. I said no one last time then left. After leaving the situation I had realized that he was bargaining with me, (and I was upset I couldn’t practice more with him). After reading this article I realized I actually did a couple of the right things. Thanks! I will definitely try to remember this the next time I go to a store without prices!

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