With thousands of Olympic tourists flooding out of China this week, now may be a good time to book a trip east. With the streets relatively quiet—well, as quiet as they get in Beijing—it is likely a great time to hit the markets and find a bargain. If you're adventurous and impulsive enough to strike out, a good place to start is the Silk Market in central Beijing, a sprawling collection of vendors hawking knockoff handbags, clothing, shoes and cultural knickknacks.
For a first time visitor, the atmosphere at the Silk Market or any other large market in China can be intimidating. Taking my visiting mother on a shopping spree a couple of years ago made me laughingly recall that scene from Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video. You know the scene, the one where he and Ola Ray were surrounded by ghouls and every step they took in any direction just brought them closer to a potential predator.
"Hello, ladies! Look, look! Do you like Dior? We have Louis We-ton. Cucci? You want Cucci? Come in, pretty ladies. Have a look, look."
I had become a fierce bargainer during my five years in China. My mother, on the other hand, crumbled under the pressure.
"Madam, I will give you a special friend price," a vendor called out, brandishing a handful of wallets. Of course, her "special friend" price was about 10 times what it should have been.
I stepped in, taking my mother by the arm. "No, no, no, let's go."
I offered $10, instead of $100, and was near closing the deal, when my mother stepped in offering nearly four times more.
Naturally, the vendor accepted her offer immediately. I gritted my teeth and shook my head.
My mother—a lioness who went toe-to-toe with my fourth grade teacher for threatening a failing grade over poor handwriting, the same mother warrior who wanted to sue a former ballet teacher for racism, the crusader who toyed with protesting at my college graduation ceremony when administrators said my matriculation might be delayed on a technicality—turned to mush before a woman with plastic Louis Vuitton wallets.
If the fierce psychological warfare needed to haggle in Beijing were an Olympic sport, most vendors in China would be weighed down with gold medals. To save yourself some frustration and humiliation, here are the five most common ploys market vendors use to get your money and five ways you can combat them.
1. "I can give you a little discount. How much will you pay?"
Vendors typically quote prices that are so inflated that shoppers feel embarrassed to offer a radically lower amount. Many guidebooks will tell you to counter with 50 percent of the first price offered. I say, offer just 10-15 percent of the starting price. If you're paying more than $10 for any one item, something is likely wrong.
2. "I am giving you a discount because:
• you are Chinese
• you look Chinese
• you speak Chinese"
Don't fall for this trick of flattery or affinity. Knowing and naming the correct price for what you want is the only way to truly get the best deal. Bringing your adopted Korean-Jamaican friend
will not help.
3. "I will lose money. Go up just a little more."
(while grabbing your arm to prevent you from leaving)
A vendor will rarely make a deal at a loss. Refusing to let you leave the stall means that the vendor is willing to accept your price. Just smile sweetly and tell them that you don't want them to lose money, so you just won't buy it.
4. "Just go up a little."
You've got them! Do not go up! Just tell the vendor that's all you can afford to spend. If they insist, try the fake walk away. Make sure you listen out for the call back.
5. "But this is real! That other stall offered you a cheaper price because theirs is fake."
Come on! If you want genuine brand name items, go to the department stores. Better yet, stay at home. Street vendors rarely have brand-name, high-quality merchandise. Do you think real Kate Spade and Coach bags are stored in garbage bags and plastic buckets? Cheap goods are okay, unless you pay a ridiculous amount for them.
My mother eventually wisened up. When she told me she planned to go to the Silk Market alone on her last day in China while I was at the office, I looked at her the way you might look at a chicken who said they were going to take an excursion past the local KFC. But she returned from the trip triumphant, with a silk bag for me and a stack of coveted silk bottle holders, all for a pittance.
If my mom can work a deal in Beijing, you can, too. Now is the perfect time for an adventurous bargain-happy trip to China. Just remember when it comes to street-market competition, it's perfectly fine to go for the (fake) gold.
Ashleigh Braggs is a writer who lived in Beijing for over five years.