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At a Beijing flea market | © Lyle Vincent/Flickr
At a Beijing flea market | © Lyle Vincent/Flickr

How to Haggle Like a Local in China

Picture of Sally Gao
Updated: 10 April 2017

If you’re traveling in China, you’ll come across plenty of opportunities to haggle for goods at street markets and small shops. However, newcomers may be intimidated by the idea of haggling. What’s more, vendors tend to overcharge foreigners, while the best prices go to savvy locals who have been haggling all their lives. If you’re new to bartering in China, here are some tips on mastering the art of the bargain.

Make sure you’re in the right place.

It should go without saying that supermarkets, department stores, and brand-name stores are not appropriate places for haggling. This also applies to taxis, which are equipped with taximeters.

Places where you can haggle include markets (such as tourist markets and vegetable markets) and small, independently-owned shops where customers can interact directly with the owner.

If you’re not sure whether you can haggle at a particular store, politely ask “Can you make this a little cheaper?” If you get a flat “no,” then you’ll know that bargaining is out of the question. However, if they hesitate or offer a lower price, you know there’s some room for negotiation.

One final thing to be aware of is how many other potential customers are nearby. Vendors are often unwilling to concede to a low price when other customers are listening, for fear that everyone will start demanding low prices. It’s best to approach the vendor when other people aren’t around.

Don’t be too eager.

If a particular item strikes your fancy, don’t let the vendor know how much you like it. If they get the sense that you’ll end up buying it no matter what, they’ll stubbornly stick to a high price until you give in.

Instead, act like it’s not a big deal to you whether you buy it or not, and that you’re ready to walk away if you can’t get a good deal. Remained relaxed and unhurried when browsing merchandise. If you spot what you want right off the bat, it’s still a good idea to make a show of browsing a little and asking for the price of several different items, to throw the vendor off your scent.

Decide on a price range before you start haggling.

Before you ask the vendor how much something costs, ask yourself: What’s the best possible price I could get for this? In other words, what’s the lowest amount I could pay that’s also reasonable from the vendor’s perspective? On the flipside, what’s the highest amount I’d be willing to pay?

When you start haggling, begin from the lowest price so you have room to bargain upwards from there. Pay careful attention to the vendor’s body language, tone, and facial expressions. If the vendor firmly rejects your lowest price, trying upping your offer a little. However, if their rejection seems hesitant, then it’s likely that they’re trying to get you to bid a little higher despite the fact that the price you named is acceptable to them. In that case, you should hold your ground.

Of course, it’s always possible that your idea of the “lowest price” is actually much higher than the lowest price the vendor would be willing to sell for. However, don’t fret too much about not getting the best possible deal. After all, what is or isn’t a bargain is subjective. If you manage to snag something for $60, when you told yourself you’d pay as much as $100 for it, then clearly the item was “worth it” for you, and you should feel happy about it.

It’s also important to keep in mind that if you start off by offering an inappropriately low price, the vendor may get offended, so don’t make your “minimum” too absurd.

Purchase in bulk for a better deal.

If you buy more than one item, you’ll have a better chance to entice the vendor to give you a discount. That’s why it may be a good idea to bring family and friends along. Make sure everyone in the group has enough time to decide what they want before you end negotiations. That way, when one person in the group is haggling, another can jump in and say something like, “If we get this as well, will you give us $10 off both items?”

Pretend to leave.

If you’re dealing with a stubborn vendor whom you suspect is trying to overcharge you, whether it’s because you’re a foreigner or otherwise, there’s one risky move you can try: turn on your heel and start to head for the door.

This works best at a place like a market, where the vendor has lots of competitors selling similar wares. If you pull this move off successfully, the vendor will panic and offer a lower price to make you stay.