It pays to have a strategy when you shop at Silk Street

john  —  April 4, 2012

Beijing is a colorful, multilingual city. I’ve heard Korean, Russian and Glaswegian. Likewise, everyone speaks the language of shopping.

As Olivia, my friend on vacation from Scotland, and I pushed through the crowded market, vendors from stalls left and right pitched sales at us.

“Hello friend!”

“You like North Face? How about Polo?”

“Hey, you’re so beautiful! You want a purse?”

“Come here, lady!”

We were probing around the first floor of the famous Silk Street Market. Upon entering the large complex we passed a large red banner stating: “Do not buy any unauthorized, buy original.”

Tourists from around the world come to this market to bargain down prices for fake designer goods. Some bags are gaudy, others are horrendous, but some items, tucked away in the backroom and listed only in an in-store catalog, take some digging to locate, but are worth the entire treasure hunt.

Our first haggle was over a pair of “Armani” khaki pants. A vendor in his late 20s – his name was Rick – asked me what I was looking for.

After I tried on a pair of pants in a makeshift changing room – a chest-high curtain which the sellers held up – in the center of the busy market, we started to bargain. I punched a number in his jumbo-sized calculator: 200 yuan ($31). He laughed as if I had asked him to give the pants away for free.

He tried to prove the pair was worth 900 yuan.

First, Rick took out a lighter and put the flame to the pants. “See! Look at the quality.”

I told him I admired how they were flame-resistant. Apparently this fabric was similar to the real Armani, though I cannot imagine going into an Armani store and demanding the same flame test.

Then he started spinning the pants in the air and twisting them as if wringing them of water. He whipped it around like a lasso, nearly smacking Olivia.

“Very good quality,” said the vendor. I nodded.

I ended up settling for 350 yuan, probably more than I should have paid. The problem was at the time, I was emotionally invested in these pants. I knew it made sense to explore other stores, but the vendor kept lowering the price and lighting the pants on fire to lure me back.

Olivia and I made a pit stop at McDonalds to count our loot and our dwindling cash. We mapped out a strategy; the crux of the game was for the buyer and the seller to zero in on each other’s true price. Whoever could do this more effectively without losing ground would haggle the best deal.

We went back and located a purse stand.

Saleswoman: “We are good friends! How much do you want for this Gucci bag?”

I punched in 200 yuan.

“You must be joking! I will make no money.”

Still 200.

“Impossible! Look, I give you this price.”

We went back and forth for about five minutes. Every time she went down by a hundred or two, she grew more flustered and indignant – or at least she acted that way.

“Why are you so stingy?!”

We decided to use the walking-away method. When we were just out of sight she called back to us and grabbed Olivia by the arm: “Three hundred, last price.”

“Two hundred”.

“A little more, give me a little more”

We started to turn away.

“OK, OK. Give money.”

You have to stand ground.

Just remember, the vendors may be cleverer than you – selling overpriced fake goods is their profession – but you ultimately have the upper hand. You can always walk away and try a different starting price with a different vendor, but if they lose a customer they lose a sale.

So play hard when you visit the landmark, six-story jungle on Silk Street and teach your friends the ropes. All foreigners in Beijing need to visit the Great Wall during their stay, but it is the Silk Street Market they will visit more than once. For me – and dare I implicate Olivia? – a bargain is something you don’t need, at a price you can’t resist.

(Blog posted by Kevin Tan on August 31, 2011. You can see the original article by following this link to ChinaDaily)