Home » business, eva romero's travel blog, on the street, society & culture

The fine art of haggling: How to avoid getting ripped off in Xi’an

By 20 June 2009 No Comment
Photo by Eva Romero

Art of the deal: Hard bargaining yields lower prices in the Muslim Quarter | Photo by Eva Romero

“You are supposed to help me because we are both Chinese,” an angry shopkeeper in Xi’an, China, told Xia Wengian, a local man helping a visiting American student bargain for an acceptable price for a piece of jewelry. The seller’s tone and facial expression made it clear that she felt Xia was interfering with her business negotiations.

Xi’an’s vibrant Muslim Quarter is known for more than just its concentrated minority population or readily available walnut cakes and plum juice. The tourist district shopkeepers are known for their ferocious haggling approach, as well. On any given day, one can see store and stall owners shamelessly charging foreigners prices three to four times higher than what a streetwise Chinese would be willing to pay for the same wooden mask, Chairman Mao T-shirt, or miscellaneous souvenir.

“If you’re going to get ripped off anywhere in this city, it’s probably going to be here,” said Katie Warren, a Fulbright Scholar living in Xi’an who was visiting a shop with a friend. “Being firm and walking away does wonders.”

Over the course of my week-long haggling experiment, I developed a three-part strategy for haggling in Xi’an. I would do a little research to develop a sense of the product’s worth. Then I would name my price and stick with it. And if the exchange didn’t seem to progress in a favorable direction, I would walk away. Once the seller noticed me turning my back, they would usually begin to shout “Okay! Okay!” and offer me my original price.

“Foreigners can be naïve [about product value] and generous [with their money], and will usually buy what they want regardless of price,” said Wang Lihua, a jewelry store owner who opened up shop in the area three years ago. “Locals almost always bargain, so shopkeepers will usually charge tourists a higher price instead to maximize the profits.”

The evening of my first haggling experience in Xi’an, I purchased two magnifying glasses from a woman named Ma Yulin. I broke an important shopping rule I had heard everywhere, from Lonely Planet travel books to word-of-mouth conversations, by accepting the first price she offered me. At 20 RMB (USD 2.92) per item, I did not realize I had been ripped off until Xia brought the situation to my attention. He said he knew of other friends who had made similar purchases for less than half the price I accepted.

“Just because a price may seem like very little in American currency doesn’t mean it’s a good deal,” Xia told me. “Most of the things sold here are worth much less than what [sellers] will [ask from] a generous foreigner.”

Curious to prove him right, I made my way back to Ma’s stand the next day, feigning interest in buying another magnifying glass. She must have not recognized my face, because she offered me the same kind of glass I bought the night before for 30 RMB (USD 4.38) – 10 RMB (USD 1.46) more than the original price. Shopping alone this time, I could only assume Ma was more inclined to overcharge me now that I was not accompanied by a savvier shopper who would haggle on my behalf.

Lin Kangping, another store owner who has run her family’s souvenir and calligraphy business since 1990, shared similar encounters with foreigners. “My parents and I used to overcharge foreigners because of their generosity and attitude about the cheap exchange rate,” she said. “But we stopped when the economy worsened, and foreigners became less willing to settle for higher prices.”

Perhaps to emphasize her point, she offered me a small, hand-carved wooden frog for 10 RMB (USD 1.46). I purchased two.

Photo by Eva Romero

Price is right (sometimes): So much to buy, so little time | Photo by Eva Romero

Leave your response!

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also subscribe to these comments via RSS.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

This is a Gravatar-enabled weblog. To get your own globally-recognized-avatar, please register at Gravatar.