No woodworking in this post--I've been out of the shop recently, traveling on other business. So that's what I'll write about today.
So I have a six hour layover in Beijing airport, and a few hundred yuan in my pocket. I could exchange it back to dollars or spend it in the shops. What to do….
Now, airports are one of the worst places to spend money. They survive on captive audiences and therefore tend to be expensive. Much better to spend your money in town. But I’m on a business trip and the only shops I see are in airports. I really want a Souvenir de Beijing, something nice, but I hate getting ripped off.
So the logical conclusion is that here and now is the time to practice my haggling skills. They are rudimentary since I am genetically a WASP. The last few times I’ve entered the ring, I’ve come out paying more than the asking price. And the Beijing airport is the last place on earth that haggling skills would work. Learning to haggle with a Chinese shop owner in an international airport is a bit like learning to play chess with IBM’s Deep Blue set on Annihilate Opponent.
Russel Brand has a very funny routine about why Indians and Chinese cannot do business together. By nature the Indian consumer cannot buy without getting a bargain, and by nature the Chinese businessman cannot give a bargain. He does a great imitation of a Chinese shop owner outraged by the idea of coming down a dollar. “You could buy a whole other item at a Dollar Store with that!” he shouts.
But I’ve got time and don’t mind losing. If I can’t get a deal, the currency exchange booth is right across the way.
Sadly, I’m flying out of Terminal 2, the older and smaller terminal that doesn’t have many shops. I first check out the tea shop, but they have two types only and neither smell very good. But there is a chopstick store with some really beautiful sets. I think to myself, with a few hundred yuan I could buy at least a baker’s dozen of nice chopstick sets. I can get enough sets to cover the next three Christmases in one shot!
I walk up to the shop and a young sales girl approaches. She obviously sees a soft target. White Westerner = Rich + Stupid. So she smiles broadly and says “Hello” with great excitement in her best high school English. I think, Easy Target! The young ones are not nearly as experienced as the old in the art of resisting the haggle. I will contemplate each set of chopsticks very carefully, talk with her and build guanxi—that special Chinese business relationship. She will eventually like me, and when I offer less than the list price with a story about starving children at home, she will relent and pay the balance out of her own pocket. And I will walk away victorious in the art of haggling. You might say this is cruel, like taking money from children. But the Chinese are born pretty tough at retail, so I figure we’re about evenly matched.
I begin the dance. I look carefully at every set, one after the other, and there are hundreds of sets. Most are crudely done but some are lovely. Many have the rough-at-the-edges and wrapped in plastic look of early post-communist manufacturing, but other sets have charm and whimsy. The prices are staggering, ranging from 38RMB for the cheapest single pair to 3998RMB for a set of 8 that appear to be made of ebony with gold lions on top. Everything is in Chinese, so I despair to get details of manufacture or history. So I look for something I like. There are fish, historical figures, floral designs, intricate geometric patterns, plain and modern, extremely ornate, you name it. And there are three sets of Chairman Mao chopsticks with such sayings as “Nice people don’t become heroes.”
The young sales lady follows me like a shadow. There's nothing else to do, after all. I try my best Chinese on her and she smiles excitedly. She tries her best English back. We’re both equally incompetent and laugh about it, we’re just too, too silly. I get out my phrase book and she studies it with me. She tells me incomprehensible things about each set of chopsticks and laughs when I say “wo bu dong,” I don’t understand. One set of chopsticks has fish on it. We find the word for “fish” in the guidebook and laugh. It’s all so commercially happy and in spite of that genuinely fun.
After a good hour of this, I reach the last set of chopsticks. A few were very interesting, but none stood out and I was in a dangerous position in the game—I had not made up my mind and I did not know how many yuan were in my pocket.
I put the second part of my plan into action--walk away. I tell the sales girl “I come back,” and off I go. The first step was to make a friend, you see. Now when I come back, I’ll prove I’m a faithful customer. She’ll feel obliged to give me a discount. Ha. I am a shopping genius.
I wander over to the toilets where I count my cash in a stall. I have exactly 744.50RMB left in my wallet. That’s enough to get one good set or two nice sets of two. There go my Christmas stock plans. So one for the family and one for friends? The Mao set would be funny once, but they don’t look very good. So I go back with the intention of getting single set for the family--there was a nice set on one side, but I couldn’t recall the price.
The girl beams at me as I come up and I go through the chopsticks again. But within minutes she stands to one side and an old crone comes out of nowhere and starts starts explaining the set I’m looking at in Chinese. I wilt. All my guanxi is gone! I’ll have to start over again with her, and she looks like a tough bird.
But it was dreaming to think I could bargain with the younger one. She’d have had to go to her supervisor anyway.
It's time to build up more guanxi. I let the old lady rattle on, smiling at her, occasionally saying “wo bu dong,” I don’t understand or “wo dong,” I understand, shaking my head with appreciation. She just keeps rattling on, but seems pleased to have an audience.
She is obviously giving me the precise sales pitch she learned in 1980 when Deng opened up the country to rich long noses. There’s a certain cadence, deaf to my reactions, that indicates customer comprehension is not necessary or even desirable. Each set of chopsticks has a sales pitch and it must be delivered if interest is shown.
I spot the set I want—one with very cool horses and historical figures etched in metal tops—and it’s 798RMB. Pefect! A 50RMB discount, about 7%, seems a reach, but possible for a first-time haggling victory.
First I first point to a set that’s 200RMB and listen for 5 minutes to the story. Then to another set that’s 400RMB and listen for 5 minutes to the story. I smile at the old lady, ask questions in English, try my best Chinese, smile some more and occasionally she does slip out of her banter to smile back. But then I feign surprise at the 798RMB set and point and tell her that one! I’ll buy it! She seems very pleased that I have such expensive taste.
But then I show her my yuan, and count it out with her. I explain that’s all I have. I have no more. Will she make a bargain? This old lady wasn’t born yesterday and she’s not about to get pipped by a squeak like me. She smiles and indicates, with a calculator, the precise 53.50RMB difference, and that this isn’t acceptable. Just not acceptable. No, she shakes her head slowly, sadly. And points to the calculator.
But this is just the start of the evening. I have three more hours until my flight and I plan on using every last one of them to get her to budge to 744.50RMB. I open my wallet and show it is empty. She sees and points to the calculator. I say “qing,” please. She points to the calculator. I find some spare change in my pocket, 2RMB and up the ante to a mere 51.50RMB difference. She points to the calculator. I joke with her and she smiles and points to the calculator. Only 51.50RMB to go, Mister
Then she leaves the counter and looks through the chopsticks. She suggests taking a low quality Mao set for 498RMB, but I protest that I love the set on the counter. She doesn’t understand but gets it that I don’t want the Mao set.
Then she suggests I use my credit card to pay the final 51.50RMB and I say no without comment. I put the cash on the counter and say “qing” again. She points to the calculator. She finds another set, this time 698RMB and offers it to me, but no, I love the other one.
I deploy the best bargaining chip I have: I don’t go away.
She fiddles with the calculator and points to 8.32 and says “dollar!” I say, no, I don’t have and open my empty wallet again. The young sales girl begins to fret. She is concerned for me and starts to say “ohhh” in a mournful way when I show my empty wallet. I point to the cash on the counter and say “bargain qing?” and the old lady point to the 8.32 on the calculator. Then she gets rid of that number and makes it 51.50RMB again.
I stand there looking at her. She stands there shaking her head. The minutes tick by. We then stare into the distance. You can hear the tumbleweeds rolls by.
She breaks the tension by pointing to the Currency Exchange booth directly across the hall from the chopstick shop. “Dollar RMB” she says. I look over there and say no, I don’t want to.
More silence follows.
I look through my book and find the Chinese word for beautiful, “hao kan” and point to the chopsticks, which on second glance look kind of bent and I wonder if they’re plastic. The old lady nods and smiles and points to 51.50 on her calculator. The young sales girl brings over another set, very nice, for 598RMB, but they’re ugly as sin. I shake my head and say “hao kan,” pointing at the set on the table.
The minutes tick by and I wonder if I’m having my ass handed to me on a plate.
I try one more “qing” and get a smile and a shaking head from the old lady. OK. It is time to try the last tool in the old arsenal. I deploy the only bargaining chip I have left: I go away.
I say “xie xie,” thank you and “wo jidao,” I understand. I take my cash off the counter, smile at the young sales girl, thank her as well with nearly a tear in my eye, and turn to go. The old lady nods and watches the cash leave the counter.
I walk off slowly, ears pricked behind me, but don’t hear a word. I keep moving but nothing. I get 50 ft. away and think, shit, I just got my ass handed to me royally. Well, at least I had good fun trying to buy the darn things. The biggest problem now is that to change my yuan back to dollars (if that’s possible), I have to go to the currency exchange booth directly opposite the shop. I will have had my ass handed to me and look like an idiot. I hear the lesson learned ringing in my ears: don’t try to f___ with little old Chinese retail ladies.
Then the young sales girl comes running up, looks me in the eye and nods with a huge smile. She points back at the booth, smiling and nodding. Victory! I come back to the booth and the little old lady, looking only at the counter with the sourest expression I’ve seen in a long time on her face, puts her hand out. I give her the cash, even the change in my pocket and thank her many times “tai xie xie nie le,” thank you very much to them both. I take my chopsticks, put them in my luggage and wheel off with many waves and smiles from the young sales girl, the proud new owner of a 7% discount.
When I get home, I am half tempted to never open the box. If I do and on close examination find the chopsticks are cheap plastic and worth about $0.75, my victory will become proverbially hollow. But as long as I don’t know how good they really are, I can boast of my haggling prowess.
Just call me Mr. 7%