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8 things you should know about Chinese shopping culture

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The truth is, I hate shopping. But something happens when I go to
China. Something in the air — either the around-the-clock manufacturing
or the settling dust of a run-away economy – turns me into a
rabid consumer.

Cute eyeglass frames for $15 USD each. Wooden buttons shaped like
elephants. Ceramic buttons painted like porcelain. Tibetan prayer bowls.
Cellphone covers for every day of the week.

Some may ask whether I actually needed the same linen balloon pants in three different earth-tone colors.

Honestly? I really did. Because I was on my China shopping spree.

China isn’t simply about the Great Wall or 5,000 years of
history. With its economic development, China has become a major
shopping destination with its own unique flair.

The Guomao district in Beijing, home of the China World Shopping
Mall, features such storefronts as Louis Vuitton, Burberry, and Prada.

For me, however, these sterile fluorescent halls with their white
mannequins have never held quite as much appeal as China’s other
shopping venues.

Packed antique stalls, bustling night markets, and shopping centers
divided into booths of different vendors with the same merchandise.
That's what I'm here for.

For those inadequately prepared, however, shopping in China can be a
complete nightmare. There are certain things you'll have to know to
survive your first few shopping experiences.

1. Understand the discount system

Shopping centers in China will often post sale signs advertising dă zhé (打折), such as “打2折 (dǎ 2 zhé)” or “打 8 折 (dǎ 8 zhé).”

Instead of posting the percentage of the discount, these signs tell
you the percentage of the original price you are expected to pay.

So “打2折 (dǎ 2 zhé)” means you will pay 20 percent of the original
price (for an 80% discount) and “打8折 (dǎ 8 zhé)” means you will pay 80
percent of the original price (for a 20% discount).

I found this incredibly confusing at first, but just remember: A lower number means a better deal.

You may also encounter the phrase "…zhé qĭ (折起)", such as “2折起
(2 zhé qĭ),” which means you can get discounts up to 2 zhé, or up to 80
percent off.

2. Sometimes people will follow you

I was seven years old on my first trip to China when this happened to
me. A salesperson trying to convince my mother that I needed a pair of
khaki pants followed us for several hundred feet.

Depending on where you are, sales associates will be terrifyingly tenacious when dealing with weak-willed customers.

You'll need to be equally tenacious when you're bargaining to get a good deal.

3. It's easy to get exactly what you want

One of the best things about shopping in China is getting your purchases customized.

Jewelry stores often display strings of beads that can be bought and transformed into whatever shapes and patterns you please.

Fabrics of your choice can be brought to a tailor, along with a pattern, photo, or sample of what you want made.

Friends of mine have purchased silk-lined suits, cloth cargo shorts, and even a wedding dress custom-made this way.

4. Most vendors only accept cash

While modern shopping centers typically accept credit cards, you will
definitely want to carry cash when you shop off the beaten path.

In general, most Chinese people tend to carry cash rather than rely on plastic.

5. You'll get tons of receipts

Often, when you shop in different departments of a large store, each
sales associate you encounter will write down your purchases on a small
piece of paper. This is a called a fā piào (发票), or receipt.

Seemingly insignificant, these little slips of paper have become an
important part of China’s invoicing and taxation process since the late
1980s.

Properly issued invoices should have a number and a government stamp,
but there is quite a bit of fraud and an entire black market around
these squares of paper.

For the most part, however, shoppers only need to worry about
bringing all their receipts to the cashier counter where they can
finally check out, and receive yet another receipt.

6. Vendors expect you to bargain

Modern shopping malls generally have set prices that can’t be
negotiated, but vendors at night markets, antique stalls, or personal
booths at other shopping centers usually expect customers to question
their prices.

But bargaining and haggling isn’t just procedure. It’s an artform.
You can see how real Chinese people bargain in a Yoyo Chinese premium
video and learn a few phrases to get a good deal.

I've listed a few phrases below this video, too, so you'll have more to work with!

How much is it?
duō shăo qián?
多少钱? 

Too expensive! (This should be the first response to any price.)
tài guì le!
太贵了

Let me think about it
wŏ xiăng yi xiăng
我想一想

Can you make it a little cheaper?
néng pián yì yì diăn ma?
能便宜一点吗 

I don’t want it
bú yào le 
不要了

7. It's okay to talk with your hands

If you are still brushing up on vocabulary, consider learning a bit of sign language instead.

Chinese number gestures allow you to use one hand to signal the numbers one through ten, a “handy” way of naming your price.

Because Chinese dialect is so varied, merchants across the country
have long relied on these number gestures to communicate with one
another.

If you don't know these hand signals, see some unbelievably
adorable local Chinese children show you with this free Yoyo Chinese
video:

8. Knockoffs as far as the eye can see

Depending on who you are, fake merchandise can be the highlight of or the bane of shopping in China.

Either way, it’s always good to double-check quality. Read any
letterings or labels for spelling errors, and check the stitching and
seams for loose threads or unraveling.

Also make sure that colors and materials match up. Jade, pearls, and other precious stones can be brought to an appraiser.

Shopping in China can be fun if you know what you're doing. It takes
practice and a thick skin to get what you want at the price you want
it. 

Just remember that vendors expect customers to bargain. If you can't
get the price you're looking for, chances are, you can find the exact
same thing in another vendor's stall. 

When you've finished shopping for yourself, don't forget about your
friends and family back home! Handcrafted kites, embroidered shoes, and
feathered Chinese hacky sacks make great gifts for children. 

Women may appreciate silk scarves, jewelry, or lipstick cases with decorated compact mirrors.

For the home decorator, there are wooden boat models, calligraphy scrolls, handmade pottery, and ornamental compasses.

What’s your favorite unnecessary purchase? (Have I mentioned
my elephant lamp that lights up when you press its belly button?) And do
you have any great bargaining strategies? Share in the comments below!

2016-06-23

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