When it comes to shopping, there are so many ways in which the final price of an item is determined, and every country seem to have its own rules and preferences, e.g., membership and other discounts, coupons, special sales events, bargaining.
So how do you get a good price when shopping in Beijing?
As in many Asian countries, haggling over a price is quite common. But so are different types of discounts and sales.
When and how to bargain
In many stores and markets in China you can bargain. In some markets, bargaining is even a necessity, if you don’t want to overpay.
The range of price reduction you can achieve through haggling varies widely. In markets geared towards foreign tourists, sellers often build in a huge margin. In other markets, you may not be able to get the price down more than 10-20%, if that much at all. It is important to know beforehand the real value of the item you want to buy. Check out my tips on bargaining in markets to learn more.
How to get a discount in stores and malls
Regular stores usually have all items marked with a price tag. That does not necessarily mean that all those prices are final.
In small stores, you can always ask if the clothing or item you are interested in has a discount (zhè jiàn yīfu / zhè ge dōngxī dǎ zhé ma? 这件衣服 / 这个东西打折吗?). Sometimes there is some room for negotiation. In big brand stores and department stores, there is usually no discount available other than what is already marked. But it never hurts to ask – you may be surprised.
Often it is enough to politely say that an item is too expensive and put it back on the shelf for the sales person to offer up a discount, if there is room for negotiation. Especially for Western brands, which are often priced at a premium here in China. When I know that the same item costs less in the US, I tell them with a smile how much it would cost to buy it there. They may try to match that price.
Buying things on sale
As most countries, China has big seasonal sales, e.g. for clothing, and many smaller sales events throughout the year. Items on sale are usually clearly marked with big signs but the signs are not always in English and read a bit different than you might expect. A sign saying 8 折 means 20% off, 8.5 折 means 15% off. (The photo shows a 30% off sales event.)
The reduced price is not always marked on the price tag. Often you have to do the math yourself, or an eager sales person is doing it for you. Pocket calculators are commonly used.
For smaller items there are sometimes “buy one, get one free” type of sales: 买一个, 送一个 (mǎi yí gè, sòng yí gè) or similar “buy this, get that for free” sales where a freebie is given with certain sales items. You can often find this in supermarkets where multiple items are bundled together but you only pay for some of them. A small sticker usually explains the bundle, e.g. you pay for 3 items and get 1 for free.
Discounts for prepaid
It is very common in China to use prepaid cards for almost everything, from your cell phone and utilities, to dry cleaning, even hair cuts and many other things. If you prepay a higher amount you will receive a higher discount on each item or transaction. This works pretty well for paying for your mobile phone and for services that you use regularly.
But keep in mind that the hair salon, where you just plunked down enough money for 10 haircuts on their card, may not be around long enough, or you move to a different neighborhood and will no longer use their service. Usually you can’t return the card for a refund.
Shopping like a Chinese pro
I hope this gives you an overview on getting good shopping deals while living in Beijing. I know in the beginning I was often unsure when to take the marked price as a given, and where it is appropriate or even expected to bargain. Or how to read and understand any special deals and sales. I’m sure I am still paying more than a hard charging local but I feel more confident about the whole process.