The art of a bargain is a skill that one can fine tune and develop while in China. However, just like certain ballerinas who can spin better than all the other lazy ballerinas who just don’t want to get dizzy, or some writers can just think of a magical world where 11-year-olds get sent letters to come and join a magical school whereas others can only think of a story about vampires and werewolves, there are some with a natural knack for bargaining that others simply do not have.
A good bargainer must be ruthless, willing to constantly insult the store owner by proposing obscenely low prices for the items that they are selling. You want 50,000 RMB for that painting? That’s nice. How about 10?
In a contained bargaining environment, it is easy to go through the routine of a bargain. The store owner suggests a price, you haggle, you joke, you ask them whether they are ripping you off because you are white. They chuckle, nod their head and say yes, but since you were willing to ask that question, they can at least give you the “white girl that speaks Chinese” price. How kind.
It is obvious what to do in a market. What is not so obvious is how and when it is acceptable to bargain in other places. At the bike store, the owner wouldn’t have it. Stop being ridiculous, he indicated, when I pleadingly asked him with my best “Help me I’m poor” puppy eyes whether he could lower the price. Didn’t work. He told me I was full of it as I stood there with my iPhone and Starbucks cup of coffee…maybe should have thought of that small detail beforehand.
But then some places are unexpected bargaining places. And the one that comes to mind is my gym. Wills is bargaining central. They even have people designated in their work to just haggle away with potential customers each day. And it happens…Every. Single. Day.
When I first arrived at Wills for a tour, I thought – Oh how lovely, a nice sitting area for people to relax in and take a break from their workouts. Wrong. This area is bargain central. The potential customers are lured in here. Then John Chen, the man of the hour with his “shuai ge” tendencies – look it up if you don’t speak Chinese! – will come on over in his Will’s uniform, flip his hair around a little bit, offer up a corner smile, and then get to work. John is also always paired with the ladies when it comes to bargaining.
They first bring out a glossy page with ridiculous prices. Six months membership at Wills? For the bargain price of 4188 (note the 8 pricing because it’s lucky in China), you can experience the classes, machines, and hip Western culture that is provided at Will’s. Who wouldn’t want to pay almost 700 dollars for a six month membership?
Then, John whips out a pen and paper out of nowhere. Totally random numbers are thrown down on the page. After a bunch of scathing looks on the customers’ end, John concedes and writes down a more reasonable price. Then the free stuff offers start coming in.
John: We will throw in a pair of Will’s socks!
Customer: FAIL. Pathetic attempt at bribery, John. Try again.
John: How about a Wills gym bag?
Customer: Getting better. What else you got?
John: How about an 850 RMB gift card and a Wills gym bag filled with free swag from Adidas?
Customer: THAT’S MORE LIKE IT.
So the bargaining continues as we are watched by the people who had already been lured into buying a membership through John’s good lucks and pleasant charm. We settle on a price, about half of the original 4188 proposed amount, get our memberships, and go on our merry way.
I plan on taking this technique with me when I return to the States and re-sign up for a Planet Fitness membership. You want me to pay TEN WHOLE DOLLARS A MONTH for a membership? Absurd. Where is your John so I can tell him I will only pay ONE DOLLAR and I sure as heck better be getting some free t-shirts, water bottles, and PF bags with that thank you very much.
Somehow I don’t think that would fly, and that is what makes being in China – a place where you can indeed Bargain For Will – such an entertaining place to live.