The Chinese market shopping experience (pearls, home goods, clothing and accessories and “the fakes”) is its own kind of dynamic retail. In a country of 1.3 billion people, finding jobs and making money is not an easy thing to do. Couple that with a culture (and history) of commerce meets corruption and counterfeit, the lack of physical space in crowded cities, and a language so different and difficult for nearly all foreigners and the stage is set.
Frenetic, slightly ‘sketchy’ vendor markets with aggressive “sales people” and language barriers that make the back and forth on price nearly impossible are certainly not unique to the Chinese market experience. And let’s face it: the experience itself can be a big part of the fun of any foreign travel. Haggling for a treasure in a foreign place and in a foreign tongue is the stuff of travel memories. These items become our trophies and proof positive that we are excellent and intrepid shoppers! Ha.
But to enjoy the market shopping in Shanghai one must go into it with the right perspective. Westerners need to adapt their notions about personal space, rethink what constitutes aggression, and reconsider the whole concept of customer service. Think Hunger Games meets the Amazing Race crossed with Deal or No Deal and you will begin to get closer in your head to the experience you will have.
We entered the first market (the wholesale market that sells to anyone) and we were swarmed. Everyone was excitedly asking (screaming, really) WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FOR, LADY? (in clearly comprehendible English). Shoving printed brochures at us with blurry photos of knock-off Gucci bags and Rolex watches. We politely said “no thanks” and kept walking. They kept walking too, very close behind, kept asking and nudging. We plotted how to lose them down the next crowded aisle of stuff. For the record, it makes it hard to shop when you are feeling the urge to run!
Eventually, though, they give up and whatever fear might have existed in us was quickly replaced by the familiar comfort of retail therapy in a discount environment! As in other countries where haggling is a way of life, such as Morrocco, once a price is set by the seller (usually by typing into a calculator and showing you) you cut the number in half and if they don’t honor your price, you walk away (because they will eventually honor your price!). And this applied to the people selling the fake watches and handbags as well as those selling much more expensive, high-end jewelry in the same locations.
The well rehearsed back and forth seems so silly to me. These people are not stupid, quite the opposite. They are hard working and enterprising and certainly all speak more English than I did Chinese! They know what my guidebook told me to do! I imagined they simply typed into their calculators double the price they wanted, so the games could begin and they would come out whole.
I survived and even thrived in the markets of Shanghai. I have a few pair of sunglasses, some silk pajamas, and a string of fresh water pearls to show for it. Did I pay a ‘fair’ price? Who knows? And to some extent, who cares? The price seemed fair to me for what I was buying and the seller seemed happy after our sparing match was over and a price was decided.
In a sea of merchandise sameness and after the chase, how did I choose which stall to buy my treasures? I picked the same way I choose a sales person at a department store in NYC: the one who was the least aggressive and pushy and who seemed the friendliest.
I just had to alter my Western understanding of those descriptors to fit the situation. It was fun.