In the morning, Professor Mitcham and a group of students (including myself) went to see the corpse of Chairman Mao. The idea of preserving a corpse and displaying it publicly seems ridiculous to an American, even the Chinese Still, there we were standing in line with thousands of other Chinese for nearly two hours that zigged and zagged all across an area of Tien’amen square. The constant barrage of Chinese with bullhorns yelling in Chinese for us to ‘keep moving!’ was distracting, though by the end I could mock it well to a few chuckles from the Chinese around our group. Mao’s corpse is held inside a rather large building that looks like the entrance to a large museum, except only for one man. The security was tighter than any of the other locations we had visited, hands down. We went through multiple security screens, and x-ray checkpoints.
The viewing is short; you are only allowed 10 seconds in the room with Mao. He is behind thick glass with a glowing yellow light on his face as he lies in a wood coffin-like structure with the rest of his body from the waste down under the lid. The mood in the room is eerie and somber, but mostly respectful. All of us agreed his corpse looked fake, like a wax figurine. We also considered the possibility his body is heavily preserved, but as in most things in life, the simplest answer is likely the correct one. It was an interesting experience that I can say “yup, I did that,” but one I would be unlikely to repeat on a subsequent trip to China.
Next a few of us caught the Metro to meet up Wan Nan for a trip to the foreign market shopping mall so we could all pick up souvenirs for our family and friends. The place had 6 floors packed wall to wall with the best knock-offs I’ve ever seen; the loose Chinese trademark law in obvious effect. We found it interesting that none of the items had the typical “Made in China” markings typical of goods made in China for export.
The rule of thumb with the Chinese in most of the shops, according to our guide, was to offer 1/6th of the price or more as a starting point, and never agree to anything under 1/3rd of the starting price. It seemed strange at first, almost insulting offering someone 1/6 of their asking price. The Chinese are excellent barters and worse than car salesman in trying to extract as much capital from your wallet as possible if you’re unknowing of the cost of products.
There seemed to be at least two or three distinct economic systems at a play in the this ‘mall.’ The vendors seemed to have colluded to a degree in that the prices were ridiculously high, but for all vendors. In economics this is something like “price protection” and the organization collusion a form of a “cartel”. Price collusion is illegal in the US as it encourages inflated market values as well as monopolistic market behavior. The initial prices reflected this theory, though once bartering started, the market value determination system seemed to play a bigger role.

A ‘transaction’ should go something like this:
You look at product you are somewhat interested in, say a dragon figurine. The Chinese sales person, watching you like a hawk, jumps in and begins her sales pitch (I just realized, the majority of the vendors were women). So the game starts. The first tactic is to tell you how ‘authentic’ the item is. They then demonstrate the products ‘authenticity’ by placing a lighter flame under the item. I assume they are trying to show it’s not plastic or polyethylene, thinking somehow America engineering students from Mines are idiots.

The next tactic is to tell you how much you like it. This one always made me laugh out loud. I think I know how much I like something; it’s me after all. You then ask their asking price and, hoping you are an idiot, they offer something like 800 Yuan. (the exchange rate is around 6.4 so we typically would use a ‘divide by 6’ to convert to American dollars as a rough guess). So at $133 dollars using the guess formula, your first reaction should be a genuine laugh-out-loud, (or a simulated one, works well on the stuff you have no IDEA what it should cost).

Recognizing you don’t have the mental capacity of a vegetable, but being hopefully optimistic that you are mildly idiotic, they drop the price 100 Yuan saying “I will give you a discount, you’re my first customer of the day!” (even though someone else in your group just picked something up from the store). Laugh again. Then counter offer at something around 1/12h of the price. This is difficult at first because it seems insulting and ridiculous, but it will become easier with some practice. What happens next varies widely. Sometimes they will act insulted and tell you how authentic their product is, and that their ‘family’ will lose money on the transaction. Others will laugh (much like you did initially) and say ‘you must have a fever!’ Some will say their shop is too expensive for you, or that you don’t understand how much it takes to make something. Others will say, “you must be joking! I will lose money!” The good ones will just tell you to leave, and grab you last second or ‘call a manager.’ After a few minutes of them groaning, they ask, “what is your final price, final price!?” You should repeat what you said, or maybe give a 10 Yuan bump.

The vendor will not appreciate your stubbornness, trying to ask you for a better final price. This is when you put the item down, and say, “I wasn’t THAT interested in this, I was just looking, thank you!” very politely and start leaving the store. Walk slowly away and listen for the exponential drop in price that is proportional to your distance away from the store. In the first 3 seconds, of you leaving, the price will drop 1/2th of the original. A few seconds later, another 1/2 goes. Within a few more steps, they finally say “Ok, I will do your deal!” Some of the vendors snap out of their hard sales mode and become very friendly, other’s stay a bit angry that they couldn’t extract more of your wallet. The trick is to not be too attached to whatever you are looking at. This would never fly in an American store; the price is the price.

What I also found was that before the sale, there is little honesty. Every ‘price’ they tell you is their ‘best price,’ and all of them try to convince you things are ‘real stone’ when they are not, or a ‘real’ bag when it’s obviously a knock off. However, after the sale, I can hand the vendor large bills and expect exact change. The Chinese think of the transactions as a sort of game in and of itself but once the transaction is complete, the majority show their true kind personalities and were for the most part quite lovely. Finalizing the price was always my favorite part, after wards we were almost as friends, and they would tell me of their family, ask about our trip, and seem genuinely interested. We would laugh and enjoy one another’s company, much like the experiences we had with the academic elite at DUT as well as the very lovely Chinese people on the streets.

The curious element in the whole shopping ordeal is the very high starting price. No one pays it, so there should be downward pressure on the price from the consumer to purchase the good. A store selling 10% over cost would make a killing in a market like that, selling out entire stocks of goods. But with the agreement of the vendor ‘cartels,’ there seems to be a unanimous agreement not to do this. There must be some incentive to do so, perhaps unsuspecting shoppers are caught in the snare of the high price at the top of the supply/demand curve, thus allowing for a much larger extraction of consumer surplus. Today was the day the words our friends from the Brooklyn’s bar spoke really seemed to take hold. To an extent they were right, these guys are ruthless in business.
Even with the inflated starting prices, the goods are incredibly cheap. We picked up excellent knock-off shoes of Nike, Ecco, and Addidas for less than $12 US. T-shirts were in the $5 US range. We picked up 5ft scroll paintings, originally painted (but copies of master works) for $7 US. In the end both vendor and customer felt they were getting very good deals. My final advice is to go in groups. Once one person does the haggle work to get a reasonable price, the Chinese will accept this same from any friends of the haggler, thus saving you lots of work! These bargaining techniques are required in all the shops, but did not apply to the grocery market stores. I couldn’t imagine how difficult doing actual multi-million dollar deals would be. You would absolutely need to know your products and be able to call a bluff when you see one. Poker players should consult businessmen working in China apparently :).

Zai Jian,

Roy

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