Monday, April 28, 2008

The art of haggling

Backdated entry, written May 6, 2008, 7:49 p.m.

Today Jiuma picked me up and whisked me into the car of her friend, Zhang Ting, to go to Golden Key International Furniture Plaza in Hebei, about an hour and a half away from Beijing. If I had known I was being taken to a furniture store to buy a bed and cabinet/desk combo for Zhang Ting's two-year-old son, I would have protested furiously.

Let me note here, for the record, that I don't like Zhang Ting. She's in her mid-40s yet acts about 12. Her mannerisms befit someone who hasn't figured out the world doesn't revolve around her, and while her diction is slightly more sophisticated than that of valley girls, her style of delivery is exactly that of a bratty prom queen wannabe on MTV. She's not afraid to speak her mind -- to offend, in other words -- yet I doubt she's expressed an informed opinion in her life. She's also judgmental and sort of a prude. If I were a different person and this were, say, a G-chat conversation, I'd call her a cunt.

She has the potential to be helpful in the near future -- she's Jiuma's best friend, and as a favor to Jiuma said she'd get me an interview with one of the Beijing Olympic Committee's bosses (I did not ask for this, by the way) -- but after spending one day with her, I've had just about enough. I can tell she's full of resentment, for Westerners in general and me specifically, and thinks nothing of my abilities. I wouldn't put it past her to sabotage this future, supposed meeting. She's deduced that I hold liberal, anti-Chinese ideas and comprehend nothing of Chinese culture, all because my language skills are, in her words, "this pathetic."

(Actually, the exchange went something like this while we were in the car driving up to Hebei, me completely unsuspecting that we'd be in this car for nearly two hours:

Her: "So, is your Chinese really this pathetic?"

Me, daring her to challenge me again: "Pretty much.")

At dinner in Hebei, at a supposedly famous Chinese meat-pancake place, Ting said, "Your Chinese is inadequate. You may not like to hear this hard truth, but there it is. People are going to resent you." I wanted to reply, "Like who, you?" I bit my tongue instead.

The bed we decided on, after a few hours of shopping, was priced at 10,500 Yuan. That's when Jiuma went to work on the poor saleswoman.

I should point out that in China, even in gigantic retail stores, you can haggle with almost anyone. Every salesperson in the store, I can assure you, has been trained rigorously in this art. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a school for just this sort of thing, where you'd be required to take classes on both the affirmative and negative. No one, however, would be able to beat Zhen Yi (my jiuma).

"What brand is this?" she asked.

The saleswoman explained it was from Austria. "Let me speak honestly," she said. "On any of these four floors, you won't find a more authentic wood than this."

Zhen Yi, not missing a beat, told her all about Austrian wood and, politely but firmly, said she knew exactly how much it was worth, and it wasn't worth that much.

"Is that so? Have you been to Austria?"

"I have. Stopped by once for business. Was there a week, and had a bad experience. Let me tell you, I don't much care for Austria," then proceeded to rattle off a list of complaints.

"Is that so?"

The talk went on, politely, for another minute, at which point the saleswoman pulled out her trump card. "Let's stop bargaining... let me give you the lowest price: 10,500. And we'll throw in those covers."

I thought that'd be the end, but Zhen Yi didn't budge. "How about 9,500?" she offered.

This opened up the talks anew, and I don't know how, but over the course of the conversation Zhen Yi suggested to the saleswoman that she sell us this set -- bed, table, cabinet, plus the covers thrown in -- for 9,200. The salesperson wouldn't budge, and so we got up to leave.

Walking behind the three women -- Zheng Yi, Zhang Ting and the saleswoman -- I got the sinking suspicion that Jiuma would get her way. I didn't feel good about this, because I could see the gears churning in the poor saleswoman's head, the specter of defeat trapping her in a corner, forcing her to sell the furniture at a price much lower than she possibly could have imagined or risk losing these potential customers and not selling anything at all.

We came out of the display area and had the elevator in sight when Zhen Yi spoke. "9,200 and we'll take it. We won't have wasted a trip, you won't have wasted your time." Zhen Yi and Zhang Ting shared an exchange where both agreed you could get cheaper furniture in Beijing, which was an absolute lie that no one believed... except the saleswoman believed they believed it.

"Let me ask my manager, she's standing right there," the saleswoman said. And that's when I knew it was over.

The manager looked over the numbers on the clipboard. She looked at us, knowing this was their last chance. "We'll consider this a holiday price," she said, and Jiuma spun around with the slyest smile.

There was one last adventure, however. They wanted all the money upfront -- store policy, the saleswoman said -- and Zhen Yi and Zhang Ting wouldn't do it. Would not budge an inch from the 1,000 they were willing to pay now, rest when the furniture gets delivered. At this point the talk got heated, though manners were still in place. "Let me speak honestly," the saleswoman said, digging into her same bag of tricks. But she could say nothing to change Zhen Yi's mind. The conversation, starting and stalling, sputtering fumes, went on and on.

"You have your policy, we have ours," Zhen Yi said.

And so, for the second time, we walked to the elevator, and this time we pressed the button. Just as we were about to enter, it was the saleswoman who spoke up this time.

"Let me call my manager."

"It's like this," she said into the phone, "if we make them pay everything upfront, they're going to leave, and that's that. If we let them pay just 1,000 for now, they'll take it."

I think you already know who prevailed.

I pulled Jiuma aside during this process and asked if it was really necessary to demand that we don't pay upfront. She assured me that in China, even at the equivalent of Nebraska Furniture Mart, a company could pull a fast one on its consumers, deliver fake wood, that sort of thing. And so it was.

Later in the car, Jiuma was positively giddy. "I was thinking, 9,500 and I'll have won, 9,200 and I'll have made a profit."

"Did you ever think you'd lose?" I asked.

"Nah," she said. "They couldn't possibly have let us walk out."

And so it is. In China, a country in transition, it appears to still be a buyers' market. The consumer still has a lot of the power, and skilled hagglers can squeeze lemons out of lemonade.

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