How NOT to Shop at the Silk Market
The basement floor of Beijing’s Silk Market is a jungle of accessories. Belts dangle above your head, purses bulge from every corner and wallets are jammed into boxes. Everything looks the same, probably because it is the same. Each stall has basically the same handbags as the stall next to it, in an identical range of colors.
That didn’t stop me from wanting to walk past every booth, just in case the next one had something different.
Here’s a tip: it doesn’t.
If you see something you want, stop right there and start haggling.
MISTAKE #1: Window shopping
Shopping in the silk market is not a leisure activity. It’s a mission. If you must see what each stall is selling, be discreet. Keep moving and never, ever touch anything until you think you are ready to buy.
A fake Ferragamo handbag caught my eye, so I stopped to look at it. Within seconds, a girl had placed it on my arm, directed me to a mirror, and laid out a dozen more colors for me to look at.
“Ok, no thanks,” I said, untangling myself from the straps.
“I give you good price,” she said, looping the bag over my other arm. “What you want to pay?”
“No, thank you.”
“You my first customer,” she insisted. “Good price.”
“I don’t want it,” I explained.
“What you like?” She kept me in the corner and thrust other bags in my face. “You like Louis Vuitton? You like Prada?”
“No!” I wriggled away, holding tight to my own bag.
“Good price,” she roared. “You crazy lady.”
My escape was a further blow to her self esteem – some vendors consider it to be bad luck if the first customer of the day leaves without making a purchase.
MISTAKE #2: Comparing prices
I was 90% sure I was ready to buy a grey Chloé bag and a blue Tod’s wallet. Both fake – the brands were of little consequence to me. I just needed a new wallet, and hey, why not get a handbag too?
I should have walked into the next stall, found the items I was looking for, and haggled down to my price.
I didn’t do that.
I went into three stalls.
The first seller started at roughly $60 for the bag and wallet. She eventually came down to $10.
Convinced I could get a better price elsewhere, I said no.
The next two stalls offered me $15 and $13. I realized that I was on a wild goose chase and decided to return to the first seller.
This is not how business works in the silk market. Why was I willing to start the whole haggling process from square one, all for a couple of dollars?
Because sometimes, I’m an idiot. I got caught up in the hectic market atmosphere, turned it into a game and lost my head.
MISTAKE #3: Returning to the wrong vendor
Markets are pretty much Jared’s 10th circle of hell. For nearly an hour, I had been changing my mind and backing out of purchases. It was crowded. We were tired. I could sense that his fuse was nearly up.
“I think this is it,” I said, stopping at a familiar-looking stall.
“I’ll wait here,” he said, sitting on a miniature stool next to the bags.
A girl appeared. “What you like?”
“This,” I said, pulling the bag down, “and this.” I plucked the wallet out of a plastic box.”How much?”
She perked up. I looked like a sure thing. “For you, good price.” She pulled out a calculator, and I realized something.
This was the wrong place. It was the girl who had turned petulant when I walked away before.
“475 yuan.” That was about 75 US dollars. “Good price.”
“Too expensive,” I said. “30 yuan.” Five dollars.
She scoffed. “This designer! I no can do 30 yuan.” She jabbed at the calculator. “250. Best price.”
We continued to haggle. She refused to go below $15, and I refused to go above $10.
“Too expensive,” I said, and turned to leave.
Usually this final act of departure is when the seller drops their price for the last time. Unfortunately, in this case, it meant serious bad karma – her ‘first’ customer was walking away for the second time, still empty-handed.
She grabbed my wrists. “You buy!” Flecks of spit landed on my face.
I tugged away, but she wouldn’t let go. “No,” I said, squirming. “Too expensive.”
“You crazy lady!” She was shouting now, and still clenching my wrists.
“Let me go,” I shouted, yanking my arms with no success.
“I give you good price, you buy!”
Jared came around the corner to see what was going on. At the same time, an older Chinese woman scurried over and reprimanded the girl, prying her hands off of my wrists.
“What the hell is going on?” Jared asked.
“We have to get out of here.”
“You CRAZY,” she screamed, straining against the woman’s grip.
“You’re crazy,” I yelled back.
Newly goal-oriented, I race-walked until I could no longer see her, veered into the nearest stall, and bought the bag and wallet for about $13.
Then we went outside and I cried a little.
Mistake #4: There’s no crying in baseball. Or shopping.
I was too tired, in over my head and making poor decisions. That’s an easy recipe for a serious travel meltdown. I frustrated several shopkeepers, apparently insulted another, and left feeling like I’d done the wrong thing.
Yes, the crazy lady was out of line, but my actions didn’t help. Instead of flowing with the system, I resisted it.
If I could do it over again, I wouldn’t lose focus. I’d decide what I was willing to pay and be consistent in my interactions with shopkeepers. We would have been out of there in ten minutes, and no tears would have been shed.
But I’d still tell that lady she was crazy.