Shop 'til You Drop - Shanghai Style

by Nancy Bestor

Shopping in Shanghai is not for the timid. Great deals can be had on a variety of items, but the price you pay is ultimately your responsibility. You can pay what is later determined to be “way overpriced,” or you can haggle, and get the cost down to a “reasonable” level. For me it was often not until I was walking away with my purchase and wondering why it was so easy to make a deal that I realized I had overpaid.

There were three items that Bob and I went to Shanghai knowing we might be interested in purchasing. The first was a sport coat for Bob, the second a pair of eyeglasses for me, and the third, a few souvenir items from Dongtai Road, atwo block stretch of “antique” stalls and shops. Our friends at Yala Designs had suggested a few spots for the sport coat and eyeglasses, and it just so happened that we were in the right place at the right time, so we tried our hand at haggling.

Let me start by saying that I am a terrible haggler. Whenever presented with the opportunity to “talk someone down” on a price when visiting another country, I always feel bad for the seller, and find it hard to believe that people in the world are looking for suckers who are willing to pay hugely inflated prices for cheaply made or acquired items. (I’m pretty sure this in fact defines me as one such sucker.) But our Lonely Planet guidebook advised us that the first price many Chinese shopkeepers offer when they are trying to hook you in can be as much as 80% higher than the price they will actually settle for. Lonely Planet also suggested that you should determine the most you are willing to pay for an item before you begin bargaining. Then if you can’t get it for that price, you should walk away and try somewhere else. So we put our haggling hats on and gave it our best shot.

The first item we haggled for was a four-inch copper Buddha statue on Dongtai Road. Our seller was an older woman who looked like someone’s sweet grandma. That was my first mistake. I thought $6 was about the max I was willing to pay for this item, but she started with 130 yuan, about $21. My second mistake was typing 36 yuan as my “best price” into her calculator on my firstgo round. Bob was astonished (to put it mildly) that I put in my final price right at the start, but as I said, I AM A TERRIBLE HAGGLER. When she read my price she clutched at her chest as if she were having a heart attack and started babbling in Chinese, thus making me think my price really was crazy. And that was my third mistake. While I did end up with a regal, four-inch copper Buddha, I paid $11 for it. I’m almost certain I could get the same statue here in the U.S. at Cost Plus for cheaper. Lesson learned.

We went on to buy a few other things at different stalls in the “antique” market. We bought a poster of Chairman Mao for $2. And we bought our daughters locket necklaces with watches for $4. In both cases, I began the process willing to pay a dollar or two more than I did, so I felt like I got a couple of good deals. It was still pretty easy though, so someone who drives a hard bargain likely could have purchased them for even cheaper.

We had better luck with the made to order cashmere sport coat, probably because Bob was doing the shopping. Although there are many stores in Shanghai offering tailor made clothes, the best spot to shop is the Shiliupu Fabric Market. This three story building is filled floor to ceiling with fabric stalls, many offering tailor made clothing in silks, wools, cashmere, and more, and others simply selling fabrics—bolts and bolts of colorful cloths in each stall. The guidebooks say that fabrics purchased here are far cheaper than most shops.

It was hard to know at which stall to shop. At every stall, someone would say “you want cashmere suit?” or “you want wool coat?” We found a stall with an array of good looking men’s suits and sport coats on display, and Bob made a deal. He ordered a fully lined cashmere sport coat for just over $100, and it was ready in two days. The woman in the stall took way more measurements than I would have thought necessary, including his gluteus maximus, but I understand, Bob does have a cute glute. We paid half the cash up front, then came back a couple of days later to pay the remainder, and pick up the coat. The tailors (wherever they might be, as they are not in the Fabric Market building) did a lovely job. And now Bob has a new sport coat to wear once a year.

Shopping for eyeglasses was also an adventure. I have a great optometrist here in Ashland, Dr. Ken Ehlers at Optical Expressions. He gives me my eye exams, and it’s through him that I order my contacts and other prescription glasses. But just for the fun of it, I thought it would be interesting to acquire a new pair of glasses while in Shanghai. And interesting it was. The eyeglasses mart, for lack of a better word, is on the fifth floor of a Chinese sporting goods store on the biggest shopping street in Shanghai—East Nanjing Road. Just like most other places we shopped in Shanghai, when we began, the price started much higher than we expected to pay, 1100 yuan ($183). When we walked away, because we didn’t want to pay even close to that amount, the price immediately dropped to 600 yuan. By the time we closed the deal it was 420 yuan ($70). This included the frames, lenses, and the “exam,” which really should be called the “search to figure out my prescription.” They do not have the latest equipment for determining a prescription. It’s what I remember growing up where you put on fake glasses and they switch the lenses until you can read a particular line on an eye chart. Once they figured out what I needed, my glasses were ready in 10 minutes. Yes, 10 minutes. I was able to determine that none of the people working in the eyeglasses mart have any medical or optical education or training whatsoever. They just sell eyeglasses. The glasses are cute, and work just fine. I won’t stop going to Dr. Ehlers, as his eye exams do much more than just determine my prescription, and I’m not confident enough in the process to consider getting contacts in China. But getting eyeglasses in a foreign country was a fun experience, and when people notice my cute glasses, I’ve got a great story to tell.

—Right this minute Nancy is at Safeway, trying to convince the cashier that her “best price” for a gallon of milk is $.50 cents, not $3.50.