Learning to bargain is a crucial rite-of-passage. The best place for learning how to do it right is China. Everything is negotiable in China. Wanna buy a TV at a department store? Negotiable. Thinking about having lunch at a local restaurant? Negotiable. Investing in a new suit at a premium department store? Still negotiable. Buying medicine? Negotiable even still. Bargaining is a culture in China. Don’t feel offended or surprised if you find yourself running into price barriers based on how you look, dress, or smell. There are plenty of strategies online for what to say, how to say it, and when to just call it a day. My particular experience involves a knockoff iPhone 4 case sold at an subterranean electronics and gadgets night market in Beijing.
The most amazing thing about bargaining in China is that the salesman/woman always seems to be right. They’re luminaries when it comes to identifying, segmenting, and analyzing customer profiles. Their marketing, sales, customer service, and retention skills are absolutely systematic and refined. From the moment you start drifting toward their storefront until the moment you leave you’re under constant evaluation, monitoring, and nurturing. Anything you say or do is a reflection of your desire to empty your wallet. Messaging is brilliant. Neither nonchalant nor pushy. The perfect balance of hard sales and comfy persuasion. Some sales people even speak up to 5 different languages. If you buy something, you’ll always end up walking out feeling like a champ. Retention is flawless. They hover on the fringe of losing a sale but never too in danger of actually losing it. All of this combined makes bargaining in China a rather challenging mental and physical exercise.
I’m a nitpick when it comes to protecting my iPhone. The amount of experimenting I do with different cases is truly unhealthy. You can guess how excited I was when I ran into a knockoff that actually performed up to my standards. I asked politely (probably not always the right approach) what the price was. The sales person glanced at me and 60 RMB (roughly $9.50) became the asking price. As a self-proclaimed bargaining expert with expert interpersonal skills, I proposed a negotiated price of 30 RMB and asked a series of questions (a standard tactic for anyone serious about buying). Apparently, that specific iPhone case was imported from Korea and sported a scratch-resistant back. I guess it was my lucky day? The salesperson went on to explain a few other things relevant to my purchasing pleasure while I was brought a chair to sit down:
- They are well respected by the local community as trustworthy. I can come back for an exchange if anything goes wrong.
- They’ve been doing business for more than 10 years now.
- I won’t find the same case at the same price anywhere else in Beijing.
- I’m making the right choice since I’m protecting a much more expensive investment.
- I’m young and shouldn’t dwell on the details.
I really wanted that case now. Seriously. It fit like a glove and the texture was breathtaking. I digress. I told the salesperson that I didn’t believe it came from Korea and that I was only willing to offer 30 RMB. She politely declined my offer, dropped the price from 60 RMB to 55 RMB, offered me a few other cases in my price range, and asked me what features I’m looking for in a case. All this in under 10 seconds. By the time I finished explaining to her what I needed, I’d pretty much already sold myself on the price. She came back to me and proposed that I buy 2 or 3 more for friends and family, that way she’ll be able to justify selling each case at 45 RMB a piece to her manager.
30 minutes in and we’re down 15 RMB. I served my final offer at 30 RMB and decided to take a walk as a sign of protest. 10 minutes after walking out a younger salesperson from the store found me. She said the manager would like to invite me back to discuss buying 4 cases at 35 RMB a piece. I agreed.
There are several important tangential lessons here for us to absorb:
- Superior customer service is the foundation of good sales. The natural rate of conversion loss means that providing superior customer service on all fronts of your business is worth the effort in the long-run. The iPhone accessories store operationalized this concept by meshing together sales and customer service. A “conversion” isn’t simply the result of good sales but also the by-product of good support.
- Understanding and reading your customers is crucial for determining what to say to your customers and when to say it. The saleswoman understood my needs and requirements early on in the purchasing process, assigned me to a specific profile, and engaged me with tactics very different from most local purchasers. In other words, they knew who they were talking to.
- Upsell everything. By nailing steps 1 and 2, the saleswoman has already set a personal goal for the specific conversion. Great customer profiling empowered by outstanding customer support means more sales runway. A fluid two-pronged approach mean that I was easily up-sold into purchasing items that I normally wouldn’t have purchased.
- Follow the money. Literally. I’m sure the store manager sent one of her little minions after me. Following me from storefront to storefront. Waiting for the go-ahead to approach me at the right moment. Think of this process as “engagement automation”. A conversion can easily be lost without a timed and systematic approach. Following the money should be the sealant to a well-oiled system in order to capitalize on customer service, customer analytics, and sales + BD.