Monday, May 16, 2011

How to Haggle in Taiwan

{In which I learn to save $$$ while shopping in Taiwan}

I used to think that haggling is something practiced only by Asian moms and grandmas. It seemed a fussy, cheap, and uncool thing to do; why not just pay for the thing and be done? Besides, I was pretty sure that you'd have to be cutthroat or very skilled in order to save any money at all. And I didn’t want to make a fool out of myself or seem too pathetic.

But as I shopped more in Taiwan, I realized that sometimes I could get a discount without any damage to my pride. Salespersons will tell shoppers "if you see something you like I can lower the price." A few times, sellers lowered prices even without my asking. And it would be silly to pass up those savings when they offer so nicely, right?

After vendors repeatedly showed me that prices are more like suggestions, it became natural not to take price quotes at face value. And if the price can be lowered, it seems like a smart move to remind them of that fact before buying.

Eventually, I realized that haggling no longer feels weird to me. It's not quite second nature to me yet, but it's getting there. Now I always ask for a discount whenever I buy more than one item from a seller, and sometimes even if I'm only buying one thing.

Why? Because the seller will lower the price 95% of the time, even if only by a little (I wish they'd lower the price by 95%, that would be cool).

I am by no means an expert haggler, and I don't know if I'll ever become so awesome at it that store clerks run out after me to offer items at half-price, but I've certainly come a long way since the days I thought haggling was tacky.

Here are a few tips and lessons I've learned along the way:

1. Figure out where you can and cannot haggle.

Most street vendors and salespeople at small storefronts are more than willing to negotiate price, but if you try to haggle at the wrong places, it could result in embarrassment. Some places that come to mind: convenience stores, restaurants, supermarkets, large retail chains. That should be pretty obvious, right?

But it might surprise you where you can get additional discounts. You'd think prices would be firm at a department store boutique, but I've had salesladies offer price adjustments to sweeten the deal. The trick is not to say "Can this be cheaper?" as if you’re at a flea market, but to ask "Are there any promotions or sales going on right now?" which is the sophisticated, classy way of saying "No way am I paying this much for a piece of fabric."

Of course, there are situations where you're not quite sure what the store policy is — in that case, I'd say go with what feels more comfortable. If you hate the idea of passing up a chance to save money, give it a shot and ask. Worst they can do, other than not give you the discount, is look at you like you've committed some horrible social faux pas (think of it as a chance to thicken your skin). If you'd rather not run that risk, then a few extra dollars might be a small price to pay.

But even if you think you can't haggle, learn to recognize the places where it’s ok — even expected — for customers to haggle. You don't have to exercise that option just yet, but realizing when you can haggle is the first step.

2. Ask and you shall receive.

Once you start seeing how often you buy things at full price when almost everyone else is getting it at a discount, the next step is to just try it and ask for a discount.

I didn't have high expectations the first few times I asked — I did it as an afterthought, an experiment. Sometimes they wouldn't lower the price and I'd meekly cough up cash for the full price, but more often than not a discount would be granted. Sure, the savings weren't significant since I usually took their first offer, but the thrill of shaving even NT$30 (about a dollar) off the price tag is addicting.

I was surprised by how high my success rate was, and each victory convinced me that not asking for a discount is like giving up free money. I still don't ask every single time, but it's definitely become more of a habit, and I mentally kick myself if I realize later that I'd forgotten to ask.

So just give it a shot! It won't feel so weird after a while and you'll definitely save some money with just one question.

3. Help the salesperson give you a discount: buy in bulk, check the merchandise, and don't be afraid to beg.

Once you get used to asking, you'll find that there are ways to make it easier for the vendors to lower the price for you. They want to make the sale too, and if you can give them reasons to justify an additional discount, they'll be more likely to give it to you.

One of the easiest ways is to buy more items. Many times sellers will automatically offer discounts if you buy more than one item, but sometimes you have to ask. And even if there's already a deal if you buy more than one, occasionally they're willing to lower that price even more.

Also, be sure to check everything over. Sometimes they'll sell the samples on the racks if they don't have new items in stock (always ask if they have it in stock first), and you can ask for that item to be discounted (be sure to check for defects). Also ask about other colors; if they used to have other colors but no longer have them in stock, you can ask that they lower the price of the remaining item as they no longer have the full selection.

And try begging. I'm serious. When I first started haggling I'd take the first offer, but a few times when the item cost more than I wanted to spend, I'd beg them to lower the price a bit more, even after the price had been lowered. It feels kind of strange to beg, but pathos is as much a part of persuasion as logos, so I still try it on occasion. I'm always surprised when it works.

4. Perseverance and dawdling will pay off, if you've got the time to spare.

The more time you spend in a store, the more money you can save. Vendors are a lot more willing to lower the price if I've spent a ton of time fingering particular items, being indecisive, and lamenting the price. They feel more invested in helping me make my purchase (either that or they can't wait to get me out of their store), especially if I've been asking their opinions about different options. (It helps to shop at a time that’s not so busy.)

And when you finally get to the haggling part, the price you pay in the end will be lower if you spend more time negotiating than if you accept the first offer (this should not be a surprise). Hesitations and excuses on the part of the salesperson are good signs; this means they're willing to spend time engaging with you, so take them up on it! This is your cue to turn on the charm and be as persuasive as you possibly can. It takes more time and energy, but it's fun, and you'll walk away with a great deal and a sense of accomplishment.

If, on the other hand, the salesperson gives off a take-it-or-leave-it vibe and doesn't seem interested in an exchange about price, then don't bother. It helps to learn to read people so you can tell if they want to do the whole back-and-forth thing with you or not.

And this should be obvious, but only try this on items that aren't already dirt-cheap. Both you and the sales person will get better returns for your time and effort if the item is more expensive or if you’re buying in bulk. Otherwise, it's probably not worth it to do much more than say "can I get a discount for this" and taking the first offer.

5. Counteroffers are tricky and require research.

One thing I'm still learning about is counteroffers. Usually I don't have to do much of it since I just keep asking for them to lower the price without specifying a figure. The few times I've tried to make counteroffers didn't work out well. There as one time I made a counteroffer but wasn't persistent enough to insist on it, since I became more interested in going home than staying to duke it out.

Another time, I asked for and got a discount, then made a counteroffer in an effort to drive the price lower. The sales person agreed immediately, and that's when I realized I'd stupidly set my offer too high. I still went through with the transaction, but vowed I wouldn't make the same mistake again. I saw the item in other stores later but decided not to torment myself by asking the price. So the lesson is, if you're going to make a counteroffer, be sure you've done your research so your counteroffer isn't inadvertently too high.

6. Enjoy yourself and think of each encounter as a learning experience.

I'm still not a master haggler. And I'm not sure if I'll ever be one, because most of the time I'm not tenacious enough to insist on a lower price. Sometimes I just don't want to bother with haggling, so I don't. But I have a lot of fun when I do, and I always feel pleased when I get a good deal on something I like.

Plus, it's nice to think I'm learning negotiation and social skills through these exchanges. I'm glad I've expanded my comfort zone by partaking in Taiwanese shopping culture, and I encourage you to do the same whenever you get the chance.

If you have any more tips for haggling, please let me know!

with love,


  1.  nicely done! informative and entertaining at the same time... it made me wish i could have a secret camera to document you in action. i'm proud to have such a street-wise sister, haha

  2. wow, great post! an addendum to #5,  if you counteroffer a price too low, the salesperson will smirk and tell you to take a stroll to the other shops b/c you won't ever find such a deal.

    as i've been managing a lot of the purchasing for my lab, i've started haggling prices with certain vendors when i feel they're rates are outrageous. i find that when they give in, it's more likely due to the weight of the UCSF name behind me, rather than anything i said. so the haggling tip is... become powerful and influential.

  3. hahaha glad you liked it! lol it's a good thing you can't see me in action
    because i still kind of suck at it XD but i'm learning, at least. you should
    come visit me in taiwan and we can practice together!

  4. hi "bobby" :P (does anyone ever call you that?!) yeah counteroffers are so
    hard! haha i wish i had the clout of the ucsf name but i'm not sure how to
    apply it to my situation. if i became a recognizable celebrity people would
    expect me to buy high-end stuff at full price, right?

  5. I once saw on a TV show this really obnoxious guy who would only buy if he was offered a "smoking hot deal." It was funny because he would often lowball offers (in the show, he bid too low on houses). And yes, you probably shouldn't haggle in every circumstance, but he made it sort of a game.

    I think learning to be charismatic is really fun. You learn to get a feel for what the other party wants to give in, plus you give them a good time. You brighten their day, I'm sure some good will come out of it!

    I will be sure to try these things out the next time there's a vendor fair at school. Maybe I will try to buy something just to try out this new life skill! :D

  6. I think you'd be good at being charming :) Let me know how it goes!

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