Beating them at their own game

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June 3rd 2006
Published: June 4th 2006
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A case study in how to get yourself out of a mess you should have never gotten yourself into in the first place:

My dad asked me to get an mp3 player for him if I found a good deal while in China. Yesterday, while at the Silk Market in Beijing (which sells pretty much anything, not just silk), I decided to do even better and bought an mp4 player. I have sharp bargaining skills. Most of them involve looking confounded and undecided, things that come quite naturally to me, until the salesperson is so frustrated he will go down to any price, just to put me out of my misery. From an 850Y starting price I bargained the sales lady down to a price of 400Y. This seemed like a steal. The player was purported to have 4GB of memory. Now, I should have known better. If you go online to any U.S. retailer, 1GB of flash memory goes for about $60. Buying 4GB for $50 is quite illogical. But in a trance of self persuasion and greed, I convinced myself that there was a "China Price", as there frequently is for other products (No marketing, branding, taxes, etc.).

On getting back to the hostel that night, I was siezed with a gut feeling of uncomfort. The price was just too good to be true. I decided to put the player through its paces just to make sure everything was ok. I took my camera's memory card and began transfering pictures from it to the player. Somewhere around the 100MB mark, I received an error message. The player, which was still displaying 98%!f(MISSING)ree memory, had reached full capacity.

I wasn't mad. I mostly felt stupid for being duped. Anger, if any, was self-directed. I should have trusted my gut instinct and not let greed get in the way from the get go.

If my discovery had occured during market hours, I would have rushed down there in a raging fury. Luckily, it was already close to midnight. I say luckily, because not being able to immediately do something gave me time to think and calm down.

Now, the last semester of my MBA studies, I had taken a class in Negotiation Management. I realized that getting my money back would involve just that: Negotiation. I started thinking about pointers from the course. I was up against pros. People who, day in day out, negotiated for a living. I figured that the odds of being reunited with my money where against me.

What I write next, is the product of common sense, and trully does not require a college degree. However, that said, it never hurts to back yourself up with some solid behavioural science theories. If there was just one lesson our professor wished us to take away from the course, it was to plan, plan, plan. Contrary to popular conceptions, preplanning a negotiation affects its outcome infinitely more than its actual execution. As I lay in bed trying to fall asleep, I found myself doing just that. Pardon my use of a little course jargon in the next paragraphs.

I was faced with the worst possible type of negotiation possible. A zero-sum game. My gain would be her loss. There was no room for give and take. Normally when bargaining you add additional dimensions to the negotiation (volume discount, future repeat business, etc.) in order to lower the price of a product. In this case, I just wanted my money and she would not want to hand it back. I had to somehow widen the playing field.

I thought about the different sources of power available to me. The short list came down to these points:
Time - I had to make it clear that I was not in a rush. If the sales lady realized that I was pressed for time, all she would have to do is hold on until I had run out of it. To this end, I decided to concoct a story about being a student here in Beijing. I even though of a University I would name. Now the reason why this would be plausible is that by now, after having travelled in China for two months, and listened to daily Chinese language instruction tapes, my Chinese was not that of a tourist anymore. I could quite easily tell her my cover story in basic, yet quite fluent, Chinese. I was going to have to make it clear that I would persist until I got my money back, and that, being a student in Beijing, I was not going anywhere.
Money - This was my one true point of leverage. I could hurt her business by scaring away other customers. I needed to drive that point home with a live demonstration. This was the extra dimension I needed. I would get my money in exchange for not making her lose any potential business.
The Law - No point in involving them. Four days before my flight home, I didn't want to risk bringing them in and possibly having to deposit my passport pending further investigation or any other annoying eventuality that the Beijing tourist police might think of. I knew this. I knew that she knew that I knew this. Playing the police card would be an admission of defeat. I would just cement her in her bargaining position.

Knowing this I started thinking of strategy. Under no circumstances could I lose my cool. The moment I showed any sign of frustration, it would give her some hope of tiring me into giving up. I finally arrived at this plan:
1. I needed to identify the stall. The market is made up of very small stalls. They all sell the same products and so each one looks like the next. First, I would have to positively ID the place I had bought the player from. If I couldn't do this, there was no point in the rest of the exercise.
2. I would then approach her pretending to come back for some more shopping. Hopefully, she would be happy for some repeat business and acknowledge that she remembered me from yesterday. I would only use English, playing the stupid tourist.
3. Once she admitted she knew me, I would pull the player out of the bag and ask for a refund.
4. If she refused, I would switch to Chinese, giving her my story of being a student here in Beijing. With my talking in Chinese, she would not be able to play stupid as if she did not understand. I would point out that she was not going to make a sale to anyone else until she refunded my money. I would simply hang around there and politely explain to any incoming customer what she had sold me yesterday. I would tell her I have until closing time, and after that I would return the next day.
5. Pick out a customer and make an example of him.
6. If she persisted, I would have to get the rest of the market on board. I would begin to create come collateral damage. I would start approaching customers in stalls next to hers. Noone likes to shop next to a peeved former customer. It just ruins your shopping mood. If I couldn't persuade her, maybe I could use her peers to do it for me.

Actually, looking at the plan in writing now, it looks quite methodical. However, back then I just had the general outline in my head.

After a night of scheming, something which did not go so well with a good night's sleep, I had hatched the plan, I left the hostel the next morning and made for the market. It opened at 9 in the morning. At 9:10 I switched to "calm" mode, put on my sincerest fake smile and walked in. I showed up in the corridor where the stall was. I walked about for a bit, wearing sunglasses. I had no desire to be prematurely recognized. When I though I had the correct stall identified, I walked up. Being so early was good. There were no other customers yet and so I would have her undivided attention. I was greeted by the salesperson. There was a problem. She was not the girl I had dealt with yesterday. The repeat business routine was not going to work. She would not be able to recognize me. Scratch that, move to the next step.

Anything in italics was said in Chinese.

Hi there, Hello sir, Do you remember me, No sir I don't, I was here yesterday and bought a player, I'm sorry sir I don't know you, That doesn't matter I was still here yesterday, I think maybe you have the wrong shop, No I don't I'm quite sure it was here, Sir please I was not here yesterday, I know that but that doesn't matter I still bought this player from your shop, Sir please look around I think you buy at some other shop, No I didn't because I remember asking to see this pink player and then looking at the white player right here next to it and after you sold me the player I did buy you tried to sell me these blue speakers right here on the shelf, Sir I was not here yesterday you are making a mistake, No I'm not I'm quite positive and if you think that I have the wrong shop please talk to your friends in the shops next to you and find out which one of them sold me the player otherwise I would like my money back, How much did you pay for this, I paid 400 yuan, Wait I look in my notebook see yesterday we did not write a sale of 400 yuan, I don't care what is written in that notebook I know what I paid and I know where I paid it, I'm sorry sir but we don't have this type of player here in the shop, Maybe that's because you sold me the last one you had of this type and it doesn't matter anyway I want my money back, Sir I don't have this player, Let me explain something to you I have all day so when do you close, We close at nine, Well then I have no problem waiting here until nine or until you give me my money until then you will not sell anything because I will speak to any person who comes to your shop, Sir I can't, No problem I'm a student I live here in Beijing and if you don't give me my money you will sell nothing today and after today I will come back tomorrow and after tomorrow I will come back on Saturday, But sir why are you asking this to me I didn't sell you this player, I have no problem with you personally the problem is with your shop and I have all day and I will wait, Happy Children's Day sir, Well happy Children's Day to you too but I still want my money back, Ok ok maybe I can change your player, I don't want to change my player I want my money back it was 400 yuan, Sir here I have this player very good player one gigabyte, I'm not interested in your player I want my money and how can I trust you are selling me the real thing anyway, Sir this is real one gigabyte not like what you have this one is excellent quality, maybe it is but there is something called trust do you know the meaning of the word trust, Yes I know this word sir, Well this is something I don't have in you and so I will not buy anything else and I will not exchange my player I want my money back, I have another player maybe you want that, Please listen to what I am saying you will not sell anything today until you give me my money you will lose a lot of money better that you give me my 400 because you will lose much more money if you don't, Sir I have no money here, Go to the bank and get money it's not my problem, But sir I cannot pay you, If you have no money now I can assure you that you will still have no money at nine when you close because you will not sell a single thing so think what is better for you, Sir please I cannot pay I'm not the boss, So talk to the boss if you need to customers are going to come very soon and I will tell them to go away, Sir please, Please do not buy here because I bought a player here yesterday and they said it had 4 gigabytes and it only has 128 megabytes they are not ok and now I want my money back so please do not buy here until they give me my money back thank you very much mister, Ok ok wait I will make call, Take your time I have all day, Wait I call, Could all of you people go back to your stalls and give us some room and let her make the call this is between me and her thank you, Ok ok I talked to boss here take the money, Thank you very much have a lovely day.

This conversation actually took around 50 minutes. Never during the entire time did I raise my voice. I kept it very level and businesslike. I managed to keep a smile for most of those minutes. As time moved on and she became more frustrated, the smiling actually began to come more naturally. I was having my revenge and I was enjoying it.

When she offered to replace the player, I knew I had her. She had just tacitly admitted responsibility. Now it was just a matter of getting the money and not a replacement. When I saw the first customer walk up I decided to drive the point home. I was going to cause some damage. He happened to be Chinese and so I turned to him and, in Chinese, politely made my case. His reaction was one of amusement. He got what was going on quite quickly and kept on moving.

At this point the snapping sound was almost audible. I had just delivered on my promise and prevented her from making a sale. I was in quite a good mood and was loitering around there waiting for my next victim. I could see she had realized she was not going to talk her way out of it.

The last remaining resistance was due to the salespeople around her. During our conversation, a few of them hung around curiously listening to our exchange. I had to get rid of them. If she gave me my money back in their presence she would lose face. This was the last thing holding her back. I had to get a bit in their face to drive them away, but finally managed to establish a "clean" area where we could conduct our business away from their prying eyes. At that point she opened a drawer and hastily handed me the money.

After the whole thing, I was reminded of a saying in Hebrew: "A smart man is able to get out of situations a wise man would never get into in the first place". Well I don't know if I'm either but at least I did manage to get out unscathed.

I would sum it up like this:

Taking the subway to return to the market: $0.37.
Buying a fake music player: $50.
Attending a Negotiation Management course: $200.
Learning a lesson in real-life negotiation and getting your way in the process: Priceless.


9th June 2006

love your blog
hey. I came across your blog lately...and simply put, it is amazing. Your trip is amazing, and your understanding of China, and your words are all amazing. I was born and brought up in Beijing. Unfortunately, I didn't have a chance to travel in China before I moved to the States. The places you went are sooo cool, I will trade anything for an experience like that, well, I guess not anything......but hopefully i'll make it before I hit 30. haha, well I am 24....still have a few years. So, btw, every year I go back to BJ, I go to silk market to bargain with those ppl.. heheh..normally I get pretty good least I think. Alright, hope to see more entries from you. (oh, are you still in China?) michelle (yes, i go by michelle, since ppl can't prounce my real name here).
9th June 2006

Always great to get feedback like yours. Unfortunately, my time in China is up, but I still plan to post some more stuff that's sitting in my notebook so I'm not done just yet...
10th June 2006

great. i look forward reading your entries. btw, I would have given up and just take the mp3...It is soo hard to get money back from them....Great job!

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