Dave Barry

Haggling should be an Olympic sport


If you're the kind of person who enjoys shopping and lying, you would love the Beijing Silk Market.

The Silk Market is a jam-packed, seven-story building, very popular with tourists, where you can buy a LOT more than just silk, including clothes, jewelry, luggage, watches, sunglasses, gadgets, knickknacks and, for all I know, missile parts.

These items are sold out of 1,700 tiny stalls manned by salespersons who apparently have been drinking caffeinated coffee nonstop since 1993.

You walk through long, narrow, crowded aisles between the stalls, and at every stall you pass, a salesperson, usually a woman, tries to lure you in via such subtle sales techniques as grabbing your arm. If you respond by displaying any interest at all -- and by ''displaying any interest,'' I mean ''not walking briskly away'' -- the salesperson will thrust a merchandise item into your hands and make the following points:

1. The item is totally legitimate. If it's supposed to be a Prada purse, it's a real Prada purse. If it's a painting of the Mona Lisa, it's the original Mona Lisa, by Leonardo Da Vinci, and not some cheap knockoff Mona Lisa such as the other vendors will try to sell you.

2. You are getting a very special price. Even though the salesperson has known you at this point for less than 15 seconds, she has taken a powerful liking to you, so she has decided to give you a price so ridiculously low, so totally crazy, that she will lose money on the deal and be forced to leave the vendor business and become a homeless person who must survive by selling personal bodily organs. That is how much she likes you.

What you're supposed to do then, according to all the guide books, is bargain. Whatever price the salesperson gives you, you're supposed to take her calculator and punch in a counter-offer that is half or less. During the ensuing bargaining process you're supposed to remain totally hard-nosed, if necessary walking away with the salesperson pursuing you (which she will do).

I am terrible at this. Whatever opening price the salesperson gives me, my impulse is to say: ''Well that sounds reasonable!'' Or: ''Are you sure you're making enough on this?'' Somewhere in the basement of the Silk Market, in the salespersons' lounge, they have my picture on the wall with a sign that says, in Chinese, ''Do NOT let this man walk past your stall! He paid $17,400 for a Batman pencil.''

On the other hand, when my wife is in the Silk Market, she turns into Tony Soprano. I watched her negotiate the purchase of a silk table runner and two small stuffed pandas, and it was genuinely terrifying. (For the benefit of men reading this, I should explain that a ''table runner'' is a thing that you would never in one billion years think of purchasing.)

My wife spent 10 solid minutes going toe-to-toe with the stuffed-panda salesperson, the two of them handing the calculator back and forth like Olympic table-tennis champions, haggling intently over a difference of approximately two dollars. My wife, who is usually a very honest person, kept saying, with a straight face, things like, ''I have a very specific budget for these.'' As if before we left for China we sat down with our financial records and did a detailed spreadsheet analysis of our stuffed-panda needs vs. resources, and we concluded that we could go as high as $6.38 per panda, but if we went a penny over, the trip was off.

Anyway, my wife always got her price. If you ask me, she should be placed in charge of the federal budget; the government would spend WAY less money, and as a bonus it would have a nice supply of silk table runners.

But enough about shopping. Time for today's:

OLYMPICS UPDATE: China is still winning. The big heartbreak Wednesday was that their women's gymnastics team beat ours, and in the spirit of Olympic harmony, I will refrain from pointing out that, even though the minimum age in that event is supposed to be 16, some of their women appeared to be more like 7. Maybe the Chinese calculate ages in Celsius. Or maybe it's like the Silk Market bargaining system, where the official minimum age is viewed as merely an opening offer. In any event, I see no need to make allegations of cheating, so let's just forget about this whole thing and move on to today's:

CORRECTION: In yesterday's column about badminton, I misspelled the name of Guatemalan player Kevin Cordon. I apologize. In my defense, I want to note that in the same column I correctly spelled Prapawadee Jaroenrattanatarak, Poompat Sapkulchananart and Porntip Buranapraseatsuk. So by the time I got to Kevin Cordon, my fingers were exhausted.

©2008 Dave Barry

This column is protected by intellectual property laws, including U.S. copyright laws. Electronic or print reproduction, adaptation, or distribution without permission is prohibited. Ordinary links to this column at www.miamiherald.com may be posted or distributed without written permission.