Going for 'gold'

The Baltimore Sun

BEIJING - It's while consuming my post-midnight "training" snack of hops and barley that the realization strikes: It's time to stop spectating and start competing.

Time to channel my inner Kobe and enter the fray. Time, of course, to visit this city's famous Silk Market.

The Silk Market is a six-floor shopping center where the games away from the Games occur. It's where the competitive - and often physical - sport known as bargaining plays out with alternately smiling and pushy clerks, who grab you to give a "special price for a special friend" on everything from (fake) Rolex watches to Ralph Lauren shirts to Sony electronics.

This is no Olympic sport, which is just as well because even if medals were awarded, they could be fake gold. But it certainly is an exhibition.

"Your wife is very beautiful, but your price is very ugly," a 20-year-old clerk named Alia says to Paul Janik of Illinois.

Janik is the uncle of Bradley Guzan, starting goalie for the U.S. men's soccer team. His wife, Carla, is engaged in a healthy debate over the correct price for a multi-colored scarf that may or very well may not be silk.

This is not going well. That's because, after initial smiles, Alia clearly isn't messing around. In fact, shortly after calling the Janiks "my favorite people" and offering "a special price just for you" in solid English, Alia is frowning.

"You're my first customer, and you want to kill me," Alia says. "You will drive me out of business."

As Michael Phelps knows, any dream worth pursuing isn't easy. Emboldened by the Janiks' exchange, I take a deep breath and I dive into the deep end of electronics. I need a microphone for my laptop. The degree of difficulty on this purchase? Somewhere around 3.5. But no smiling clerk is going to stop me from talking to my wife and two sons via the Internet.

At the first booth at which I slightly slow my pace to peruse, I'm pulled in. A smiling clerk offers to sell a pair of "Sony" headphones and microphone for 190 yuan, or roughly $27.

Most guidebooks and market veterans suggest countering with a price 10 percent of the opening offer and work only slightly upward.

Clerks punch in prices on calculators and then turn them over for customers to counter. I offer 19. She asks if I mean "American dollars." When I say "yuan," she throws up her hands and turns her back on me.

Even I can translate this. She's annoyed.

She then asks for my final price, which of course never is. I come back with 22 yuan.

The clerk points to the next booth, which translates to: You're wasting my time. But I'm not, since, as I start to walk away, she asks for my "final, final price." I move to 28 yuan.

She drops to 50 yuan. I hold at 28 yuan and start to walk away, which is when she gives me her "yes or no price" of 40 yuan. The "yes or no" price is typically the tipping point, when the purchase either happens or not.

Not for me, not at 40 yuan. I walk away again. That's when the clerk says she will take "35 of my money." Sold.

I feel like the original Dream Team from Barcelona in 1992 crushing Angola. A pair of, ahem, "Sony" headphones and microphone for roughly $5.

The Janiks also are making headway. Alia had opened their gamesmanship by stating one scarf could be sold for 450 yuan, or roughly $65. Within one counteroffer, Alia had dropped to 350 yuan, a reduction of roughly $15.

The clerk then, not surprisingly, said further discounts would occur should Carla purchase two. Janik, displaying a steely reserve that might make her nephew proud, isn't swayed.

"Let me think about it," Janik says. "I have more shopping to do."

"Tell her to throw in a free hat," Paul says, joining the competition.

This clearly displeases Alia, who grabs his umbrella in retaliation.

Finally, two scarfs for 350 yuan, roughly $25 apiece. Alia is now smiling and even poses for a picture with her customer. But no free hat.

The Janiks head off in search of leather purses. I head to my hotel to test my headphones.

The best part is they actually work, at least for now. Gold!

K.C. Johnson writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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