I’ve adopted a new way of shopping, and it’s almost become automatic. Go to the specific place where I think something is for sale, circle warily around the area where it’s sold until I figure out whether it’s available (and if so, which one I want), and then when the time comes, snap up the item quickly. Move slowly, but always keep moving and never, ever make eye contact with a salesperson.

This strange behavior results from the Chinese Hard Sell. Nearly every salesperson in China is paid on commission, and they’re paid larger or smaller (or no) commissions depending upon what you buy. This extends even to things we’d consider very unlikely, such as laundry soap. And Western consumers are, for whatever reason, the recipients of even more enthusiastic Chinese Hard Sell than usual.

What this means: imagine every shopping experience is like buying a used car, but a whole lot more aggressive. For example, suppose you’re looking for a bottle opener, a small item on an aisle of all sorts of kitchen stuff where you have absolutely no choice but to stop and look. Well, you might as well be a picnic next to an ant hill. Three seconds after you stop to look at something, a salesperson will tug at your sleeve trying to lead you somewhere else, or will shove some random item in your face. “Yes, that octopus juicer is very nice,” I’ll reply (in English, lacking any other language), “but I don’t drink octopus juice and all I really want is a bottle opener.” This results in a shrug and a giggle and a tug on your sleeve to show you a really nice and expensive wok, which is all well and good but it doesn’t open bottles. This led to a fairly unorthodox (but ultimately successful) method of obtaining a bottle opener, which I’ll write about at a future time.

Interestingly enough, waiters and waitresses and bartenders aren’t paid on commission and they don’t get tips (tipping is not expected in most Asian cultures). These are very low paying jobs, with wages ranging from 1,300 to 2,000 RMB per month (this is roughly $200 to $300 per month). Service and attitudes tend to be lax as a result.

Will China ever master the soft sell? Unlikely. The hard sell is apparently effective, at least in this culture, so why change… unless you’re trying to sell to Westerners?