More than you ever wanted to know about buying fruit from street vendors
In City Supermarket strawberries (cǎo méi – 草莓) cost 34 RMB per 1/2 kilo! That is why the locals buy them from the guys in the street like in the photo. But if you are a foreigner you will get ripped off. So let us see if we can even the balance. Here are various tricks that you might encounter from the street vendors (this applies to all fruit):
This is how they will cheat you:
- Setting the price too high. The price is usually given in rmb per 1/2 kilo (yì jīn). The first time we bought some the price given was 8 RMB. We bargained down to 5 RMB per half kilo, which is about the right price.
- Selling you more than you want to buy. They do this by leading you to believe the strawberries are only sold in denominations of one bowl. In the picture above, one bowl is about 1.5 to 2 kilos. This is not true, you can buy any amount you want.
- They have another ruse to sell you more than you want to buy. Once you agree a price per half kilo, and you’ve got past him trying to sell you a whole bowl, he will then try (before weighing) to get you to agree to buy a certain number of jīn (rather than allowing you to choose the quantity you want by you physically picking up the number of strawberries you want and placing them in a plastic bag). Of course many of us can’t really picture exactly how much half a kilo, or a kilo of strawberries is, so when you allow the seller to push you into such an agreement you are likely to end up buying too much. He might be a little insistent for you to agree a number of jīn to buy because that makes the maths easier when he comes to weighing. He wants you to believe that the maths would otherwise be too complicated.
- Lying to you about the weight. So for example the seller convinced us to buy 10 RMB worth. At 5 RMB each half kilo, he should then weigh out 1kg. He did this, but when we got home we weighed our bag and it was only 800g. So we effectively paid 6.25 RMB/half kilo.
This is how to prevent being cheated:
- Negotiate the price per half kilo: “duō shǎo qián yì jīn?” (How much for half a kilo). When he gives you the price, for example “bā kuài yì jīn” (8 RMB for half a kilo), you should respond with “ohhh” (look surprised), then say “piányi yīdiǎnr ma?” (can it be cheaper?). He will say “liù kuài…..blah blah blah” (6 RMB….and he will say whatever comes into his mind to make you think it was reasonable of him to go down to 6). You then say “liù kuài tài guì le, wǔ kuài yì jīn hǎo ba?” (6 RMB is too expensive, how about 5?). He will then say “bù kě yǐ” (it’s not ok). You then look disappointed and sad and walk away. He will then say “ok, ok, wǔ kuài qián yì jīn” (ok, ok, 5 RMB per half kilo). Then you say “xiè xie, xiè xie, xiè xie” (Thank you, thank you, thank you) — this is just to give him face by making him look very kind and reasonable. But in our experience, and as a general rule of thumb, if you can agree a price with a Chinese seller then you are paying too much.
- Now choose exactly how much you want to buy. Be forceful enough to make sure he gives you a bag and let’s you fill it.
- Now he will weigh them. This is how he does it. The little stick should balance. He hangs the bag on the short end of the stick, then moves the weight away along the long end of the stick until it balances. He will do this very quickly and won’t want you to have a good look at the scale. You must insist that he show you.
This is how it works. There are two scales, one on the top and one on the side. There are two pivots from which he can hold this measuring stick. The scale on the side is used when he holds the pivot furthest from the hook where the strawberries hang. The scale on the top is used when he holds the pivot nearest the hook. With us so far? OK. It is usually the side scale which is used (unless you are buying very heavy fruit).
- Now, you know how the scales work, but he will still cheat you! On the weight used to balance the stick in the photo it is written 250 grams. Its actual weight is 225grams. The scale in the picture, and on most sticks we presume, is inaccurate (but always inaccurate in the seller’s favour). (BTW we bought our stick for 10 RMB from a Pudong strawberry seller). The best way to prevent yourself being cheated on the weight is to make sure you have a 500ml water or fruit drink bottle (unopened) with you. Buy that in any convenience store. As you know, 500ml weighs 500grams. Now you can test his stick, scale, and weight by weighing your drink bottle. Cool huh?
- Now do the sum for yourself. If you agreed a specific number of jīn then the maths is easy. Alternatively, if you selected the quantity you want then he will weigh that and give a quantity to the closest 100g. So it’s helpful to convert the price you agreed per half kilo, to a price per 100g. This is easy, just double your figure and divide by ten. So if you agreed 5.5rmb per half kilo, the price per 100g is 1.1rmb (5.5×2=11, 11/10=1.1 — just move the decimal point one to the left). Then you have an easier bit of mental arithmetic to do next. Just multiply the number of 100 grams you buy by the price per 100gram. So if you buy 700grams, then multiply 7 by 1.1 = 7.7rmb (7×11=77, move the decimal point = 7.7rmb).
3. Now just for fun, this is how to cheat them (hypothetically speaking, of course):
- Lie to them about the weight. As above, it is a good idea to have a 500ml bottle with you to verify that you get what you pay for. But if you want to be a bit sneaky then you need to do some advanced preparation (See Sun Tzu The Art of War — particularly the section on taking the enemy by surprise). All you have to do is buy a 550ml bottle (or if you’re feeling ambitious a 600ml bottle) and swap the label with one from a 500ml bottle. This will give you a 10 or 20% discount respectively.
- Lie about how much small change you have. This is a tricky one to pull off, but with determination it is definitely possible. There are a couple of prerequisites. You have to be certain in your mind what price you will agree per 1/2 kilo and you have to be certain of the quantity you want to buy. For example, you decide you will only buy if he agrees 6 RMB per 1/2 kilo. He agrees this price, then you ask for 1 kilo. The price will be 12 RMB. In your wallet you have two or three 100 RMB notes (take out all the smaller notes beforehand and put them in your pocket). Also in your wallet you have lots of loose change which amounts to 10.8 RMB. Take your time counting it out and we promise you he will accept this lesser amount rather than having to change a 100. You can even make it more convincing by digging into your pockets to show you are really trying to find some more loose change and pull out a further 0.2 RMB. So you end up paying 11 RMB. This means you pay 5.5 RMB per 1/2 kilo when the price you actually agreed was 6 RMB per 1/2 kilo. (An 8% discount).
And finally, how do you like to eat your strawberries? We love ours with cream and sugar. Cream is hard to find, but we know that City Supermarket sell some: (Huáihǎi Lù/Shǎnxī Lù in the basement opposite Parksons). It’s called Paul’s Thickened Cream — the blue carton in the photo — the trouble is that at 15 RMB for 250ml it’s more expensive than the strawberries …
We presume that the store has a loyalty card for you to get a tiny discount (all Western supermarkets do). But hear our plea! Loyalty cards are dull and boring. So please buy all your fruit on the street and help to keep Shanghai a more interesting place to live.
Cross-posted at likealocal.cn.