This is going to be a two part installment, because the modus operandi between a puerh and a non-puerh store work somewhat differently. The standard procedure when I walk into a puerh store goes something like this.
I enter (usually after I spotted something interesting on the shelves — usually a cake). I walk in, beeline for the cake that seems interesting… then the struggle begins. They start asking questions or saying things such as…
“This is puerh tea. Do you like sheng or shu?”
“Are you looking for teas for yourself? Or to sell?”
“Why don’t you come sit down and try something?”
The first priority for me, usually, is not to sit down — once you’re sitting at that tasting seat, it becomes a lot more involved. It’s harder to walk out. It’s also harder to pick the exact tea you want to try, if you haven’t looked at all of them yet. In any given store there are likely to be at least a dozen cakes on offer, and I usually like to look through all of them (or most of them) to get a good idea of what I’m working with.
Most of these teas are likely to be things I’ve never heard of. Some stores make the job easier by having the cakes being easily accessible. Others make it impossible. Some even shrink-wrap them, so you have to ask to see them. Or, they only display the fresh-out-of-factory packaging — so you have to ask them to look at the sample. It’s very annoying when that happens.
Somewhere along the way, the (usually) girl will want to rewrap the cake for you. I usually insist on wrapping it myself, or at least do it quickly. While mine’s not perfect, it’s not too bad, and like I said, it’s one of those things you can do to gain instant respect. Doesn’t work in every place, but it’s worked often enough.
When I first got to Beijing, I think I was much more indecisive and often let the store keep give me cakes to try. Nowadays I have a much better idea of what might make a good tea and what I might like, and am thus much less likely to be driven by them. I also walk out more often before I get to the tasting stage. Since time is limited and the sort of puerh one can try is unlimited (essentially), one must choose.
So… you’ve chosen a cake, you sit down, they brew it… then what?
I usually drink as they brew, but sometimes I direct them a little in how to brew
“Brew it a little longer please”
Because sometimes they don’t really know what they’re doing, or they don’t do it in a way that you might do it yourself…
This is pretty easy going. You make small talk. Sometimes they ask for impressions on the tea, and start the hard-selling. I usually equivocate and say “mmmm” or “it’s ok”. In fact, I probably say “it’s all right” more often than anything else.
If a tea is no good… one can quickly get them to change to something else. Sometimes they will push a tea, and depending on the case, I might agree to taste it, or reject the offer. If nothing else is interesting… after the first tea is exhausted, it’s best to walk out quickly without asking for the price.
If, however, the tea is decent… then comes the second tension point. Price. How much is the tea? There’s a little tension and suspense involved here. Since almost no store label their tea’s prices (and the ones that do label it… it’s best to ignore the label) asking for the price represents another sort of commitment, however slight. Sometimes, one’s pleasantly surprised, as in the case of the Yiwu I bought recently. Sometimes, one’s nastily surprised, as is the case of many, many cakes I have never bought. Sometimes, the price is in an acceptable, but slightly high range.
For prices that are astronomical… I will usually walk out after saying something like “let me walk around a little” or “I’ll think about it”, but always after drinking a few more infusions of the overpriced tea. Walking out right away is rather rude (and they do remember you). It is also a good idea to ask for the name card of the place, as if you’re going to come back. If the price is right, then it’s just a matter of whether or not you want it badly enough, and how much of it to buy. If it’s in the bargaining range… then it’s a battle of wits.
I’m not a great bargainer, although now knowing prices of puerh teas in general helps my bargaining. It’s also a matter of what is acceptable for myself. Getting 15 or 20% off isn’t too difficult, usually, although that can really depend on the initial quote and the tea in question. As I’ve noticed more recently, prices quoted to me have gotten lower over time, which also means less room for bargaining.
Even paying can be a bit of a struggle. Even after you’ve agreed to the price and the amount of tea to buy, it sometimes takes a bit more sitting around, chatting, and maybe even tasting before you go and pay for the tea. I have a feeling that me being Chinese makes things a little more difficult, actually, because I need to observe common courtesy rules. Often, I will make up some excuse, such as “I need to go meet somebody” or “dinner time” to bring up the paying thing. It’s sometimes more awkward when another customer is around, because the shopkeepers might not want them to know how much you paid for the tea. Since pricing is arbitrary, if I have gotten a low price for a cake, they don’t want others to know. It’s best to suggest such things when nobody’s around, or when the other customer is busy with other things.
Maybe I can afford to be ruder now, just because I’m leaving China soon, but these people have amazing memories. For example, one girl from a shop that moved recognized me even though I have not been there for about half a year (and even that time, only briefly). I didn’t know it was the same store and definitely don’t remember her. It’s a small place, and so… keeping one’s reputation is important. Apparently, among some people anyway, I’m known as a picky customer. I guess I don’t mind that so much.