From Zero to Hero. Sourcing in China (Or anywhere else, for that matter.)

So, you have weighed the pros and cons, and have decided you are going to manufacture your product in China. Now what?

I will make the assumption (although I could be incorrect), that you have not manufactured offshore before. I will also assume you do not have any associates that can point you in the right direction, or refer you to a manufacturer. My final assumption is that your product is a basic item.

So where do you start?

As this is a quick start guide, I will look at the quickest way to get your manufacturing going.

Just keep in mind that this does not preclude some due diligence and common sense on your part.

Firstly, no matter what your product is, do a little bit of research on manufacturing in China.

Even if you have manufactured in other countries, every country differs in many ways, so getting a feel of the place is important.

A quick Google search will bring up many results. For someone in the apparel field, a search of  apparel manufacturing in China, brings up nearly 600 000 results.

Try to pick some unbiased or neutrally sounding websites. The first two pages of the Google search, should give you a broad idea of the current situation from regulatory requirements to the exchange rate.

Once you have done a little bit of research and have an idea of what you can expect, it’s time to look at actually manufacturing in China. This seems like a daunting task, but with a bit of common sense can be done with relative ease.

The quickest way to get started is to use the internet’s multiple B2B sites.

I suggest making use of the main sourcing websites for Chinese manufacturing, such as Alibaba, Made in China, and Global Sources.

You can either search directly for potential manufacturers, or place a buying lead where manufacturers will contact you based on your lead. Either way keep in mind the following.

  • Many suppliers on all these sites are “dead”. What this means is that they are not in business anymore, or they do not make use of the site anymore. So, if you contact them via the site, you will not get a reply. Most sourcing sites have a number or percentage indicating the supplier’s response rate to enquiries. For example, Global Sources will indicate both the response rate and average response time.
  • Try to stick to verified suppliers. Whether this verification status means they are paying a fee to be on the site, or have been audited by the site, is debatable. However, it usually indicates they are active on the site.
  • Narrow down your geographic area. China is a huge country. It does however, have manufacturing clusters or hubs. These are areas that specialize in manufacturing specific products.
  • Be extremely specific as to what you are looking to produce. Give an accurate description, units per order, any required inspection levels or quality levels, required certification for both the manufacturer and the product, country that you importing to, payment terms, and Incoterms.
  • Ensure your profile is as complete as possible. All these sites require registration by buyers, and an accompanying profile. The better your profile, the more seriously manufacturers will take you.

Expect to start getting responses within ten minutes. All these sites will notify manufacturers of a buying lead as soon as it is posted or as soon as you contact a supplier through the site.

Once you get responses, and you will get plenty, you need to sort the responses. You are only looking for certain responses.

  • Ignore all responses that look generic or cut and pasted. These are easy to pick out.
  • Ignore all responses that mention any terms different to the ones you have requested. For example, if you state you are looking for 500 units, and the response from the manufacturer mentions an MOQ (Minimum Order Quantity) of 1 000 units, ignore them. If you state you pay using a Letter of Credit, and they mention a deposit and balance on delivery, ignore them.
  • Ignore all responses that are badly written, such as those with a lot of spelling or grammar mistakes. Remember, you are dealing with someone thousands of kilometers away, so you want good communication.
  • Ignore all responses three or four days after placing your lead or contacting a manufacturer. You want timely communication.

To sum this all up. You only want to deal with manufacturers that communicate well and in a timely manner, read your buying lead or enquiry properly and take note of the specifics, and take the time and effort to give a proper response.

Once you have narrowed down the manufacturers to a manageable amount, it is time to start looking at the manufacturer or manufacturers (you may need more than one), that you think are suitable.

Keep in mind that these manufacturers will usually contact you via the site’s messaging service. Once you have narrowed the manufacturers down, move outside the messaging service to email.

It is much easier as most of the messaging services are not user friendly, and require an app for a smartphone.

Now you need to send the potential manufacturers information for costing. Ensure this information is complete and laid out in a logical manner, with all specifications.

Also ensure that at this time, you re confirm all your business terms, such as lead times, sampling requirements, payment terms, Incoterms, inspection requirements, quality requirements, target prices, etc.

I suggest you have at least 5 potential factories at this stage, as some will drop out of the race for various reasons.

Some of these manufacturers may have been audited by third parties or by customers. Ask if they have been audited and for copies of the reports.

You can also get a third-party inspection agency to do an audit on your behalf. An audit is usually in the range of US $ 250 to US $ 350. Intertek and SGS are the biggest and most well-known of these third-party inspection agencies.

Also ask for factory profiles. A professional factory should have a profile giving information on the factory’s product, machinery, in house peripheral services, customers, and any certification.

 

Once prices start coming back, lay them out in a spreadsheet to get a comparison. Some will be ridiculously high, while some may be very low.

Resist the urge to take the lowest prices. A simple average of the prices you get back, should give a decent idea of the market price you should be paying.

A common tactic to look out for, is manufacturers who give a low price for the first production run, and then hiking this by 20% or more for the next production run. They will all give you the same reason when this is queried. “You were a new customer, so we gave you a special price.” There logic is that it will cost you more to find a new supplier, than to pay them extra. However, once you give in to this it will continue.

I personally mention this to manufacturers, and tell them I am aware of this tactic, so they must not try it, when I send items for pricing. Do not be afraid to be direct, as long as you keep it professional.

Also keep in mind that there is room to negotiate in all these prices. No manufacturer will give their best price first, in the same way the target price you gave them is not your best price.

When you are costing, remember that the manufacturers price is not the price you are concerned with. You need to calculate your landed price. This is the price of getting the product to your door, in your local currency. You can usually work this out using a factor, relatively easily.

I suggest you try to narrow down your suppliers to a primary manufacturer and a back-up manufacturer, in case things go wrong with the primary. It happens.

If your product can be counter sampled, get your primary manufacturer to do so. This might have a cost. Ensure you agree that this cost will be deducted from the cost of the confirmed order. They may also have samples based on product similar to yours that they can send you.

Once you have confirmed all the prices and you are happy with the counter samples, an order can be placed, and your China manufacturing journey has begun.

Good luck.

11 Questions you should ask yourself before sourcing in China.

Sourcing products in China, or any foreign country can be challenging for a person or business doing it for the first time.

In many cases buyers are drawn to the “Made in China” benefits, such as easily accessible manufacturing clusters, full service capabilities of suppliers, modern infrastructure, and lower costs to name a few, without being fully prepared to place orders offshore.

This article will highlight 11 of the most important questions a buyer new to Chinese sourcing should ask themselves. It is by no means exhaustive, but if you can answer these questions, you should be well set up to start your Chinese sourcing project.

Keep in mind that these are questions, and not answers. I have attempted to answer the questions in a very general way. There are many more answers to these questions, but then I would need to publish a book. Spend some time doing your own research on the below questions.

1.      Am I prepared for offshore sourcing?

This question seems quite obvious, but offshore sourcing requires a lot of preparation. Preparation is CRITICAL.

Many buyers are simply not prepared for this.

See the next ten questions for what proper preparation should entail.

2.      What regulations should I be aware of?

Like any country, China has its own regulations.

These range from financial to environmental.

I specifically mentioned environmental, as this area has come under a lot of scrutiny lately. Many factories have been closed by the government for failing to meet environmental regulations.

If you are sourcing from such a factory you have a problem. Some of these factories get closed for good, and some just until they meet the required regulations. Either way this is a major issue for a buyer. A basic internet search should give you an idea as to what is currently being clamped down on. Speaking to people on the ground is also encouraged.

Recently, local authorities started clamping down on polluting dyeing factories in Fujian Province. I know of a few buyers, whose production was affected.

It is also important to keep in mind, that a strict enforcement of a specific regulation, might not be nationwide at any specific time. Local provincial governments have different priorities at any given time.

Don’t forget your own country will have similar regulations for imported goods. For example, most countries have banned lead based paint, metal apparel trims need to be nickel free, etc.

Be sure you are aware of the laws, standards, and regulations that relate to the product you want to import.

3.      What business terms are right for me?

If you are used to sourcing locally, your business terms will differ from international business terms. Be aware the different INCOTERMS (FOB, CIF, EX WORKS, etc.), and payment options (Letter of Credit, Deposits with balance payments, etc.). Ensure you decide which works best for you in advance. For example, check out, INCOTERMS-WIKIPEDIA, and TRADE FINANCE-WIKIPEDIA.

4.      Can the supplier make/supply my product?

This might seem obvious, but it has caught many a seasoned China hand out. Myself included. Ask potential suppliers questions that will test their knowledge of the product, as well as photos or samples of previous production. Get customer references if you can.

In the apparel field, factories are often categorized by the fabric they work with. It will either be knitted fabric or woven fabric.

However, there are many sub categories. A factory specialized in jeans (woven fabric), could not make performance winter jackets (also woven fabric).

Drill down to the sub categories when sourcing.

5.      How do I deal with quality control?

How do you intend to manage your quality standards when the supplier is thousands of kilometers away?

This is a critical question.

Make sure that you know your product’s quality standards well in advance. This sounds obvious as well. However, I have dealt with many new buyers, who did not know their quality standard. The usual reason for this is that when sourcing locally, they can physically see the product with relative ease whenever they want, the local supplier is aware of the standards and will meet them automatically, and recourse for defective product is far easier. If you use a trading company, ensure that you discuss quality control with them. A good trading company must have quality controllers/inspectors, who visit suppliers regularly.

6.      Where in China is the best place for me to source from?

China has many centralized manufacturing hubs, where suppliers of specific products or commodities are concentrated.

This is very useful to narrow your search down. Do some research into these hubs.

A useful link is Berkley Sourcing Group . This is by no means exhaustive, but will give you a general idea where to look. If you use a trading company, it is important that they have an office or representation in the area.

7.      How do I communicate effectively?

Also keep in mind that English is not China’s first language. Most suppliers have good English speaking staff to deal with foreign buyers, but communication problems will occur.

If you find a supplier with excellent English abilities, this is a bonus, as it will reduce communication errors.

These communication errors can be major or minor. Either way, be prepared for them.

The best ways to avoid these are to use basic words where possible, as opposed to less known synonyms, do not use any slang or abbreviations, and use proper punctuation.

Also, do not be afraid to ask questions if something is not clear.

Make sure your staff know this. Sometimes it is better to have one of your staff members dedicated to communicating with all Chinese suppliers.

This may not be practical if you have multiple suppliers/product ranges.

In this case have a “go to” person for communication issues.

8.      Should I deal directly with a factory or trading company/agent?

This is a very subjective area. However, for someone new to sourcing in China, a good trading company will be beneficial. The emphasis is on “good”. There are many, many trading companies in China. As with anything else, some offer excellent services, while some do not.

When dealing with a trading company, you need to determine whether they are experienced in your product/products, their proximity to suppliers, how often their staff visit suppliers to check up on orders, their quality control procedures, their communication, their meeting of deadlines, and whether or not they will offer you trade references.

It is also important to keep in mind with trading companies, that big is not necessarily better. A very large trading company will likely be diversified in many product categories, but due to their size, will require large orders. Essentially, smaller orders will not be a priority. For someone starting off sourcing in China, the massive traders are not the best option. This is simple economics.

One definite benefit of a good trading company, will be their ability to ensure all local laws and regulations are met with respect to your order.

They will also ensure all the accompanying paperwork is in order, and manage your order, from beginning to end.

If you want to source directly, there are many resources out there. On the internet you can use popular sites, such as Alibaba.com, Made in China.com, and Global Sources.com.

It is really a matter of what you are comfortable with.

9.      Managing expectations.

One of the biggest issues with sourcing in China is managing your own expectations. This ties in to other questions, such as communication and business culture.

It is likely you will need to follow up continuously with suppliers, have delays, have communication issues, face cultural differences, and face a fair bit of frustration.

This is normal, as the Chinese can be a bit difficult to deal with.

However, none of these are deal breakers. Just expect them. Things will usually not go smoothly, and there will be bumps in the road. Definitely more so than sourcing locally.

As long as you expect these, and do not overreact to them, they are perfectly manageable. Build time in to your sourcing and production schedules for these.

The old adage, hoping for the best, but expecting the worst, is always applicable.

10.  Am I able to visit the supplier?

You should visit your supplier/suppliers, if possible.

In fact, I always recommend this.

It is important for a few reasons.

Firstly, you can verify your supplier/suppliers personally.

Secondly, by visiting their factory, you will see if they can make your product. If you are dealing with a trading company, they will organize factory visits.

Lastly, it creates a personal relationship that cannot be replicated by email, phone, or Skype.

11.  How do I deal with the business culture in China?

People often hear horror stories about the failure to follow the business culture and protocols in China. Luckily these types of issues have decreased substantially over the last 10 to 15 years.

As China has become more globalized, business practices have modernized. Many Chinese have studied foreign trade as part of their tertiary education, or have studied at Western institutions in China. An increasing number are studying abroad.

As the Chinese become accustomed to doing business with foreign buyers, they have gained an understanding of foreign business culture.

Twenty years ago, receiving a business card from a Chinese businessperson with one hand was seen as very insulting. Today, it is not a big issue.

Basically, try to follow business protocols where possible, but you are not expected to do everything right.

I would, however, recommend doing some reading on Chinese business culture, or a bit of internet research. It will provide a lot of insight.

You do not need to read 10 books on Chinese business culture, each containing the same information, guaranteeing to improve you chance of success, claiming to be the foremost book on the subject, and warning you that your business will collapse if you do not read said book.

A lot of these authors are naïve to think that a Chinese businessperson, has not studied the business practices of your country.

Also speak to people that currently do business in China. They are a wealth of information.

 

I hope you find these questions useful. Good luck with your sourcing in China.

Beyond Alibaba!

If you have sourced in China before, I bet the first thing that comes to mind is Alibaba.

This is a perfectly normal reaction. Alibaba is a very useful and convenient sourcing platform.

Post a buying lead, and you will have dozens of responses within a few hours. Even some in a few minutes. You can just sit back and relax while suppliers come to you. To most this is ideal. Put in minimal effort, for maximum returns.

But have you ever asked yourself whether there are alternatives to Alibaba? The answer is a resounding “Yes”. And many might be better suited to your needs.

Before we look at a few alternatives beyond Alibaba, you might want to know why you should look any further, if Alibaba has worked for you.

Simple logic is that you can only judge the effectiveness of Alibaba if you have something to compare it to. If you have not looked any further than Alibaba, you have nothing to measure it against, objectively or even subjectively.

I could write about the shortcomings of Alibaba, but this is not what this article is about. A simple Google search provides enough of these.

Instead we will simply look at some alternatives you can explore.

Business Networking

A useful alternative to Alibaba is networking, both offline and online.

I am sure that you have colleagues in the same industry as you. Ask them for a supplier reference, or if they know of any good suppliers.

It is in their interest to give you these details. It might seem counter intuitive for a business to share its good suppliers with anyone else. It actually gives them a valuable tool. Leverage.

Think about it. If the supplier misbehaves with an order, it also risks the referred buyer’s order. The supplier knows the two buyers are in contact, and that they will probably discuss any misdeeds by the supplier. Therefore, the supplier risks losing more business than it would without the referral.

Make use of professional networking sites such LinkedIn . There are thousands of suppliers in every industry here, and they are connected to thousands of buyers. There are also plenty of industry specific groups that are also a good source of suppliers.

One of the best things about LinkedIn is that you can get supplier references by connecting to a supplier’s network.

If you use a supplier you have found on LinkedIn, and there are problems with your order, the supplier risks this being discussed on the site. If a supplier does a good job, you can create some goodwill by mentioning this to your network.

The main downside with LinkedIn and other professional networking sites, is that it takes time to build up a network, and use it effectively. A strong network can also take a few years to build up.Joining groups is far quicker and will result in quick references and advice.I suggest checking out the following link; LinkedIn-Beginner Tips.

Joining your local Chamber of Commerce, is also a way of networking with others. So is joining the local federation representing your industry.

Trade-Shows

There was a world before Alibaba, and many businesses sourced through trade shows, both in their native country, and abroad. There are still thousands of trade-shows every year, and they are still valuable as sourcing tools for a number of reasons.

You can meet suppliers face to face. This goes a long way to establishing a relationship. It is far better than an “email” introduction.

Face to face meetings usually result in clearer communication. Important points can be stressed.

Face to face meetings give you the ability to “feel out” suppliers before doing business.

The supplier will have physical samples of its products.

There will be multiple suppliers in one venue.

Business deals can be done immediately at a trade-show if you so desire.

 

Here is a link to the important annual trade shows in China. China Trade Shows.

Many Chinese suppliers will also exhibit at local trade shows in your country. A good example is Magic in Las Vegas every February.

There will be plenty of trade shows in your country, too. An internet search is a good start.

 

Other B2B Websites

Although Alibaba is the biggest and most well-known B2B site, there are many more. Some of these tend to offer a better user experience. I personally prefer the interface (less clutter) and ease of Global Sources. You can also check out Made in China.

Another advantage of alternative sites, is the lack/reduction of spam. I can honestly say, out of the numerous sites I use, Alibaba creates the most spam. They are also extremely pushy in their mails trying to sell me Gold Member status, which I do not appreciate. It often borders on unprofessional behaviour

A Web Search

An old-fashioned internet search often leads to good results. Not all suppliers have Alibaba membership, for a multitude of reasons. An internet search often gives you more detailed and accurate information about a supplier than Alibaba. It is not in Alibaba’s interests to police poor performing suppliers, as they risk losing these fee-paying suppliers. The internet is not as kind.

 

A simple Google search of Ningbo, China apparel factories nets a lot of options. There are the usual suspects such as Alibaba and Made in China caught in the search. It also gives some other B2B sites, as well as direct supplier websites.

Another good thing is that peripheral information is caught up in the search, such as advice in finding factories and other useful articles. Some of this makes interesting reading.

In conclusion, a sound sourcing strategy requires that multiple channels are explored.

Being prudent and ensuring all possible channels are explored will not only improve your sourcing ability, but will give you access to new connections, up to date information, and industry news that can directly affect your business.

Tips for China sourcing (and all other countries, too).

As someone who has worked in offshore manufacturing for many years, I often get asked a lot of similar questions from clients. They usually take the following shape;

·        “How do I know if a particular factory is good?”

·        “How do I know if a factory can make my product?”

·        “How do I know if a factory can achieve my required quality level?”

·        “How do I know if a factory is actually a factory and not a trading company or agent pretending to be a factory?”

All of these questions, and more, can be addressed with proper factory verification, or evaluation.

The next question, that comes up, is rather obvious. How do you verify a factory?

There are a number of methods, that can be used individually or in combination.

Third Party Factory Inspections/Audits.

Many third-party inspection agencies, such as Intertek, Asia Inspection, and SGS, will audit a factory for a fee.

This fee depends on a number of factors, which are beyond the scope of this post, but a general report will consist of a number of sections, such as a general overview with a score, a factory profile, workflow and organisation, production lines and their capacity, factory facilities and machinery, amongst others.

There are usually optional things the auditor can check, such as social compliance, R&D, etc.

They will then have a general overview and photos. Specific areas of concern will be noted, as well as recommendations.

Bear in mind that these reports can run into 30 or 40 pages, so I have only covered the tip of the iceberg.

For more detail, you can check Asia Inspections Website, Asia inspection Factory Audit

This method has obvious advantages, such as experienced and certified inspectors, and objectivity.

The major drawbacks are twofold. Firstly, if you want to inspect multiple factories, it can get really expensive. Secondly, an audit is simply a snapshot in time. Things might change tomorrow. A factory might have “borrowed” a machine from a friend’s factory, just to pass the audit.

Sourcing Websites.

The most well-known site for sourcing factories in China, is Alibaba.com. They even have audited Gold Suppliers. This might seem as a one stop shop, but there are also major disadvantages.

Firstly, the coveted Gold Supplier status is purchased. I have been offered it on numerous occasions, and I am not a supplier. They also offer third party inspection services, and trade assurance. However, it is my personal opinion that these are slightly biased in favour of sellers, as Alibaba’s fees from sellers are their bread and butter.

Also keep in mind that these third parties are within Alibaba’s networks, so there is also a vested interest for them to be biased towards Alibaba.

Self-Verification

With some experience, and a bit of common sense, you can self-verify your factory. It will not be as in depth as an audit from a third-party inspection agency, but when you are dealing with multiple factories, the cost of the above-mentioned audits, can be ridiculously high, and usually unaffordable, especially to those new to doing business in China, or any country for that matter.

I often work for start-up clients, who have small orders, and a limited budget. For each client I often need to get quotes from multiple factories, or at least reach out to multiple factories, to see if they will take on my clients work.

The next question would be how to self-verify.

I usually begin with a company introduction, which gives my clients non-negotiable business terms, quality requirements, expected lead times, sampling requirements, etc, as well as my own factory evaluation form the factory needs to fill in.

These two documents are important for a number of reasons.

·        If a factory cannot meet your basic business terms, there is no use wasting time discussing anything further. Rather find out that a factory does not accept letter of credit payments at the beginning. Many new buyers will spend hours and hours with a factory, possibly even visit, and when it comes time to place the order, the factory will state they cannot accept one or another of the buyer’s terms. If you find this out at the beginning. It will save you money and time.

·        The factory evaluation form is obviously not as detailed as a proper audit, but it asks for basic documents, a list of machinery, number of workers, number of production lines, QC department details, sample department details, photos of the factory (internally and externally), whether the factory has the right to export or must export through a trading company, etc. It will tell me if the factory can meet my client’s needs.

·        These two documents require input from the factory, and will give insight into their ability to follow simple instructions, how long it takes them to respond, and to see if they ask the “right” questions. I am not only interested if a factory can make a product. I am also interested to see if they are going to be difficult or easy to manage. If a factory does not confirm they have received my mail, this is a problem, as I will have to follow up. If they say they will return the evaluation form on a specific date, and do not, this is a problem. Especially if they do not inform me of this. Again, I will need to follow up with them.

·        They will let you know if the factory has competent English-speaking staff. Whether you like it or not, English is the international business language.

To put it simply. If a supplier cannot read a document properly, fill in a document properly, follow basic instructions, and miss one simple deadline, they are going to be a problem. Period.

With self-verification, you should still visit the factory prior to doing business. I always raise the importance of this. To be cost effective, set up a trip to see the maximum number of potential suppliers. Take the factory evaluation form and photos to each factory. On many occasions I have been taken to a factory different to the one I have information on. This usually occurs when a trading company or agent, try to pass themselves off as a direct factory. Do not be afraid to ask questions. Often on a factory tour, there will be people other than your contact accompanying you. Ask who they are.

I hope this article gives you some insight into how to verify a factory. Remember, you can never fully eliminate risk. Your goal should always be to reduce any risk as much as possible. Supplier verification goes a long way towards this goal.

Good luck with your China sourcing.

#sourcinginchina

Over the years, one very important thing I have learnt, is that managing clients expectations is often the most difficult part of business.
Not something you learn at University!

Mismanagement 101

I could not make this up if I tried.
I just finished some work for a department of a relatively large Hong Kong trading company.
I could not understand why they needed four merchandisers, as there was barely enough work for three.
It turned out that initially there were four desks in the office, and three merchandisers.
As there was an extra desk, the manager was afraid that someone senior to him, would come to him for a favour, and ask him employ someones child, friend, etc.
As the manager did not want to put himself in this position, he decided to hire someone to fill the desk.
Surely logic entails moving the extra desk out of the office. Far cheaper and easier.
Never under estimate the effect of culture on business.

Email only, please.

People often ask me why I refuse to use any of the instant messaging services (Line, What’s App, We Chat, etc) for business.
I always reply, that today, email is also an instant messaging service. Everyone has their email app on their phone.
What is important to me, is that it creates a chronological paper trail that cannot be disputed, accessable through any computer or smartphone.