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.


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.

Beware the needle! 

A colleague recently showed me some garments that had needle damage.
When I asked him if he discussed needle policy with his supplier, he mentioned that he did not.
Obviously needles need to be replaced at certain intervals by a sewing factory, and very often the factory does not have a good (if any real) needle policy.
However, it is still important for the factory to know, that you know about the importance of a needle policy.

It indicates that you know your business, and indicates to them that this is something you will possibly specifically look for.

Prices, prices, prices! 

Never be reluctant to ask a supplier about a price quoted for a garment, or anything for that matter.
Some people often seem reluctant, especially if the price is good. 
They think questioning it will somehow let it slip, that its a good price. 
But, keep in mind, it could be a mistake on the suppliers part, and when the supplier realises it, you could be in for a shock.
Always double check what a quoted price includes.
Is it for your Incoterm specified? 

Does is include all raw materials and inputs? 

If you have a nominated supplier for trims etc, does it include this cost? 

Does it take into account your payment terms? 

What is the validity of the price? 

How will any exchange rate or commodity price fluctuations impact the price? 

Does it include all sampling required once the order is confirmed? 
I am sure you can think of some more questions, but never be afraid to double check every detail.


See it for yourself! 

Never trust what you see in an apparel factory’s showroom.
See what they are actually making on their line, or what is in finishing, final inspection, or packed in the warehouse. Open a few boxes if neccesary.
On quite a few occasions I have found items in showrooms that were definitely on made by that particular factory. 
In one case a merchandiser from a factory I did business with, opened his own factory, and invited me to visit.
When I commented that he had a lot of garments in his showroom, considering the factory only opened a week before, he admitted with a smile, that the vast majority were store bought. He just needed items to fill his showroom for buyers.
I even once found a sample I sent to a factory to cost, but they never actually produced, at their booth at the Canton fair! 

I am sure many of you have similar stories? 

Excuses anyone? 

Everytime I visit a factory that is not busy, I get the same answer, without even asking the question.”This is our quiet period. In a month, we’ll be full.”
The strange thing is that, I get the same answer no matter what time of the year I visit.
From January to December, I get the same story from about every factory, working well below capacity.

Now we know a lot of business is seasonal, to the extent that there are usually specific times during a year when brands place their bulk orders. 

But, a lot of business is not, where buyers are placing orders throughout the year.
That’s why it was refreshing to get a mail from a Chinese supplier, asking for suggestions to increase business, due to so many buyers moving to lower cost countries, and/or countries with import duty benefits.

Manufacturing Excellence, anyone?

When people ask about “manufacturing excellence”, I often tell then there is no such thing.

They will often look at me as if I am incompetent at best, and insane at worst.

Let me clarify.

“Excellence” comprises many individual items, and if done correctly, the actual physical manufacturing component is maybe 20%.

I am interested in the whole, which if done correctly, is greater than the sum of the parts.

When most people talk about manufacturing excellence, they are only thinking in terms of the actual physical manufacturing of an item. Not the peripheries that make a major contribution to manufacturing excellence.

As this is apparel related, think about a buyer, and what they need. This is not simply a finished garment. This would be too easy, and any half competent factory could do this. What a buyer wants, and what many factories do not realise, is an excellence from first contact, to handover of the order.

This requires excellence in many areas.

From excellent correspondence, excellent meeting of deadlines, excellence of sampling, excellence of quality and excellence of procedures.

Essentially, all of these combined, equate to manufacturing excellence. I am sure most readers could think of a few more, but these are the more critical ones.

We always begin with correspondence, and often it is mediocre, from both manufacturer and buyer. As a manufacturer you need to ensure your correspondence is excellent.

This means;

  • Answering emails in a timely manner. If you cannot answer immediately, let the buyer know this, and tell him when you will answer. Make sure you answer when you say you will.
  • Always confirm receipt of any correspondence.
  • Write mails in a professional manner. Use the person’s name (amazing how many do not), make sure you’re spelling and grammar is correct (spell check and grammar check are on all word programs), and do not use abbreviations. This may cause confusion.
  • Do not use any of your local words/English. IE, most foreign buyers do not know what a crore is.
  • Ensure your mail layout is logical and sensible.

There are many more, but these are the basics.


Next we can look at every buyer’s area of most stress, and one of the areas a buyer will value above most others. Meet your deadlines. And if you cannot, let your buyer know this timeously. Do not blame your contractors, like your printer or dye house. You are responsible for these and their management, not your buyer. There is nothing worse, in my opinion, than excuses blaming the printer, mill, etc.

Take ownership and responsibility. The buyer respects this.

If you cannot meet an agreed upon deadline, advise your buyer timeously, and offer a solution, and another mutually agreed on deadline. You need to offer a solution, not more problems. But, do not offer a solution that involves more cost to a buyer. Any additional cost of missing a deadline, is the manufacturer’s responsibility. Whether is a cost of another screen for a print, or express courier, it is the manufacturer’s expense, as they missed the deadline.

This applies to all deadlines whether they are simple ones like lab dip submission, or delivery of final product. As another example, if a buyers goods fail final inspection, due to a quality issue, the manufacturer should pay for re-inspection.

Excellence of sampling is the next point of excellence. This would apply to items such as counter samples, strike offs, lab dips, trims, etc. Focus on getting it correct the first time, and if you are the merchandiser in charge of the order, ensure you personally check each submission before it is sent. Do not rely on anyone else. This is a Golden rule. If something is wrong, do not send. Tell the buyer and redo. On numerous occasions, I have received submissions from suppliers, with half the agreed contents missing, or incorrect. When I asked the merchandiser if they checked the items personally, most will say no. They relied on the sample room manager of this person, or a worker. Sorry, but there is no excuse for not checking things yourself. You have now wasted both time and money.

You also need to ensure that you only take on orders within your sampling ability. A factory with a four or five person sampling room, will find it impossible to take on a lot of brands, as these often require major sampling ability. Find out your buyer’s sampling requirements at the beginning.


Next, let’s look at excellence of quality. Self-explanatory. Ensure you have sufficient in line and final inspectors and quality control workers.

Ensure they are competent. Do not try to save by not training these staff members, as it will cost you in the long run. Assign responsibility to them, offer a bonus for various points, such as identifying a problem, solving a problem, achieving a pre-determined success rate for quality, award production lines that achieve high quality levels, etc. Some factories sacrifice quality for speed, believing this is more efficient. It is not. It is a matter of achieving the correct balance.

An additional point here is to find out the buyer’s required quality level, at the beginning of discussions.

There is no use taking on an order, where the required quality is higher than your factories ability. Some factories are better in basic standard items, like t shirts or hoodies. Do not take on complicated items that are outside your factory’s ability.


Excellence of procedures, is where many factories fall short. Procedures need to be put in place internally, not to ensure problems do not occur, for this is impossible. Rather, to catch problems early enough to be able to rectify them before it is too late. Needle policy is one important procedure often not implemented properly. In line quality control is another I often come across. All the quality controllers are at the end of their assigned line, instead of checking each machine operator individually, by walking the line as well.

If the operator at the beginning of the line makes a mistake, by the time the garment gets to the end of the line it is too late. Solve the issue at its origin. Also ensure you have you engineer check and adjust the settings on machines for each order, and continues to check settings when the order is going down the line. It is not enough to set and forget. The machines need to be checked on a regular basis. Maintenance is another procedure often not followed correctly. Especially preventative maintenance. Do not wait for a machine to develop a problem, and then come to fix. Prevent the problem, by having a correct maintenance schedule.


You may have another definition for “Excellence in manufacturing”, but the important thing is not to develop tunnel vision and only focus on the physical manufacturing. You do this at your peril, and it will cost you a lot more in the long run. A more holistic approach is the way forward, to achieve excellence.