Watching the Super Bowl in China

As we approach the Super Bowl I like to think back to my early days in China when if I wanted to watch an important football game I had to go to great lengths to do so. In those days American sports were not broadcast on regular Chinese TV and there was no cable. But there were ways to watch.

My first year in Shanghai I wanted to see the 49ers play the Redskins in the first round of the NFC playoffs. I am from the SF Bay Area and grew up a 49er fan and I was a big fan of the team in the Joe Montana/Steve Young era so this was a game I did not want to miss. I called the Sheraton in Shanghai, one of two International hotels in China at the time, and asked them if they had CBS and if I could watch the game there. They replied that it would be OK but that I would have to check in for the night. In those days one night in the Sheraton cost $ 170.00, not really something I could afford but which I agreed to do nevertheless. That the game was to be coming on at 5 am did not discourage me from putting a small cache of chips, beer and candy in my backpack and putting on my 49ers jersey when I headed over to the hotel. In those days no one cared what foreigners did in China and I was determined to watch the game just as if I were back in SF watching, even if that meant drinking Qingdao beer at 5 am. To say I was excited would be an understatement.

I got up around 4 am to see the tail end of the Buffalo-Oakland game on the only foreign channel in the hotel. So far, so good I thought to myself. At 5 am I called the front desk and asked them to switch over to CBS which they promptly did. About 20 minutes into the first quarter, as I was reclining on the bed munching some chips, the signal faded and was then lost. I quickly got on the phone to the front desk to complain. Over the course of the next three hours the staff at the Sheraton did everything they could do restore the signal. They sent a group of 3-4 technicians up to the roof of the hotel to adjust the dish in the torrential rain. I will never forget the sight of these guys coming down to my room, the rain dripping profusely off their pochos to report to me in great earnestness that they were working on it.   But in the end and despite the heroic efforts of the Sheraton staff the game never came back on. I had to wait until the next day to read in the paper that the 49ers had won. I had paid $ 170.00 to watch 20 minutes of a football game. If there was any consolation it was later when I wrote to the Sheraton and in return received a couple of complimentary nights at the hotel.

The following week when the 49ers were playing the Giants in the NFC Championship I used my connections at the University where I was teaching to watch the game in the University Communications center. This was no mean feat given the strong distrust of foreigners in those early days of Deng’s reforms. At 5 am on game day a technician from the Communications Center met me at the building where the satellite dish was located. It was a fortress and there were security guards but I had clearance and I was ushered into a room which looked like Mission Control. I got to see the game on a big screen TV, the first one I had ever seen. I had dispensed with the beer and chips but had a great time watching the game and chatting with the technicians. The Chinese love sports and I think they appreciated my fanatical loyalty, even though American football was a game they did not understand. Unfortunately the 49ers lost. But at least I had found a more economical alternative to checking into a hotel. Or so I thought. When I asked later that week about watching the Super Bowl between the Giants and the Bills the University said they could no longer permit me to watch the satellite TV. And that was that. In retrospect I was somewhat relieved that the 49ers had lost, for had Roger Craig not fumbled with two minutes to go in the game I most likely would have been back at the Sheraton the following week.

After that first experience trying to follow the 49ers while living in Communist China things got a lot easier. Expat bars opened up and among them was a Canadian managed sports bar that had a satellite dish. If I didn’t watch there I got to know people who lived in luxury foreign residences where there was a satellite dish. So on game day I could always hop in a cab and go somewhere to watch the game.By the time I left Shanghai, in 1995, the Super Bowl was broadcast live on Shanghai Cable TV. It was still odd eating guacamole at 8 am but I won’t tell you it was not fun

That last Super Bowl in 1995, when the 49ers were playing the Chargers, was on Chinese New Year. I arranged to watch at a friend’s house and I brought along some fireworks, because it was Chinese New Year and I thought it would be fun to light off fireworks after each 49er score. The 49ers racked up 55 points that day and I am sure must have cut a very strange figure to some of the octogenarians in that alley every time I ran outside in my red jersey and bandana to light off some MD-80s and Roman Candles.

Watching the Super Bowl in China these days is probably no different than watching in America. The game is on everywhere. There are replica jerseys on the streets of Beijing and Shanghai on game day. There are Super Bowl parties everywhere. But I am glad that when I lived in China East was East and West was West. We had a window onto a unique China in reform that few people were privileged to gaze through. And even mundane activities, like watching a football game, were seldom mundane.

Enjoy the game !

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Four Maxims that will help you succeed in China

Sometimes I have found that I come up with catch phrases when giving advice to people who want to source in China so I thought I would publish a few of these here today. They are easy to remember and reflect some valuable wisdom acquired over the past 25 years.

1.) The best way to work with a problem supplier is to avoid them altogether. I get emails from people all the time who are having problems with their suppliers and it usually comes out that the person did not really research the supplier fully before giving them an order. In many cases the supplier is just someone the person met on Alibaba or another internet site. I often think the best way to find a good supplier is to eliminate as many bad suppliers as you can. You do this by doing your Due Diligence (DD).

2.) Work with your vendor, not against them. Too often people who source in China have a mindset that their Chinese suppliers are there to serve them and that they (as the buyer) can dictate the terms of the relationship. Wrong. Mutual respect is the basis for any successful relationship in China and you have to show your vendors respect at all times. When you have problems don’t look for blame. Look for solutions (this reads like another good maxim in and of itself).

3.) When doing business in China you need to be patient. And when you think you cannot be patient any longer, you still have to be patient. Patience is the one virtue you need more than any other when you source in China. When you rush your orders, rush your vendors that is when problems happen. So give yourself plenty of time on your orders. And, more importantly, give your vendors time.

4.) Be Calm, Be Clear, Be Polite, Be There. I had a customer once who had a lot of experience in China, having sourced there for years, but she found that this rhyme really summed best what it takes to succeed in China so she printed it out and put it over her desk. If you are sourcing in China, you should do the same.

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Ordering in small QTYs when you are starting a business

I have a client who is starting a new line of private label products and he wants to order in small QTYs from China, the goal being to see which products do well and which products do not  before he pours a lot of investment into anything. These are low value added products which retail at under $ 20.00. He sent me a list of about 10 products and the QTYs he wants to get from China are from 250-500 pcs per item. I like my customer’s common sense here, for I think in any China sourcing project it is good to start small, no matter what your projections or gut feeling may say. At the same time, often what gets a vendor’s interest is large order QTYs so an order of 250 pcs may have few takers. And if someone did take the order, it would not be a priority. The one exception would be if my client had a longstanding relationship with one factory. In this case the factory would willingly take the order because they would view it in terms of the larger relationship. Getting factories with whom you have done business over the years to take small orders is rarely a problem. But my client is starting out so he really does not have these kinds of relationships with factories in China right now.

For this reason, I have advised him that it is best to work through a trading company with this order, and one that specializes in the type of product he wants to import. In addition to run-of-the-mill trading companies that run the gamut in terms of what products they sell, you will find trading companies in China that are dedicated to one product category only e.g. auto parts, to stationary items, to toys, to baby products etc. I worked through a trading company once that specialized in silk flowers and automotive parts. It is an odd pairing but it worked for me because I was sourcing silk butterflies for a company in California. Had I been sourcing refrigerator magnets it probably would not have worked. So if you are looking for a trading company, it is good to remember this. Because the last thing you want to do is unknowingly give an order to a trading company that really has no expertise in the product you are interested in. You have no way of knowing this unless you do your research.

At the same time working through a trading company means that my client will have to lower his product standards considerably. Because trading companies are not the primary manufacturer and cannot be expected to attach importance to any but the most basic quality requirements of the customer one has to lower their standards accordingly. So when my client is already voicing about how he can tweak this or that on a product or how he can improve quality, I told him, forget about that. You are just ordering 250 pcs of something with minimal value. Right now just see if you can get these products out of China with your own label at a cost that works for you. Once you do that you can gauge the interest in the market. Even if a customer buys something and returns it for quality issues, my client will have seen that there is interest in the product, which I think is his goal now. When he knows which products garner interest and which do not he can then start thinking about bigger QTYs and approaching factories directly with orders that will get their interest. And then he can spend more time thinking about product quality and design.

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When your business grows, you need to grow with it

The owner of a small company in Chicago called me this week. His company manufacturers a kitchen product and they have been in business for about 7 years. In that time they have gone from one employee to eight. They bring in 3-4 containers a month from China and they are showing up in a lot of major stores now including Pottery Barn and BBB. The owner, Randy, told me that he has some worries as his business begins to grow, his main concern being that he has no idea who in China is making his product, as an agent there in Chicago handles all of his orders. As he rather bluntly but succinctly put it to me, “if this guy gets hit by a bus tomorrow then my business is screwed.” He is correct there. The lack of transparency in your supply chain should be a big concern, and the bigger your volume the more you should worry. Randy told me his agent there in Chicago seems reluctant to divulge the name of the factory in China to him, something he is becoming more uncomfortable about. At the same time he has an offer from another Chicago-based agent to handle the business. This new agent is promising him NET 60 terms. The current agent requires a 25 % deposit and payment in full once orders have been received so this is another reason Randy is looking at alternatives now. He called me to ask what I thought he should do.

My advice to Randy was to suggest a trip to China with his current agent to look at his product, see the factory and maybe inspect an order. He has not been to China yet and it is time, after 7 years, that he went. I told him that he has every right to see where his product is being made and to meet the people who are making it. If his current agent balks at this suggestion then Randy should begin to look for a new agent ASAP or, better yet, consider finding a factory and going direct to China with his orders. He seemed to think this was a good idea. I emphasized that his current agent has helped him to build his business so he should appreciate that and give this agent a chance to work with him on making his supply chain more transparent and efficient. But Randy’s is a very reasonable concern and his agent should know this.

Regarding, the new agent who is offering Randy NET 60 terms, I told him I have never heard of anyone offering NET 60 out of China. Randy said he believed the agent had a relationship with the factory that allowed him to offer these terms. That is very possible because most agents in the US have close relationships with factories in China. In many cases the agent in the US is a relative of someone at the factory in China. Still it just seems too good to be true and I don’t think any factory in China is willing to take that risk. I mean the goods could sit in Randy’s warehouse for a month before he was asked to pay for them under a NET 60 arrangement. Anyway, I told Randy not to put much credence into this offer but it wouldn’t hurt to do a small order or two with this agent to see if he honored the terms and, more importantly, how quality held up.

Overall, Randy is thinking in the right direction. His business is changing and he sees the necessity to change the way he does business.

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