Worried about making that first trip to China ? Relax !

I was thinking today about the conversation I had the other day with the NYC lady who, at the end of this month, is headed off to China for the first time.  She certainly sounded nervous, knowing no Chinese as she does and feeling very panicky at the mere thought of getting lost over there, even though she will be staying in a reputable hotel and has already arranged her SIM card on arrival in China. I re-assured her as best I could.  Guangzhou, after all, is a very modern city and boasts a very modern, user-friendly subway that would be the envy of most cities around the world.  In addition Chinese people are very hospitable and one really does not have to worry about getting lost in a big Chinese city.  There are always people who will help you and signs in English are everywhere. Let me put it this way: you are safer knowing no Chinese and getting lost in a major Chinese city than you are getting lost on your own turf, that is in a major American city.  So she really has nothing to worry about, other than perhaps getting ripped off by an unscrupulous taxi driver.  Even that though can be avoided by taking taxis stationed at the hotel where she is staying and having the hotel doorman quote the cab driver on the fare.

But I thought back to my first trip to China.  Now that was scary. It was 1988, just ten years into Deng’s reforms.  I flew over on a Canadian Airlines flight from SFO to Beijing.  I remember the flight because NBC correspondent Keith Miller was on the same flight, flying coach, as well as the Canadian Olympic Basketball team.  The plane landed in Beijing on a warm July evening.  There was an enormous crowd of people at the gate coming out of Customs and not all of them were smiling.  There were very few foreigners in China then and anti-American, anti-Western sentiment was palpable.  To say I felt uncomfortable would be an understatement. My Chinese teacher in NYC had arranged for me to stay with her husband at their apt in Beijing but I had no idea what he looked like and all I had was a name and address. In those days most people in China did not have private telephones but used a communal phone so if for some reason we did not hook up I had no idea what I would do. Fortunately, after several minutes scanning the faces in the crowd (they were as curious to me as I was to them)  I spotted my name on a piece of cardboard in a sea of arms and I knew that must be my contact.  Needless to say I was very relieved.

Over the next few days going around Beijing I saw perhaps one or two foreigners, and that is all. Although a lot of people smiled at me, not everyone did, and on one occasion we were refused service in a restaurant because I was American.  My host was embarrassed by this but in those days that was par for the course in China.  It was not an easy place to be and I was very careful not to get lost. Nowadays when I go to China, I feel like I am home.  Imagine that !

But I kind of chuckle when people come to me nowadays and tell me they are nervous because they are going to China for the first time.  Believe, me, you have nothing to worry about !

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Book Review: Age of Ambition, Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China. By Evan Osnos

I always enjoyed Evan Osnos’s articles on China when he was the Beijing based correspondent for the New Yorker. Osnos lived in Beijing for eight years and speaks Chinese, two attributes that informed his writing on China which I have always found to be informative and entertaining.

Osnos’s recent book on China, Age of Ambition, Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China is every bit as good as his writing in the New Yorker. He paints portraits of some of today’s most well-known dissidents including Ai Wei Wei and Chen Guangcheng as well as the popular anti-government blogger Han Han. And there are profiles as well of figures who have risen to become part of China’s elite, including a lady who runs China’s most popular dating site and a prominent journalist. In some instances these are the typical rags-to riches tales that are recounted so often in books on China nowadays and in this respect  Age of Ambition mirrors other recent books on China. Osnos’s book stands out, however, because he has access to many of China’s most central figures, by virtue of his assignment in Beijing for one of America’s most established magazines. For this reason we are often on the receiving end of the Government’s attempts at coercion and censorship, sometimes successful, often not. And that is what this book is really about, China’s hectic change and the Government’s attempts to keep up and to keep order.

There are also very good sections about the China Bullet train disaster, an accident that was very much owing to corruption, and a well-publicized incident in the South in which a small girl was hit by a car and no one came to her aid. These were big news stories both in China and overseas and Osnos gives us riveting accounts of both.

Still there are weaknesses. The Age of Ambition would have profited had Osnos spent a few months in 2nd or 3rd tier cities feeling the pulse of rural China which still makes up over 50% of the population. For example how effective are the Government’s efforts to curb freedom of expression in cities other than Beijing and Shanghai, where Osnos seems to spend most of his time ? In fact Osnos focuses almost exclusively on establishment figures in modern day Beijing, Starbucks or upscale office buildings being the setting for many of his interviews. A portrait of a textile factory owner in Jinagsu grappling with issues such as pollution and labor unrest would have been preferable to the portrait Osnos gives us of the blogger Han Han who, as both fervent anti-government blogger and amateur Formula 1 driver, obviously has some credibility issues. Osnos glosses over the hypocrisy of Han Han and his often banal blog posts and seems more dazzled by Han Han’s celebrity.

Osnos is also overly critical of China’s progress. He lambasts the Government’s censorship efforts, without acknowledging that mob unrest has a long history in rural China going back to the early Nineteenth Century and that Government fears about internet rumors fanning mob violence are in some cases well-founded. Religious cults, for example, pose a far more serious threat to political and social order in China than they do in more advanced democracies like the US or Japan and China has good reason to worry. Osnos moreover belittles China’s achievements in science and technology, not to mention the achievements of a couple of the individuals he has befriended and whom he profiles. He mocks the English teacher Michael’s attempts to master English and yet he portrays Michael as a friend.

Like other more recent writers on China, Osnos lacks the perspective of someone who was present in China in the 1980s and early 1990s when the country was mired in backwardness and had yet to experience the fruits of the Deng reforms. China was one of the poorest countries in the world then. Today it is one of the richest. Development on that scale means big problems and yet too many writers on China today, Osnos being one of them, focus on the problems and seem to forget the achievement, an achievement that long-time China watcher Henry Kissinger calls the “miracle of our time. “

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If you are confused when you hear OEM, you are not the only one.

One of the more confusing terms you hear when you start to source in China is OEM. OEM stands for Original Equipment Manufacturer. It was first used widely in the computer and automotive industries where component parts (numbering in the thousands) were supplied by many different manufacturers and these manufacturers were referred to as OEM suppliers. OEM was simply a term coined to designate the manufacturer of the component part as opposed to the manufacturer of the  product as a whole. Apple Computers for example, manufactures computers made up of thousands of parts. Although Apple may manufacture some parts themselves e.g. computer cases,  most parts, for example. motherboard components are provided to Apple by outside companies which specialize in the manufacture of these parts. These then are known as OEM suppliers.

These days however OEM pretty much refers to any supplier in China, whether they are selling parts or finished goods, In fact most companies you see on Alibaba advertise themselves as OEM suppliers, even those that are really no more than trading companies. So that is one change: Whereas OEM used to refer strictly to a parts it now refers to a part or a finished product if that product is going to be rebranded or sold under private label.

Another change in the meaning of OEM is that it now as often refers to a buyer as it refers to a supplier. If, for example, I buy some toys from China and resell them under my brand in the US I am engaged in the OEM business. In fact, the term OEM, it seems, has really come to be synomous with sourcing in China.

In short, OEM is at once so widely used and yet so confusing that I do my best to ignore it whenever possible. If you are confused then do as I do and pay no attention to OEM.  Using the term adds nothing to your conversation with your supplier and often just comes across as jargon.

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5 questions you need to ask yourself before you source in China

The other day I read an interview with former GE CEO Jack Welch. In the interview he said of China “ China is a very difficult place to do business and you can’t just use simple Western techniques.” I love it when I read these things because as I like to say, if it is that difficult for GE to do business in China, imagine how difficult it is for your garden variety Main St. USA small business to do business there. You just cannot expect not to have problems in China if you do business there and that is why you have to ask yourself a lot of questions before you begin your China sourcing. Because, in fact, if you are not careful you may find that sourcing in China becomes far more expensive than you had anticipated and you put your business at risk. So some of the questions I think every start up or small business owner should ask themselves before they get involved in China are as follows:

  1. What is the true landed cost of my product ?  Landed cost is the cost of the production, inspection, and shipping.  When you consider all these costs your unit cost may go up considerably and well beyond your target cost. I think too many people look at product cost alone and think they have a business. I can remember working for a furniture company and pricing out some chairs for a large retail buyer.  The first cost ( the cost of the product alone) was very good but by the time we added in the shipping costs the project was not viable. The reason: Chairs are bulky, they damage easily and you need to pack them very well. Consequently it is very expensive to ship them from overseas.
  2. What are the packaging costs ?  When you get that quick quote on Alibaba, it does not include packaging.  Retail packaging can be expensive and you need to figure this into your final product cost. You may find that it costs you $0.50 to put packaging on a wholesale $ 3.00 item. Needless to say, that just does not seem worth it.
  3. Who is going to do my inspection in China? Am I prepared to travel to China to do my own inspections? And how much is this going to cost ?  The only way to minimize risk when you source in China is to check the product before the vendor loads it into the container.  Needless to say, if you have a 50,000 pc order and it costs you $ 10,000 to fly to China and inspect it yourself, you will have to add $0.20 to your product cost. So let’s say $ 0.20 for the inspection, $ 0.50 for your creative retail packaging and another $0.25 for shipping. Before you know it that $1.00 you thought it was going to cost you to get a product from China has quickly become $ 1.95, almost twice what you thought.
  4. How much is it going to cost to retain the services of a shipping agent?  International shipping is far too complex to do it on your own.  Any small business that wants to source overseas needs a logistics company or shipping agent. These are the guys who book the vessels and clear customs for you. They can save you a lot of money and you should see them as indispensable to your business.
  5. What product safety requirements does my product have and how much cost is this going to add to the product to have the vendor comply? This is a very important thing to consider. Vendors have different grade materials for different markets.  Usually the stricter the environmental/safety standards, the more expensive the product is.  Sometimes the cost of the product will double if the buyer requires a top grade material.  But if you are selling in a market with these regulations you need to meet them.

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How to choose a Trade Fair in China

This morning I received an email from an American, “Jake” living in Krygstan, a small Central Asia country bordering Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan . He and his wife have a business there selling women’s apparel. He has been buying product from China from a middleman there in Krygstan but he finds prices are too high and that he would be much better off going to China directly. I think he has the right idea. When I lived in China in the 1980s-90s the Silk Road was thriving. Whenever we would go to the wholesale markets in Shanghai we would see we would see traders from all over Central Asia including many of the Soviet Bloc countries (In those days the USSR was intact). And this is still the case today.

Jake told me he is going to Shanghai next month to attend a trade fair and that this will be his first time in China. He was asking me what advice I could give him. The name of the trade show he will be attending was not familiar to me and so my first piece of advice to him was that he should make sure he picks the right trade show, because there are a lot of shows in China, some good but many probably not worth attending. There are shows in China that are full of 3rd tier vendors, usually small cottage industry vendors, and these are probably not the kinds of vendors you want to deal with if you have a design driven product. Yet these shows are well-publicized and you can easily be led to believe you are attending one of the biggest shows in China. You show up in China to find a massive exhibition hall with just a couple hundred trade show booths and no foreign customers in sight. I have seen these shows many times. It is like seeing a watercolor exhibition in the Georgia Dome. So the first thing is to carefully research the fair you are thinking about attending. There are ways to research the fair, reading online reviews of trade fairs in China, asking about the fair in a Linked In Group specific to your industry, and sometimes just asking a handful of Alibaba vendors which shows they attend and see if the show you are interested comes up. It is also a good idea to call a local company that sources overseas and ask them which shows they attend. As long as you have a non-competitive product they should be perfectly willing to share their insights with you. A general rule is this, if you cannot find anyone who has been to the show you are thinking about attending, then don’t think about attending yourself.

I told Jake that he made a good decision to focus on Shanghai as Jiangsu Province, bordering Shanghai, is where so much textile production takes place. But he probably should have waited to attend Intertextile Shanghai, the biggest textile fair in China. The bigger and more established the show, the better vendors you will have a chance to meet, and the more likely it is that you are going to meet someone who can help you build your business. And this is the virtue of the Canton and Hong Kong sourcing fairs as well. These shows are well known in all corners of the world and although there are plenty of vendors you probably do not want to do business with, and although they may not be the best fairs if you have a high end product, you can usually find someone who can teach you a different way to look at your product and thereby help you grow your business.

In short going to a trade fair in China is a good first step. But research the show carefully and find the show that is best for your needs. Or as they say in China 量体裁衣. Cut the garment so that you can wear it.

Here are some more posts on Trade Fairs in China

Canton Fair 2012

Preparing for the Canton Fair

Don’t go unprepared to Trade Fairs in China

Canton Fair 2011

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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When you ship out of China just think FOB

I had an email a couple of weeks ago from someone who wants to ship an order DDU out of China. DDU stands for Delivery Duty Unpaid. It is actually an outdated term having been replaced several years ago by DAP Delivery at Place. In a DAP transaction the seller is responsible for all costs up to the point where the product is delivered. If for example the goods are going from Shanghai to Columbus, Ohio the seller would be responsible for all costs up to delivery in Columbus, with the exception of Duty and administrative costs to get the goods from the port in the destination country to the final destination. This sounds a lot like CIF, the difference being that in a CIF transaction the seller is responsible for the cost to deliver the cargo to the destination port only. At that point the buyer takes over and assumes all costs up to the point of delivery.

Since I have never known anyone to ship an order out of China that was not FOB, and since I know that Chinese vendors do not want to assume risk, what a DAP transaction involves for a seller, I was a little skeptical when I heard about this order. I went online to do some reading about DDU transactions and realize that the only reason a Chinese vendor would consent to DAP is that it allows them to add costs to the project; the vendor selects the carriers and pays VAT and other charges up to the place of delivery. If the vendor is in cohoots with a forwarding company in the US then the charges to deliver the product from port to destination could be excessive. And if you don’t pay those charges they will not deliver your order. Of course, for a first time buyer out of China who has no logistics experience or agent to work with DAP might sound like a very easy solution. But in fact DAP could be both expensive and problematic.

In general anytime you order out of China you really should be looking for FOB terms FOB stands for Free on Board and the seller and buyer share responsibility equally, the seller up to the port of embarkation of and the buyer once the goods have been loaded on to the vessel designated by the buyer or their shipping agent. If you approach a vendor in China and they suggest other then FOB, be skeptical and do some research. Of course there are exceptions to FOB but they are rare for small importers.

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Sourcing effectively in China is about being smart and practical

A small startup in Houston called me last week. They are looking for a supplier in China and they wanted to sound me out about helping them. They are focused on two goals as follows:

  1. They want a native English speaker with China experience to take them into China.
  2. They want to be sure that there are no surprises when they receive their orders.

Let’s look at both of these:

I think they have the right idea in terms of wanting to work with an American who has experience in China. This will save them a lot of time for the cultural gap between China and the US is so vast that you can spend a lot of time trying to bridge that gap, sometimes with little or no success. It just makes a lot of sense to have someone on your team who understands both your business and the country where you are having your product made. I don’t think you can underestimate the value of this. Beyond the obvious there is the trust factor as well. There are very upstanding vendors in China but there are a lot of unscrupulous vendors as well and the latter far outnumbers the former. If you do business with a vendor in China you really have no way to check on them, all the self-promotion and Alibaba gold certifications notwithstanding. If on the other hand you work with a an agent or liaison from your own country you can easily check their references and you will feel confident about going into China. So I think there is a tremendous comfort factor in approaching China with a local on your team as this company from Houston is trying to do. Think about it this way: The best thing is to know you can trust your supplier. But this takes years, if you can reach this level of trust at all. The next best thing is to know you can trust the person taking you into China. This takes a few days.

Their second requirement that they want to be certain that what they order is what they get is wishful thinking. This really is an American way of thinking which has no practical application in China. I told them that the only way to ensure that you are getting what you order is to go to China and inspect everything before it goes into the container. Needless to say, for a small company or start up on a shoestring budget this is not realistic. Even for big companies with big orders 100% inspection is unrealistic. I emphasized that sourcing in China is all about reducing risk. But you can never eliminate that risk altogether ( unless as I said you inspect every piece). The goal should never be a perfect order but simply an order which allows you to meet the demand from your customers with ample stock on hand.

In short, sourcing effectively in China is about being smart, going into China with someone who has experience there and it is about being practical, not expecting perfection from your China partners.

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Looking for a bank to handle your China orders

Someone asked me the other day about setting up a bank account before they start sourcing in China. They wrote as follows: “Are there certain features or account types that are particularly useful to make transactions as efficient as possible?” This is a good question and the short answer is no. I told her that the main thing was to look for a major global bank that has an office in China e.g. Citibank, HSBC, etc. The reason is that there are often problems with international transfers and it is helpful if you have a bank in China to unravel the knots, so to speak, In fact, I would say about half the time that my clients send payment to China there is a problem with something, usually on the paperwork. For example, sometimes a SWIFT code or beneficiary address may be wrong and it can take a few days to straighten out. All the while your sample or production order sits on your vendor’s desk even though they have assured you they are working on it. In fact vendors never start on a project until they get paid. Even if they tell you they have started you can pretty much be sure they have not. So getting a payment to a vendor in China ASAP should be a priority.

So if you have a regional bank that you use for your business and you are thinking about sourcing in China it probably is a good idea to look for another bank that has more international reach and experience.

All banks charge wire transfer fees and you should not be too concerned about this but instead should see it as part of your overhead. I had a customer once who really balked at paying wire fees. She did not want to pay a $30.00 wire transfer fee on a 10 K order. I understand that overhead is a major concern for any small business owner. But considerations about overhead should never take sales off the table. Some banks may have more beneficial rates and a wider range of business services, but are they set up to handle your China business is a question you need to ask.

Another expense to consider is postage fees to get samples back and forth to China. The last four years of helping small businesses and startups source in China has taught me one valuable lesson, never rely on regular air-mail or express mail from the US or Canada to send samples to China. Half of the time they never get there. When sending samples, you should use a major international carrier like UPS, FEDEX or DHL. This is the only way to ensure that your package will reach its destination. Once again, the idea is to use someone who has reach in China. FEDEX does. USPS does not. One of my customers sent a fabric swatch to a vendor in China using USPS Express mail. It cost him $50.00 and it never got there.

Needless to say sourcing overseas can get expensive. These are all “hidden” costs but If you want to source in China, or another country, you have to absorb them.

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