When a sample order takes too long it is time to worry

A client of mine told me today that it took him a few months to get samples from a new vendor in China. The only reasons I can think of are that either the vendor was super busy and not interested in doing a sample order for someone who is not yet a customer; or the vendor was subcontracting the sample order.  In either case it is not a good sign that samples would have taken so long. Most samples take a couple weeks.  A long sample order would be a month.  3 months for a sample screams unorganized.

When I negotiated with this vendor a few months ago, I found them very responsive.  And my client said that the quality of the samples he has received has been good. The only problem is the sample lead time.  In a situation like this I think you have to proceed carefully.  If my client has it in his budget, he should have someone go inspect the factory and talk to the manger to find out why the samples have taken so long. A visit to the factory would probably answer a lot of questions.   If my client does not have a factory audit in his budget then I think I would be very reluctant to give this vendor an order, the good quality of the samples notwithstanding.

I tend to look at sample orders as not only for testing the quality of a product but also for testing a vendor’s responsiveness and reliability.  And I like to tell people that if they have a lot of trouble with a sample order, then imagine how difficult it will be when they have a production order shipping against a cancellation date.  That is when China sourcing threatens your business.

A last thought:  I have been in this situation before.  You have a vendor that delivers you good quality samples within your target cost.  Or you meet a vendor at a trade show with a great product. But they are unreliable in other ways e.g. not showing a particularly friendly or cooperative attitude when solving problems, not doing things when they have promised.   As reluctant as you are you really need to move on.  Because as I said above if the relationship has problems early on, those problems will only get worse later.

Kitchen Anhui FE

Using an overseas 3PL to cut your international shipping costs

A couple former clients of mine have come to me recently asking me to help them find a 3PL, or Third Party Logistics, warehouse overseas. One of the clients is looking for a 3PL warehouse in China close to where they manufacture their product.  They have a lot of clients in Asia and are looking to cut their shipping costs. Currently all their product is shipped to the US and then they ship it out again to countries in Asia. So finding a warehouse in China that will ship their product directly for them is important.  The other client is looking for a contract warehouse in Europe.  They have been using one in the UK but that warehouse is closing so they are looking for another.  The interesting thing about this client is that their 3PL provider in the UK charges a percentage of sales and actually has an incentive to help my client drive sales.  This is a bit unusual as most 3PL providers charge based on volume and labor. But in reaching out to some 3PLs in Europe I did find a few who said they might be willing to work with this arrangement as well.

Needless to say, if your international customer base is growing enlisting the aid of a good 3PL can save you a lot in overhead and shipping.  However, you need to make sure you pick the right provider otherwise you risk an interruption in your supply chain.  If your 3PL suddenly goes out of business then you face a major problem with your customers, what has happened with my client whose UK 3PL has suddenly decided to close.  So longevity is a key here and you only want to pick a 3PL that has an established track record.  You also should ask for references.  Most 3PLs will be happy to pass these along.  And as you do when you look for a prospective supplier in China, there are a couple things to keep in mind:

  • Only approach 3PLs that service companies the size of your own. A large 3PL is probably not going to be interested in your business anyway.
  • Attach much importance to communication when evaluating 3PL providers.IMG_0064

Check your orders before they leave China NOT after

I have had a lot of requests lately from people asking me to help them source in China, everything from kids clothing to electronic toys.  I do not take on just any product and usually if I am not interested in a project then I just point the person to a sourcing company in China who might be able to help them.   And the other day this was the case with a person who came to me asking me to help them source some smoking paraphernalia in China.  Not only am I opposed to smoking but I know nothing about it and for this reason I was not interested in accepting the project.  But the guy seemed nice enough and judging by the drawings he sent to me he is far along in his product development and is very serious about taking his product to market. So I gave him the name of my contact in China but I also gave him some parting advice. That advice was simply to inspect his orders BEFORE they left China.  This is the advice I give everyone but it occurred to me in that instant, when I was just thinking about one piece of useful advice I could offer someone who was about to start sourcing in China, that, yes, checking your orders before they ship from China is the only way you can guarantee that your vendor is delivering to you what you have paid for.  If you inspect an order in China and you don’t like what you see you can ask the vendor to redo the order or you can just walk away.   The most you stand to lose is your 30% deposit.  The analogy I always use when explaining this to people is the shoe analogy.  When you buy a pair of shoes the last thing you do at the register, before the sale is rung up and you take the shoes home, is to open the box to make sure the two shoes in the box are the same size, and that you have one left shoe and one right shoe.  And this is exactly what you have to do when you have an order shipping from China:  Verify.

The one caveat is that small companies or start ups operating on a budget do not have 5K to spend on a one week trip to China to inspect an order.  Or they may not see it as good business sense to spend 5K to go inspect an order, the value of which may be less than the cost of the trip to China itself. This is understandable until you figure that if that order goes badly then you will not only lose your investment but may lose customers and your business as well, assuming you have taken orders that you will not be able to fulfill.  I have one on and off client who got a bad order from China and four years later he is still selling off the defective product after repairing everything himself, piece by piece. I imagine it has also cost him a little money to warehouse the product, one container’s worth, in that time.  And this is what I mean when I tell people to take the broad view and to always see China sourcing as a long term strategy.  You may operate on razor thin margins at first or may even lose money but if this helps you get quality product to your customers and build your business it is probably worth it.

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What should you budget for a first-time order from China ?

A woman emailed me recently asking me if I could help her with sourcing.  She has just started a company selling fashion accessories. In our email correspondence I sensed that she may not have given the business the thought that she needed to, in terms of how much it costs to get up and going with a China order, for there are hidden costs that people often ignore focusing only on the seductively low first costs that they see on alibaba or other popular sourcing websites.   Accordingly, here is what I think it would cost to get a first order from China.

Sample development.  You have to assume you will go through a couple of rounds of samples with a few vendors before deciding on a final vendor.  There will be sample charges and express courier fees ( you cannot send samples via regular air mail because they often get lost) .  Assuming you have a product that does not require a special mold, you are probably looking at $ 200-300.00 per vendor for sample charges and courier fees.  So figure $1000.00 just to get some good samples from a few prospective vendors.  If you have molds figure a few thousand dollars just to get samples from one vendor.

Testing:  If you sell any PCG (Packaged Consumer Goods) then you will most probably need some kind of testing for your product as per CPSIA ( Consumer Protection Safety Insurance Act).  Figure $500.00- 1000.00 for product testing.

Consultant:  If you are sourcing a product overseas it behooves you to retain a consultant or sourcing agent to help you get started.  Sourcing agents or consultants charge anywhere from $300.00 to 5K for a sourcing project.  So figure $500.00-1000.00 for a reasonably priced consultant/agent.

First Purchase Order:  Depending on the unit cost and MOQ ( Minimum Order Requirement) figure $3000-5000.00 for a first order.  Of course I am just throwing this number out there but a good rule of thumb is that China vendors are not really interested in orders under 5K.

Inspection:  To have an order inspected in China costs about $300.00 per day, not including expenses. But inspection is the only way you can make sure you are getting the quality you have paid for. Figure $1000.00 to have an order inspected.

Shipping:  Vendors quote you FOB which means they only deliver the goods to the port It is up to you to arrange shipping. You will need to use a shipping agent because the documentation is far too complicated to do on your own.  Figure $1000.00 to ship a small order from China going LCL.

When you add all this up you are looking at an initial investment, on the conservative side, of close to 10 K, just to get a first order out of China.  If you have a design oriented product for which the vendor will have to create special molds then figure 15-20K for that first order. And this does not include what it costs you to set up your website, establish your company, obtain product insurance and copyright your designs. That right there may cost you and additional 10 K.

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How to deal with rising costs when sourcing overseas

I was reading another sourcing blog this morning and author, Mr. A. whom I know and respect, was talking about how to deal with rising costs from your suppliers in China, what every importer grapples with sooner or later.   His solutions were as follows ( with my response in in italics) :

  • Sell a product with higher margins

Disagree. I don’t think one can just switch products like this.  I would say most small companies or start ups have unique products that they have spent time developing (the reason they have gone into business in the first place). They are married to their designs and they simply cannot jettison them.

  • Smart product design

Somewhat agree.  This is the importance of working with a good supplier.  A good supplier will help you to look at and improve your product to hit target costs. But at the same time this is easier said than done because some product changes result in less than expected cost savings. And unless you have significant order QTYs you are probably not going to see substantial savings.

  • Remove excessive packaging

Disagree. Packaging is so important and unfortunately can be a major cost. In fact, I would prefer to err on the side of having more packaging than not enough packaging which can lead to damages in transit.

  • Produce in other countries

Disagree. I have talked to many companies who produce in other countries.  Apparently countries like Vietnam, Mexico, Indonesia are no better than China.  And in many cases e.g. Mexico they are worse.

  • Pay your suppliers in their own currency

Disagree.  This involves more hassle than it is probably worth and many vendors want the USD. I would add that the costs of setting up a foreign bank account, what you need to do in order to pay vendors in their own currency, will probably offset any savings you will get.

If Mr. A, whom as I said I respect, cannot come up with a good solution about how to deal with rising costs in China and in other countries, then there probably are no solutions.

But # 1 on the above list got me to thinking.  If you can’t change your product, and I really don’t think you can, maybe you can change your customers.  In other words, let’s say instead of trying to sell at  Wal-Mart, you simply focused on selling on your own website and on Amazon Marketplace, for example. This is known as multi-channel eCommerce selling. Of course your orders would be smaller but your margins would be  greater.  And you would not have to be overly concerned about rising costs, shipping deadlines, inspections etc etc.  In fact, I think your only concern would be meeting MOQs.

A case in point. I visited a local company last week.  They  were established 15 years ago and seem to be doing quite well.  They do mostly online sales ( a children’s product)  and have several hundred independent brick and mortar accounts nationwide.  I got the feeling from my visit that business is good and the owners of the company are already planning years ahead for their brand.  And as I was heading back to the car I  thought back to a discussion I had with one of my former clients last month who told me that after years of targeting big box retailers, where he has sold with some success, he was going to scale down and focus more on sales from his own website.  He told me he has burned out with Wal-Mart where sales in some stores are great and in other stores not so great.  And not only does one have to tackle fickle consumer demand but they also face compliance guidelines, delayed payouts, chargebacks and  imperious buyers.  I have worked on many of these big-box programs and they are a headache. Pure and simple.

However, the icing on the cake is a blog post from a former retail buyer that I came across yesterday.  She says that accepting an order from a big box retailer can actually be a strike against you with that same retailer.   If you are considering doing orders a big retailer then read this first.A Buyer’s perspective

Kitchen Anhui FE

 

 

 

 

Podcast: How to source in China

I was the guest on a Podcast recently.  The program is hosted by Indie Brands a popular website for independent start ups.  There is a lot of useful information here for small businesses, whether sourcing in China or not.  Enjoy

Indie Brands Podcast Feb 2016

Required reading for anyone thinking about sourcing in China

I was thinking this morning how many times over the years people have told me how they were cheated when they sourced in China. One of the better articles I have read on this subject appeared in 2013 in Inc Magazine.  The article describes the trials and tribulations of one entrepreneur from Ann Arbor Mi who learned the hard way that doing business in China is not easy. It is such Ona good article, in fact voted one of the best business articles in 2013, that I usually send the link to prospective clients who are approaching me to help them.  I see it as required reading for anyone who is thinking of doing business in China. INC Magazine article

 

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China sourcing from the perspective of a Hong Kong Sourcing Agent

I had an email the other day from a Chinese sourcing agent who is based in Hong Kong, Chris Lo.  Chris said he enjoyed my blog and wanted to offer a few useful observations about sourcing in China from the perspective of an on-the-ground local Hong Kong sourcing manager.  Accordingly, here they are ( his observations in Italics ) :

  • Chris writes that when you deal with suppliers in China it is always good to use a factory with Hong Kong or Taiwanese management if you can find one.

This is correct.  The reason is obvious, the HK and Taiwanese managers are just more in tune with Western and Japanese business practices and they tend to manage their factories well.  The only caveat is that you will probably end up paying more for your product than you would were you to use a Chinese mainland managed factory.  Still, I think it is worth paying a little more to get better communication and often better quality and for this reason if you do have a choice between giving an order to a Hong Kong managed FTY or a Mainland managed FTY, you should always give the order to the Hong Kong/Taiwanese FTY even if the cost is greater.

  • Chris mentions that as the Guangdong Government is trying to phase out Low Cost Manufacturing, many industries are relocating to the Eastern China, Zhejiang, Shanghai, Jiangsu i.e. The Changjiang Delta area as opposed to the Pearl River Delta area in Guangdong. He says that he has heard from other Hong Kong based sourcing agents that the MOQs are very high in these areas now, while quality tends to lag.  One reason is that these are bigger FTYs and they need bigger orders to stay afloat.

That the Central Govt is trying to phase out Low Cost Manufacturing in the South of China has become something of a standard line in recent years.  Nothing new here.  But this is the first time I have heard  about higher MOQs and lower quality coming out of suppliers in Eastern China.  I think this makes sense because manufacturing around Shanghai, in places like Zhejiang and Jiangsu tends to be on a larger scale.  I have been in a lot of huge textile and furniture factories there over the years, much larger than anything I have ever seen in other parts of China. So it is quite natural that these bigger FTYs need bigger orders to stay afloat. I am not sure about the quality statement.  I think it depends on the industry and product.  I do think that the South is still a good choice to source products because the infrastructure and product knowledge have been there for several decades whereas only in recent years has other manufacturing moved up north. Of course I would qualify this by saying that once again it depends on the product and industry.

  • Chris mentions that Fujian Province is a good place to manufacture now. He says it is a very good place to send your apparel projects and that all of the big global brands have production there.

I was not aware of Fujian Province’s strength as a textile producing base. I have made 2-3 trips to Fujian Province over the last 10 years and my sense there is that prices are very low, but that quality is an issue.  But these were not textile orders I was working on so I would not know. Still, I would be a little cautious sourcing in Fujian Province. It does not have the infrastructure that the low cost South has, nor the sophistication that areas feeding Shanghai have e.g. Zhejiang and Jiangsu.

Finally I would like to quote Chris verbatim for something he says about the ease of online sourcing these days:

“Doing business in China without regular checking would have a high chance going wrong (but I guess it is same for everywhere.). So to me I’d like to comment also on the emerging e-platform, I think it is just for gaining exposure for the suppliers but you cannot do industrial production without directly getting to your supplier, having face to face meeting and in-line inspection; the old fashion way of visiting industry fairs, factory visits still has place a good value for doing so. Industrial production is not talking about selling one item with simple emails and clicks.” 

I like that about the “old-fashioned” way of sourcing.  I agree, it is just a much safer way to go about it. 

Thanks Chris !

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How to qualify your suppliers in China

Had an interesting conversation yesterday with a local company.  The guy I spoke with detailed some of the problems they have had with one of their major suppliers.  Apparently, the supplier consistently struggles to meet shipping deadlines because they do not have the capacity to handle the increasing order QTYs and they have to subcontract a lot of production.   It turns out that this supplier was selected without a qualifying audit. And this is one of the perils of giving an order to a vendor whose facility you have never visited.  In other words they may not be who they say they are.  A GOLDEN RULE of China sourcing is this: never give an order to a vendor you have not yet qualified.  And by qualified I mean visited with a checklist in hand.

When you do an audit you should have a checklist of things to look for.  Some of the following come to mind:

  • In the office: Make sure the vendor has an organized office. If they are as busy as they say they are they should have several computers.  If you go into an office and just see just one terminal and a fax machine that is not a good sign. What if that computer breaks down ?  You may not be able to get an answer to a question for several days. Ask to see your company file with a record of all sample orders, revisions etc etc.  Ask to see counter samples which you have approved, as all should be clearly labelled and dated.   All this tells you if the vendor is on top of things.   If you have concerns about order capacity, then ask the vendor to show you invoices from completed orders of other customers.  Are the QTYs big ?  Are there multiple invoices from the same customer indicating repeat orders and customer satisfaction ?  These are things the vendor should be more than willing to show you.  In short,  a quick tour of the office will show you how organized the vendor is.  And believe me you do not want to work with an unorganized China vendor, all the more so if you have a design driven product when record-tracking of details is very important.
  • Subcontractors: Since so many vendors in China use subcontractors it is vital to make sure those subcontractors have themselves been qualified by your vendor. Ask your vendor what procedures they have in place to qualify subcontractors.  In fact any visit to a factory in China will usually include a visit to that factory’s subcontractors.  If your vendor does not volunteer to do this then you should suggest it.  If they balk at the suggestion, then that means their subcontractors are scattered and probably not at a convenient distance to the factory, which is not good for you.
  • In the workshop. Are areas well lit?  Are instructions to the workers posted? Are QC and Production areas clean?  Does the factory look busy? Is there any evidence the factory  uses child labor ? Is the person showing you around knowledgeable about the orders?  I remember qualifying a vendor a few years back.  I went to the factory and I discovered that the person showing me around, who told me he owned the factory, knew nothing about any of the orders on the workshop floor.  And I mean nothing.   He was either a very hands-off manager or was simply a Trading Company Manager posing as a FTY manager (plenty of those in China). But in either case it was a warning that I delivered to my customer.  And there are just so many more questions to ask when you are thinking about giving a vendor an order.

 

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In China you need patience, patience and more patience

I have been exchanging emails this week with a San Francisco start up that wants to begin sourcing in China. Like all start ups here in the Bay Area these guys move fast. And they want me to move fast too. I gave them my timeline for a sourcing project which is generally 6-8 weeks and they said that was too long and that they were under pressure from their investor to get the ball rolling sooner. I have gone back to them this morning and told them I might be able to expedite the process by a week or two but after that I would really be pushing it. I explained to them that just getting samples to and from China can easily take 2-3 weeks. Their QTYs are also small, as this is their first order, and I told them that they would have a hard time pushing vendors unless they were really making it worthwhile for the vendor. NB. Dangling promises of bigger orders is not really an effective strategy when you are courting China vendors. The reason is that those small orders seldom turn into much larger orders and the vendors know it.

But this got me to thinking, what I have said so many times before, that it is important not to rush your orders when you do business in China. And this rule applies whether you are buying out of China or selling into China. Some big companies e.g. Best Buy, EBAY, Home Depot, Tesco et al have failed miserably in China because they rushed into China. Beginning in 2006 Home Depot opened 12 stores in China and six years later they were all closed. They might have done better in China had they opened just one or two stores and waited until those were doing well and the Home Depot brand was beginning to resonate with Chinese consumers. But when Home Depot left China no one noticed. Most people in China had never even heard of it.

As I like to say, when you do business in China you have to be patient, patient and more patient. And then when you think have exhausted your patience, you just have to be patient a little more.

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