FOB vs CIF

I had an inquiry today from someone who wants to move their CPG ( Consumer Packaged Good) production from the US to China.  They want to ship CIF which stands for Cost Insurance and Freight.  In a CIF transaction the supplier/exporter is responsible for assigning a carrier/vessel and insuring the cargo.  Once the vessel lands at the destination port the buyer/importer takes possession.  The main advantage to doing a China order CIF, as opposed to FOB ( Free on Board) is that the supplier handles all the shipping arrangements for you.  You simply have to pick up the cargo when it arrives and arrange for transportation to your warehouse. In theory CIF reduces the work load on the importer and may seem like the ideal arrangement for a first time importer who has no experience with international shipping, which can be quite complicated.  The downside to CIF however is considerable.  Your product will cost more because you are asking your supplier to bear more responsibility and not surprisingly most suppliers will look at a CIF proposal as an opportunity to pad their margins. In addition, you lose transparency on the real cost of your product.  The real cost of your product is what it costs to make and package your product.  Not what it costs to ship your product ( which is landed cost and which varies depending on a number of factors). You will also have no control over shipping.  If yours is not a time-sensitive order then CIF might be OK.  But if you need your product shipped on a timely basis, to fulfill orders, you will be taking a big risk because you will have no control over transit times and carriers.  In fact, your supplier may not choose the best carrier but the carrier who offers them the most preferential terms.  Your supplier will act in their best interests, not yours.

With an FOB order, on the other hand, the importer, working with a Logistics company, has complete control over shipping.  If problems arise you can work quickly with the carrier directly to resolve them.  The downside to FOB is that, yes, you need a Shipping or Logistics Company to help you arrange shipping. This is of course another cost, one of the hidden costs to overseas sourcing.  But you have to look at it as one of the necessary costs and you should be prepared to bear it.

In the end your expenditure will probably be the same, whether you allow your supplier to arrange shipping, resulting in a higher unit cost for your product, or whether you enlist the help of a Logistics company to help you arrange shipping and handle documentation.   It is when problems arise that you are far better off with your own shipping agent as opposed to trying to resolve problems with an anonymous shipping company that has been selected by your supplier.

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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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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

An American CEO who is jaded by China

I sat down yesterday with a local entrepreneur. He owns a chemical products company that he established ten years ago and the company has grown from 5 to 10 employees over the last year.   He wanted to talk to me about China or, more aptly put, he wanted to complain about China.  He detailed for me some of the challenges he has faced there over the last ten years.  Among the things he told me:

  • He hired a Chinese employee only to have that employ take his formulas and set up his own company in China. And then this ex-employee had the gall to approach his former boss and offer to be a supplier. Because the prices were good the American could not resist and he is now buying his own product from someone who stole that product from him!  I have heard these outrageous but true stories so many times before.   There is no way to avoid situations like this but by making sure you vett the people you are employing as thoroughly as possible. I should have asked about his hiring process but I didn’t. But a good tip is this if you are protective of your IP you should never hire anyone but a US citizen or permanent resident who can be held accountable under terms of an NDA.
  • As a side venture the entrepreneur tried to export California wine to China, under private label, only to find that he had to register his designs with the Chinese govt. and was forced to have a Joint Venture (JV) partner. He seemed to think this was just opening the door to getting ripped off again. Of course it is. But as I explained to him if you are making a good profit off of China, it shouldn’t bother you if your JV partner in China is making a good profit off of you.
  • He attempted to learn Chinese believing that it is very important to speak the language of the country where you are doing business. I couldn’t agree more.  He mentioned what a hard language it was to learn.   But he said that he was forced to give up his studies when the SARS epidemic broke out, believing that he would not be able to spend time in China to practice. I don’t know what to say here but it does not sound like he made a sustained effort.  And that is what it takes to learn Chinese, a sustained effort. It is a hard language. He is correct.
  • He wanted to know how I had avoided becoming jaded when dealing with China over the years. I told him about George Kates, an American antiquarian who lived in China in the 1930s and wrote a book about his experience entitled “The Years That Were Fat.” George Kates, The Years That Were Fat  Kates spent seven years in China and he said that in order to live in China the one thing that is most important is patience. So, yes, patience is the most important thing when you do business in China.  Another key to succeeding in China is that you have to like China.  If you don’t like China, don’t like the food, the people, the history or culture, it is probably not a place you should locate your business. You will get jaded quickly as I sense he has.

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The Shanghai Friendship Store

While I was writing my blog post for last week my thoughts suddenly went back to my early days in Shanghai when there was only one store which sold overseas products, The Shanghai Friendship Store, located on Beijing Rd. just off The Bund. The store was established in the 1950s to cater to overseas diplomats and their families who wanted imported goods while living in China. And when I lived there in the early 1990s it was the one store in Shanghai where you could buy a pair of Nike shoes, for example, or a Sony transistor radio, some Gilette razors or just a jar of Skippy Peanut Butter.  The Friendship store also sold a lot of touristy Chinese chachkies and it was a popular stop with large tourist groups who came to China in those early days.

The name, Friendship Store, was hardly eponymous because the service was atrocious, and the clerks glared more than they smiled. But in those days, people in China were not as friendly as they are now.  Yet, the Friendship Store, in spite of its dreary Soviet –era demeanor, mustiness and sulky, sometimes downright unfriendly service had all the cachet of a Saks Fifth Avenue among the Ex-Pats living in Shanghai. If you shopped at the Friendship store, you had money.

You needed a foreign passport to enter the store and there were always guards out front checking passports and making sure that no locals slipped past the large Foo Dogs placed at the entrance.  There was probably as much security outside the Friendship store as there was outside the US Consulate on Huai-Hai Rd.  Of course nowadays you can go down any street in Shanghai and find a Tiffany’s or Wayfair, or a Coach outlet store or a McDonalds.  But this is all recent and up until the mid 1990s many foreign goods were simply not available in China. Unless you found them at the Friendship Store.

The Friendship store only accepted Foreign Exchange Certificates (FEC), the currency issued to foreigners living in or visiting China. Up until 1995 foreigners, unless they possessed a Chinese ID or work card, were not allowed to spend the local currency, the RMB, even in Chinese stores. They had to shop only at select establishments that accepted FEC like the Friendship Store or KFC.  If all you had on hand was FEC but wanted some RMB, so you could shop in the local stores with your ID, the first place you would go would be the Friendship Store.  There out front you would find no shortage of money changers who wanted your FEC so they could buy luxury goods.

While writing this I went on Google to see if I could find any images of the old Friendship store. I could not find even one.  Instead I found images of  the new breed of Friendship stores, in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, glitzy, high end type shopping malls. Everyone is now welcome and all the clerks are smiling.  In other words, the Friendship Stores are now actually promoting friendship.

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Some things to consider when you have a new product and need a mold

Someone came to me with a new product the other day, an artistic and fanciful light fixture that they want to have made in China. They have tried to find someone to manufacture the product here in the US but, as you would expect, the cost is prohibitive.  The person has had some rough molds and prototypes made here and suggested that he could send these to China and have someone there run some samples for him and then maybe a small production order.  Not a good idea, I said.  There are a few things to consider here.

  • The molds this person has made might not be compatible with machines in China In fact, I bet this would be China vendor response were he to send the molds to China.
  • Compatibility of machines notwithstanding, vendors in China stand to make a good profit if they make a mold for a customer and they do not want to forfeit this profit.  And this is why when you get quotes for molded products the mold costs can be all over the board, so to speak. If you ask three vendors to quote on a mold, chances are their quotes will be off by thousands of dollars, because someone is making a hefty profit from the mold. I had project a few years ago for which I needed a mold and the quotes, for the same mold, were anywhere from $3,000.00 to $20,000.00.
  • If you send a vendor in China a mold you may not be able to get the mold back. You never know who you are dealing with and the vendor may just take the mold and start using it themselves.

If you do get your mold made in China make sure you know who you are dealing with because sometimes a factory will claim they own the mold, even though it is your design and you have paid for the mold.  There have been so many disputes like this over the years between SME’s and vendors in China that you just have to expect it to happen.  Just go over to the China Law Blog for some stories. To protect yourself you should have everything spelled out clearly in writing, as to who owns the molds and when they will be returned to you, and you should also be sure you have legal rights to your design before you ask someone in China to make the mold for you.

Finally, really the best way to do a molded product would be to have the CAD work done here in the US, including drawings and 3-D renderings, and then to send these to China so a mold can be made for you. In this way, you can project to vendors in China that you are serious about your product, for drawings look official and will show all proprietary information. Should any dispute arise with them you will have a record of your designs, what you would not have if you asked the vendor to do both the CAD and mold for you.

Needless to say, these are all costs you have to expect to incur if you have a unique product that you want to have manufactured overseas.  But if you can do it, it is worth it.

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Attending the Canton Fair for the first time ? Prepare, prepare, prepare.

The Fall Canton Fair is coming up next month.  I have not been to the Fair in a couple of years and I do miss it, from the excitement as we get on the shuttles to the fair every morning to a cold beer in the hotel bar with other traders at the end of a long day.  It is kind of like being on tour with the Rolling Stones.  I always prefer the fall fair to the spring fair because the spring fair usually coincides with the onset of rainy season and with May Day which can make travel in and out of China pretty uncomfortable.  The fall is much nicer weather wise and the major fall holiday, National Day, occurs well before the fair. So if you are planning on attending one of these fairs, by all means go in the fall.

I had an email from someone the other day who is headed over to the Canton Fair next month. He will be attending Phase 2 of the fair looking for toys for his online business. This will be his first visit to China and he is understandably nervous.  I told him he needs to prepare, prepare, prepare.  This means putting together a list of the vendors he would like to meet with, contacting them prior to the show and then mapping out his visits beforehand.  The fair is too immense to just ‘wing it’ as they say.  If I remember correctly Toys take up Hall 14 1-3 and some space in adjoining halls 13 and 15 meaning there are probably between 1200-1500 toy vendors.  Needless to say, no one can visit that many vendors in a few days’ time, and by not spending time on the CF website before the show, contacting suppliers, you may miss some perfectly good vendors if you walk the show unprepared.   Additionally, there is a psychological benefit to contacting vendors prior to the show, for you go to Canton feeling that you know someone.  And when vendors know you are coming they are usually very welcoming. This will make you feel more relaxed and give you more confidence as you walk the show.  You need that confidence because not only are there so many booths to walk past but everyone is Chinese. If you are coming from Boca Raton Fla is the person who emailed me is, then you are probably going to feel like a fish out of water in China.  Whatever you can do to minimize this feeling you should do. The more relaxed you are in China, the more positive you will feel about your business there and the better will be your chances for success back home. And it all starts with preparation.

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A letter from a small business owner about his frustrations sourcing in China

I finally found one thing more challenging than sourcing in China and that is taking care of a small child all summer. My daughter was out of school in early June and when it was apparent that the summer camps I had signed her up were not going to work out, it was my turn.  So I reluctantly turned down some projects and turned off my blog for two months. Now that school has started it is time to pick up where I left off.

Needless to say there is a lot of panic about China these days. The sharp downturn in the Shanghai Composite and the impact on global economies makes for good headlines but I am not too worried. As a long time China watcher said recently, the crisis is one in the stock market, a “trading event”  and not in the economy as a whole. GDP growth is still strong in China, anywhere from 5-7% (depending on whose figures you trust, the Chinese Govt or economists at UBS). and many areas of the economy show strength, most notably wages and consumer spending, both of which are up. So what I think we will see is more instability in the Shanghai Composite over the short run but nothing that will lead to widespread panic and crisis in China. All you have to do is look at images of crowded high-end boutiques in Shanghai to know that the days of Communist-like austerity programs and widespread instability are over.

In the meantime, back to sourcing.   I had a letter from a small business owner yesterday. He is frustrated by his suppliers in China, all of whom I believe he found on alibaba.  Here is what he wrote to me.

I came across your website when searching for small business sourcing options.  I manufacture custom craft beer tap handles for breweries and restaurants across the US and Canada.  I have gone through the process of sourcing my products myself through Alibaba and needless to say I’m tired of it and looking for help.  My order size is usually 100-600+ pieces and materials used are usually cast urethane/resin, metal, or wood.  My target price per piece is typically around $0.00 including shipping costs (by air). I’d like to find a factory that I can establish a relationship with and receive reliable quality, no price changes, no haggling, and easy communication.  Any insight you can offer would be greatly appreciated.  

Regarding his desire to find vendors in China who don’t suddenly increase prices, who maintain consistent quality and who are reliable with communication, I replied to him, “welcome to the club.”  My advice to him was blunt.  If you do not have big order QTYs you will have a hard time finding vendors who want to keep your business beyond an order or two.  The reason is this: so many small overseas importers come and go in China that vendors there seldom expect to retain small scale overseas customers after an order or two. The goal therefore  is to get a first order by quoting low prices and then once the customer has committed their production to the supplier, the supplier will increase the cost hoping to cash in on a second order with higher costs.

This is not to say that the vendor who will work with the small importer in a collaborative way with an eye to forging a long term relationship does not exist. They do. But you need to find them and then work with them, which usually means travelling to China 3-4 times a year. If you are not willing to do this, the best way to manage your business in China would be to work with a Chinese agent in your own city with whom you can build a relationship. And once you have established a strong working relationship with the agent, based on your same locale and perhaps some contacts in common or possibly common interests, that agent will hopefully work with the factory in China on your behalf to keep your prices and quality stable. You pay more for your product but if in the end you can run your business, it is worth it.

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How to schedule new vendor visits when in China

I got an email the other day from someone who was headed over to China to inspect an order and wanted to find out how they could perhaps meet some new vendors while they were over there. They were not leaving themselves much time as they were set to leave in 24 hrs when they emailed me. I told them that the best thing to do was to line up these visits well before their trip but as that did not happen this time, there were still two things they could do as follows:

1.) Do a vendor search by province and city on the Canton Fair website.  The website allows you to do this and it is very helpful if you want to locate vendors in a specific city, as this person wanted to do.  You can then type in the keyword for your product and you will get some results.  For example, when I typed in “toys” for Dongguan City in Guangdong Province I got 14 results. I think you can do the same on Alibaba.

2.) Work through the concierge at the local hotel. Depending on which hotel you are staying at in China concierges will do everything for you and this would include looking up factories that might be of interest to you. Of course they won’t be able to do much beyond giving you a name and number, but really that is all you need to begin. If the vendor has booked the hotel for you then you don’t want to ask the concierge for help with a project of this nature. The reason is that the hotel would most likely report to the vendor that you were looking for other vendors and your vendor would not be happy. I have seen this happen before. Vendors get possessive with their customers, especially if your orders are big, and they always want to keep an eye on you to make sure you are not running off to the competition on your off day. However, If you have booked the hotel yourself it is probably safe to ask the concierge to help you locate other vendors while you are in China. You can also perhaps ask someone in the hotel business center to do this for you but you would probably have to pay them for this.

Finally, it is a good idea if you are spending any length of time in a city or going back repeatedly to get to know some locals, perhaps a student who is looking for some translator work. This person can then help you on inquires of this nature and may be able to do things for you such as booking hotels and transportation. In fact when you go to the Canton Fair you will see hundreds of students outside the main hall looking for translator work during the fair. Knowing locals like this can be extremely helpful as you develop your business in China.  Just remember that if you do hire someone to help you out on a regular basis then you need to do so in accordance with the labor laws in China.

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When you put your vendor on a pedestal it is time for a reality check

I am working on a project now with a vendor in China that I have known for about four years. I met this vendor at the Canton Fair and I have run a few sourcing projects by them over the last few years. They have always proven very reliable in terms of making sure they understand my clients’ product designs and getting me quotes and/or samples in a very timely fashion. And this project has been no different. However recently I sent them an email asking them to send in samples and it was about ten days before I heard anything back from them. I called and left a message as well. But to no avail. When they finally did get back to me there was no apology or explanation for the delay. They may simply have been busy with another order or perhaps they were preparing for the Canton Fair. Fortunately it was only a sample order but, boy, was it frustrating for both me and my client. At one point I was even questioning myself about how well I knew this vendor and I was preparing to reach out to alternative vendors. The lesson here is never to take anything for granted when you source in China. That seemingly trustworthy vendor you have known and done business with for the last few years may suddenly turn out to be completely unreliable. I have seen it happen many times before and it could easily have happened this time as well, had the vendor decided they were tired of working on projects with me that as yet had not resulted in any sizeable orders for them. So always have backups no matter how well things are going and when you start to put your vendor on a pedestal it is time to give yourself a reality check. I have written on this before but it bears remembering. Even I, who have doing business in China for 25 years, have to remember this sometimes.

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