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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The risks of sourcing on alibaba

As much as I like Jack Ma I really have to question sometimes how effective it is to source product on alibaba. A case in point: a company in Vienna asked me recently to help them locate a supplier in China. The company has bought some health products from someone they met on alibaba but the orders have not gone too well and the Viennese company now realizes that it has been dealing with an agent and not the manufacturer itself. So they have asked me to help.

And this is one of the risks in using alibaba, namely that you really have no idea who you are dealing with. Many agents in China set up on alibaba and use the names of the companies whose products they are selling but in fact they have no association with the company. So you think you are buying direct from the factory in China when in fact you are not. For this particular project, I looked up the Chinese company in question and I found 5-6 alibaba sites for them all with different contact people listed. It looks like agents or individuals in China are selling the Chinese company’s products on alibaba simply using the company name. It is very confusing to say the least and I can understand how the company in Vienna could have been misled. But this is SOP in China so you have to be careful.

One clue that the Viennese company has not been dealing with the original manufacturer was that they had been making payments to an individual and not a company. This does not necessarily mean that one is not dealing with the vendor itself for small companies may sometimes have payment arrangements like this. I had another project recently where I was asked to pay a sample fee to an individual’s Western Union account in China which I thought was strange. But the vendor explained to me that if paying a sample fee to the bank, the service charge really offsets the sample charge. It made plenty of sense and it was not worth worrying about for a sample fee. But if you are asked to make a sizeable payment for an order to an individual you should at least try to obtain proof that the person is affiliated with the company you think are buying from. You can do this by running a credit check on the company in question and then using the contact info on the credit check to contact the company to verify who you have been dealing with. A credit check on a Chinese company will cost you a few hundred dollars but you have to see it as doing your due diligence. And in China sourcing you have to do your due diligence. Make no mistake about it.

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China, alibaba and the spirit of Jack Ma

All the news this week is about the alibaba IPO and Jack Ma. Jack Ma is the kind of person I met often when I first lived in China in the early 1990s, someone who saw China’s future not as an isolated nation at odds with the West but as a global power whose large, skilled workforce would give it a huge advantage over other countries where manufacturing had traditionally taken place. But Ma understood clearly that he needed to master English if he wanted to take advantage of the vast opportunities that Deng Xiao Ping’s reforms had presented to him and to others. And that is what he did. Largely self-taught Ma would make special trips to hotels in Hangzhou to practice his English with foreigners while he was a student in Hangzhou. He eventually learned English well enough that he became a teacher and opened his own school, a hint of the entrepreneurial spirit that lay within

When I read about how Jack Ma learned English in China 40 years ago I think back to my own experience in Shanghai 25 years ago when complete strangers would go out of their way to speak English with me. I remember vividly one time sitting by myself at a KFC on a Sunday evening poking at my mashed potatoes as a kid of about 10 came up to me and started to speak to me in almost flawless English. His English was so good I did not mind the intrusion. I knew I was in the presence of a child prodigy and I found it fascinating. After talking to him for five minutes his father came over and explained to me how he would bring his son to KFC every Sunday from the countryside so he could practice his English, a journey that must have taken 3-4 hours. It was irritating as heck when people came up to you and just started talking to you out of the blue. But at the same time you had to admire it. And if you want to understand how China has come so far in the past 30 years, from one of the poorest countries in the world to one of the richest, look no further than the spirit of Jack Ma.

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