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

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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

Never let your guard down when you manufacture in China

There was an article in the Shanghai English Language paper recently about defective products being sold in Shanghai stores.  Apparently about 40% of the apparel sold in Shanghai area dept stores reveals defects, everything from excessive formaldehyde to misleading labels. A sweater, for example, was described as 100% wool but it turned out to have only about 20%  wool content. The same old China song and dance in other words.  Still I was a bit surprised to read this kind of story because over the years the quality of product made in China has gotten much better as overseas importers have imposed stricter requirements on their Chinese suppliers and as a growing and more affluent Chinese middle class has come to demand higher quality from domestic vendors.  The story illustrates however that the Made in China brand is still plagued by the quality problems that have been associated with Chinese products over the last 30 years.  In other words you can never take your guard down when you manufacture in China.   You still have to test your products at regular intervals and make sure your vendor knows your standards and is maintaining quality and safety standards.   Here is the link to the article

Shanghai Defective Goods

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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Using mock-up prototypes when approaching new vendors

I had an email from a former client this past week.  She is the founder of a company that makes a popular line of kids bags and she is looking for new factories in China.  She had a strategy question for me as follows:

“I am sending samples for pricing from a factory that came highly recommended and of course they are asking how many SKUs etc. I have not actually revealed my brand as yet because I don’t want them to base their pricing by looking at our website prices. Do you think that this is wise? Or should I send them our catalog so they can see all of our SKUs and then give them target pricing ? Which do you think is a better strategy? “

This is a good question and I replied to her as follows:

“It is always a fine line to tread between being paranoid about things and being careful.  

I personally never recommend revealing your brand until it is absolutely necessary and I usually advise people to have mock ups without branding to submit to prospective vendors.  But if you feel they may know who you are already since you have been communicating with them or because you came recommended from someone else who has used them, then it is probably not a good idea to try to conceal who you are. 

But this leads me to a good point and that is that I think it is a good idea to have some mock ups made up from your current vendor so that in the future you can approach prospective vendors without revealing your company and retail pricing.   First costs from new vendors are important because those costs serve as the basis for your first few orders.  If they are high to begin with then when your vendor starts raising costs on your 2nd or 3rd orders ( as often happens) you may be priced out of doing business with them quickly.    If on the other hand you can negotiate a low first cost to begin with then even when the cost goes up you may still be able to hit your margins while you fulfill orders and look for a new vendor.  Making sure your vendor does not know your retail pricing goes a long way in keeping your first costs low. And mock-ups will help you achieve this.” 

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If you want to source in China, be prepared to take risks

A friend of mine reached out to me recently asking me to help him apply for China patents for a new product.  Apparently someone had approached him because he used to work for a FORTUNE 500 company in China and wanted to enlist his expertise. So my friend came to me, thinking IP protection was the place to start.  I told him what I tell a lot of people, namely if you are going to be paranoid about losing your IP in China then you shouldn’t be doing business over there in the first place. It is simply one of the endemic risks of doing business there, much as mosquitoes are one of the endemic risks when you go camping.

My friend left China in 1997 and since his return to the US he has worked in Silicon Valley, doing non China-related stuff.  I think he has forgotten that when you do business in China you cannot expect Western principles of transparency, accountability and integrity to apply there, because they often do not.  In other words, just because you apply for and are granted a China patent does not mean that you will be home-free to manufacture your product in China without problems.  Someone will always come up with something similar to your product and exploit a loophole in the Chinese patent application (which is a complicated and time consuming process)  and there would be little you could do about it,  short of costly international litigation.  Are you going to be able or willing to do this?  If you are a small business with a limited budget the answer is no.

I gave my friend the advice which I always give to others, namely to focus on securing IP in the country where you will be selling your product so as to protect your own market.  If you have registered trademark and patent here in the US no one can sell your product but you.  If you want to take your designs to China then don’t be overly concerned about IP and take refuge in the fact that unscrupulous individuals in China who are bent on appropriating someone else’s IP are usually focused on bigger companies where the payoff is much larger.  When you grow that is the time to start worrying about IP and taking the necessary steps in China to protect yourself such as Trademark protection.

I have written a lot on this subject.  Here are some other posts you will find useful.

China’s Great Leap Forward with IP

Trademarks in China

Some advice on IP protection in China

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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Toy testing requirements for US importers – an overview

I had an email from a Chinese testing lab the other day that outlines all the testing requirements for Toys sold in the US. I thought it was a pretty good summary of where you need to be as far as product testing goes depending on your product and so I thought I would post it here this week (edited and posted below).  Just an FYI, under the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 all toys sold in the US must comply with certain product safety regulations. The section of the Act that covers toys is known as ASTM F963. ( American Society for Testing and Materials) If you are reaching out to Chinese manufacturers with a toy design make sure you know the testing requirements for your product and pass these on to your prospective supplier.

After reading the list below to see where your product falls, you should  spend some time on the ASTM website ASTM website to read more about the safety standards and see what you need to do to get your product in compliance.  Testing labs in China also know the standards ( since they are the ones testing the products) but it is  a good idea to make 100% sure you know as much as they do and that you neither overlook something you need to test for nor have superfluous and costly tests done.

Here is the overview:
ASTM F 963-11 Requirements
When you certify in a written Children’s Product Certificate that a product meets ASTM F 963-11, you must include the specific sections to which you are certifying compliance.

Also, toys may be subject to regulations enacted under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act (FHSA), such as requirements for small parts, pacifiers, rattles, etc., many of which are cited below. Check the list of products requiring third-party testing and regulated products to ensure that you are in compliance with all applicable regulations. Yes indicates the product must undergo testing; No means testing is not required.

Group 1: Sections Applicable to Most Toys

As mentioned above, the following requirements must be met for most toys. All toy manufacturers should review these sections to ensure that their products are in compliance.

Section Title Requires Testing at a CPSC-Accepted Laboratory

4.3.5.1 Heavy Elements: Paint and Similar Surface Coating Materials Yes
4.3.5.2 Heavy Elements: Substrate Materials (Note: Many toys intended for children under 6 and all toys intended to be mouthed or contact food and drink are subject to this requirement. See the standard for more.) Yes
4.3.6.3 Cleanliness of Liquids, Pastes, Putties, Gels, and Powders Yes
(Except for cosmetics and tests on formulations used to prevent microbial degradation.)
4.6 Small Objects  Yes
(Except no third party testing is required for labeling and/or instructional literature requirements)
4.7 Accessible Edges Yes
(Except no third party testing is required for labeling and/or instructional literature requirements)
4.9 Accessible Points Yes
(Except no third party testing is required for labeling and/or instructional literature requirements)
5 (Entire Section) Safety Labeling Requirements No
6 (Entire Section) Instructional Literature No
7 (Entire Section) Producer’s Markings No

Group 2: Sections Applicable to Specific Types of Toys 

The following set of requirements is for specific types of toys or toys with specific attributes. All toy manufacturers should review these sections to ensure that their products are in compliance.
Section Title Requires Testing at a CPSC-Accepted Laboratory
4.1 Material Quality No
4.2 Flammability Excluded by CPSIA No
4.4 Electrical/Thermal Energy** Electrical Toys. See 16 CFR 1505.
Yes, to 16 CFR 1505
4.5 Sound-Producing Toys Acoustic Toys Yes
4.8 Projections Sharp Points Yes
4.10 Wires & Rods Sharp Points Yes
4.11 Nails & Fasteners Sharp Points Yes
4.12 Plastic Film Yes
4.13 Folding Mechanisms & Hinges Enclosed/Hinged Toys Yes
4.14 Cords & Elastics in Toys Corded/Elastic toys Yes
4.15 Stability & Overload Requirements Ride-On Toys and Toy Seats Yes
4.16 Confined Spaces Enclosed/Hinged Toys Yes
4.17 Wheels, Tires, & Axles Yes
4.18 Holes, Clearance, & Accessibility of Mechanisms Enclosed/Hinged Toys Yes
4.19 Simulated Protective Devices Yes
4.20 Pacifiers Yes
4.21 Projectile Toys Projectiles Yes
4.22 Teethers & Teething Toys Yes
4.23 Rattles Yes
4.24 Squeeze Toys Non-Rigid Toys Yes
4.25 Battery-Operated Toys Yes
4.26 Toys Intended to Be Attached to a Crib or Playpen Infant toys Yes
4.27 Toy Chests (ASTM F 963-07e1) Enclosed/Hinged Toys Yes
4.27 Stuffed & Bean Bag-Type Toys Non-Rigid Toys Yes
4.28 Stroller and Carriage Toys Labeling requirements only No
4.30 Toy Gun Marking Projectiles Yes
4.31 Balloons No. Label in accordance with 16 CFR 1500.19 and 16 CFR 1500.20.
4.32 Certain toys with Nearly Spherical Ends* Spherical toys Yes
4.33 Marbles Spherical toys. No. Label in accordance with 16 CFR 1500.19 and 16 CFR 1500.20.
4.34 Balls Spherical toys. No. Label in accordance with 16 CFR 1500.19 and 16 CFR 1500.20.
4.35 Pom Poms Non-Rigid Toys Yes
4.36 Hemispherical-Shaped Objects Spherical toys Yes
4.37 Yo-Yo Elastic Tether Toys Corded/Elastic toys Yes
4.38 Magnets Magnets Yes
4.39 Jaw Entrapment in Handles and Steering Wheels Yes

Other Requirements
Section Title
4.29 Art Materials (16 CFR 1500.14(b)(8))
Yes, to 15 USC 1278a(Total Lead Content).
4.3.7 Stuffing Materials Yes. Stuffed toys with all new stuffing must meet 4.1, no testing at CPSC-accepted laboratory required to this section.

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Some tips for first time China travelers Pt. 2

Travelling accessories

Make sure you buy a fanny pack for your wallet and passport.  There is very little violent crime in China but pickpockets abound.  I have known at least one person who had their passport stolen and she had to wait two weeks before the US Consulate could arrange a replacement for her. So be careful about this especially in crowded areas.  Fanny Packs are the way to go. Check with your airline regarding luggage restrictions and take over a half-empty suitcase if you can. You will do a lot of shopping in China and will need the extra suitcase for your return trip home.  Also make sure to take an adapter set with you.  You may need to use your hair-dryer or recharge your digital camera. China uses 220v and there are several types of plugs in use in China so you should buy an adapter set instead of a single adapter.

Food & Water

The restaurants in the hotels can be quite good. But they are expensive.  You will save a lot of money if you eat outside your hotel.  The food can be just as good and you will experience the thrill of eating in a real Chinese restaurant.  There are usually lots of restaurants around the hotels and these are recommended as they tend to be a little friendlier and may very well have menus in English, given their proximity to the hotels.  But do yourself a favor and try to get out of the hotel to eat.  The one exception is Breakfast.  The Breakfast buffets in the western style hotels are wonderful and a great way to start your day in China.

The water is fine. Bottled water that is.  But only drink the bottled water that you have bought in a drugstore chain or hotel kiosk. The reason ?  There is fake bottled water in China too.  And make sure not to complain about the water or food when you are in China.  This will not sit well with locals.

Taxis  

Getting around by taxis is cheap.  But trying to hail a taxi in a big city like Shanghai or Guangzhou can be a challenge.  And even more so if you are a foreigner.  Many cab drivers will not pick up foreigners because they know most foreigners cannot speak Chinese and you can easily spend an hour or two trying to hail a cab around rush hour.   So choose a hotel that is near a subway or public transportation line or hire a guide to take you around.

Hire a guide  

If you are going to China for the first time and will not be on a group tour then I would highly recommend trying to line up a guide beforehand.  One way to do this might be to look on Craigslist for the city where you are headed to see if there are some students offering guide/interpreter services.  A quick check of Craigslist Shanghai shows plenty.   You may be able to interview some candidates on Skype and make a decision that way.  Needless to say, you do not want to pay anyone anything before you have met them.  You can also ask the Concierge where you are staying if they can recommend a guide.  But finding a guide on your own on CL is probably much cheaper.

Keep your complaints to yourself  

In China you will encounter a lot of situations that will make you shake your head.  But at no time should you get angry or articulate your dissatisfaction to people.  The one exception would be in the hotel where you are staying. In short, tell yourself not to be an Ugly American when you travel abroad.

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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