This has got to be perhaps the biggest crux of importing from China. Ensuring that the goods you buy are up to the market standards you require. On paper it sounds easy but in practice it’s a little more complicated. I guess this is why goods from China and Asia as a whole seem to get a bit of a bad reputation. I have seen a lot of hardened exporters here make a mistake just as easily as a rookie, if you don’t concentrate it’s easy to slip up in a dynamic world where stock prices and material availability changes day by day.
On a whole there is perhaps justification on the bad rep people give Chinese products. I will be the first to stand up and say that some great quality products come out of China, but in the same breath I can tell you that there is so much utter rubbish here too.
Before I came to China I, Like most of you, Wished to import from here but had been set back by so many horror story’s. It seems that China gets the worst reputation for product quality from Asia and it is certainly daunting for a first time importer. That coupled with the risks of being a victim of a scam seller can lead to many endless nights pondering over your next move but I will leave that particular “scam” topic for another article.
I had previously dipped my foot in the Chinese water so to speak. As some of my readers will already know I have imported from quite a few places in the past. I spent a lot of time importing from Taiwan with very very few product quality issues, strangely enough I imported a lot of very high quality issue items from the USA and Canada. You can buy rubbish goods from anywhere if you don’t keep your eye on the ball and play to your strengths. With China though I saw something different, perhaps a different opportunity which made me want to look closer and eventually lead to me moving here.
I recall an instance from when I was still working in the UK. I was buying and selling stock and assets from bankrupt companies and exporting them to countries where the value was higher. I had a good friend in Tanzania, Africa who was constantly asking me for laptops and computers. The numbers he needed were so large that I could not keep up and I talked with him about sending laptops from China to meet the volumes. He went on to tell me that a few years ago a lot of Chinese electronics entered the market there and failed very quickly, the product he said was very poor quality and the consumers there now had no faith in Chinese goods. I found this pretty strange as we all know that China produces some great electronics and if bought correctly there should be no issues. I wondered if perhaps they could not cope with the intense heat or if perhaps sand was getting into the internals, Its pretty sandy there right……
I have since found out that it is not the product that was entirely to blame it was perhaps the buyer. What I mean by this is that the buyer was not necessarily out of his product knowledge depth but was perhaps so determined to get the cheapest price he was not too concerned with the overall quality.
You have to remember that in China they can make things very very cheap if you want them to, scarily cheap infact. They can cut corners where I didn’t think corners could be cut. 9 times out of 10 this however leads to a very sub standard product but if the buyer is solely focused on the cheapest possible price then that is what the supplier will in turn focus on. I have seen products so cheap that once out of the box they just fail. As an example here are some samples of an Apple Data/Charger cable from 3 different factories. Now when I come to buy these things I make it pretty clear that I have an office in Guangzhou and I will return any faulty products myself if a problem arises, this levels the playing field for me a little and I find that then they don’t lie to you, they’re pretty straight and will say “This is our cheapest cable, it looks OK but will not last very long” they’re not stupid and know that there cheap products will break, it is down to you the buyer to decide if you want to be the one importing a cheap products into your country and facing the problems that will arise from that. Personally I think it stupid to buy something that’s just going to lead to a dissatisfied customer, it makes no sense for a long term business but many still do it.
Some buyers I know here are pretty happy to buy low quality items, perhaps because in turn their customers outside of China are not too fussed about the quality or satisfaction of the end user. I know for a fact that in some countries there is a real market for “throw away” items that the end user may only get a few weeks out of simply because there is no way they could afford a more expensive quality version. This is typical of south America where, for example, I see a lot of low quality mobile phones being exported to that buyers here know will only have a usage life of around a month. These $20 USD phones are still popular there as the end users can just get a new one as they are cheap enough. There are ofcourse some buyers here who only focus on the mid to upper quality items as these are the only type I believe are worth exporting, especially to European markets where the consumer demands quality and is willing to pay a little more for it. I suppose this proves that all spectrum of quality variations from China have a home and hence why there are so many different standards here.
Another point I will touch on here is authenticity of the product. Im not talking about fake Levi jeans from China here, If you think you can buy genuine brand name goods from China direct from the factory then you are really missing something. What I mean is things like SD memory cards branded as a certain memory size when they are really no where close to that size. Most of the cheap sellers on eBay selling SD cards at crazy prices are selling fake capacity cards. I am currently putting together my own brand for SD cards, USB drives and external hard drives so I have a little bit of experience looking for factories supplying the real deal. I suppose my advantage is that if i ask them if its genuine capacity there is little point in them lying to me as i will be back there the next day, but that doesnt stop them trying. Shown below are three 32 GB Mini SD Cards. All look good and all come nicely packaged but only one is genuine capacity, can you guess which one?
I would say the entire process of buying from anywhere is down to trust, you need to trust the person you are buying from and if you don’t trust them you need to be there to watch everything they are doing. You can quite easily be scammed in your home country if you let yourself be subjected to it just as easily as you could fall victim to it here. There are so many turns in the trail here which could catch you out which is why I decided to move here to ensure I would minimise my risk. It is not easy living here and I do miss the UK very much but essentially for the type of business I want to do this is the only way I can work, any other way would increase my risk and thus lower my potential profit.
I would love to give you a bullet point list here of my guide to ensuring that all your goods are up to standard but I think for smaller importers who are not tied into legal contract with suppliers for multi million pound deals this is just not possible. I have read so many stories on forums of suppliers taking Advantage of the 4000 miles or so between them and the customer. Too often a spec can change and by the time you receive it it may be too late. Legally here there are so many loop holes that good old fashioned trust is worth its weight in gold. I trust most of the people I deal with, for those I don’t really trust I make sure they realise that I will be knocking on there door with any issues that may arise.
Personally speaking the type of product testing and quality control I do is pretty hands on. I really am only interested in buying items that i myself would buy or use as a consumer. This allows me to take an interest in each venture and be hands on with the actual product. An example, below is is a bluetooth headphone set that I currently export to Europe and the US. This is a headphone set that I actually owned myself in the UK and I was keen to work with it as its a popular selling model in the European market. It’s an attractive and functional wireless bluetooth headset that can be used with your iPhone or any other device that has bluetooth, you can listen to music on it or make phone calls, a pretty adaptable piece of kit that looks pretty good too. There are a lot of variations out there, I currently buy 2 models based on sales numbers I have researched combined with personal preference. When I moved to china I bought a “Beats by Dre” style headphone set from a market here. they retail for about 240.00 GBP in the UK. The one I bought was obviously not genuine but it was for personal use in the gym so that’s fine by me. This headphone lasted about 4 gym sessions and then it was game over. I’d been here about 2 weeks and the learning curve had begun. I then decided to find a more reliable sports style headphone that I could also look to export. I found the one I mentioned earlier on eBay UK selling well at around £19.99 and decided that I should find a factory here making them. I infact found several and ended up with 6 different samples to test before making an order.
I run most days so this gives me a good chance to get these things through some vigorous testing conditions and I spent a couple of weeks using each headphone out on my run, in the gym and in the car traveling to factories. The quality of each unit varied as did the pricing, a fluctuation of as much as 5.00 GBP could be seen across the units so I knew I had to find a suitable middle ground. It is worth noting that the most expensive product price here does not necessarily mean the best, often a factory with its game really tight can produce a top quality product at a mid range price point due to efficient costing an management. It has nothing to do with the size of the factory, number of staff or there long trading history, its down to there business model on a whole. I have seen this on several occasions so don’t be fooled.
Out of these 6 sample units 2 units failed within a few days, both would not hold charge and one had terrible sound quality. The 3rd unit snapped at the join where it meets the ear bud after maybe 5 days, it looks like the plastic used for the joint was too brittle. The 4th unit didnt break and still works now but the sound quality was not as good as the remaining 2 and the finish of the materials used began to age after it became wet from running in the rain. The 2 units I was happy with came from seperate suppliers, one was the most expensive and the other was a fraction cheaper.
I decided to give the slightly cheaper one another week of use and was impressed. No issues and I’m still using it now 4 months on. I decided to take a sample order of 500 units on each and see how they sold. I ordered 500 of each sample from the 2 seperate suppliers and about a week later had them in my office. To my bemusement the more expensive supplier had kindly sent me a lower quality item, i could tell straight away as the materials used looked a lot cheaper and the logo print was terrible. I was pretty quick to head straight back with the samples in tow and see what they were playing at. Turns out they had decided without telling me that that price point was now too low and the quality had to be cheaper. I was not impressed and demanded a refund, which I eventually received. Had I been on the other side of the pond 4000 miles away I’m pretty sure I would not have heard from them again. Unfortunately this is not the first time this has happened and I’m pretty sure it wont be the last, thankfully I am here and able to nip it in the bud. I decided to go with the slightly cheaper supplier and this is the sample I have gone forwards with for my bulk orders. I’m more than happy with it and I’m actually ordering 2 models from this factory now on a regular basis. I have a good relationship with them as they are about 30 mins from me and I hope in the future to do some OEM work with them.
This is a pretty good example of how you need to think on your feet and be sharp to ensure you get the best possible quality at a pricepoint suitable to your market. You can’t pitch up here and say you need the best quality possible for the cheapest price they can do it for, those two things wont mean anything to most Chinese factories, you need to do a lot of the leg work yourself or you won’t get anywhere.
China likes to think of itself as the factory of the world. It is easy to see why as you simply would not believe the amount of factories here, quite often making some very similar products. If a factory sees somewhere close to them doing well from a product chances are they will start making that product too. Its pretty funny sometimes. With this in mind it is easy too see why the quality can vary so much and why on sites like Alibaba you might see an item for 20 USD and someone selling a very similar item for 6 USD. Do you really think they are exactly the same item?
China has been exporting on a big global scale for decades, perhaps longer than some of the other giant exporters in Asia but it’s a wonder why they seem to have shaken off that cheap quality label while China still struggles. When I first started importing bicycles from Taiwan in 2002 I would exhibit them at trade shows and receive a constant barrage of “Yeah it looks great but it’s made in the far east so will last 5 minutes”. These were high end 3-5000 GBP bikes that had to struggle against the “cool factor” of Canadian and American made rigs. It wasnt until I sponsored a team of riders and we posted videos and pictures online of us really hammering this kit that sales started to come through. The truth was that it was great stuff and a lot of the big brand names in the US, which were dominating this market at this time, were “secretly” getting their stuff made in Taiwan too. Now pretty much all major brands have their bicycles made in Taiwan and the consumer consensus seems happy with this. Unfortunately this jacked up the pricing meaning that it was not so lucrative to export niche brands from Taiwan anymore as the big boys began to dominate the market. Interesting enough this lower production cost has not lowered the retail prices of these bikes, they have actually risen in the last 5 years.
I wonder if it’s the buyers fault then that the lower price products taint the image of chinese goods, specifying cheaper materials and components to increase their bottom line? Or is it those chinese factories that have a short term gain mentality (“the world is full of customers, if they are not happy there are plenty more out there”) that are damaging the image? It is important to note that a lot of factories and suppliers here pride themselves on great products and customer satisfaction, they really don’t want to be making cheap rubbish and I have been impressed with what they can do. Unfortunately there are those mentioned before that are in it for the quick buck. Its fair to say there are a number of reasons for this and while there is still cheap stuff being produced here this country may always have the image of a cheap product market. What is important is that you as a buyer are vigilant enough to cut through the crap and get exactly what you require from your buying experience here.
Since I have been here I have bought hundreds upon hundreds of samples, my apartment looks like something from the movie “Big” with things all over the place that I’m half way though playing with. The security guards here must think I’m insane as boxes of products constantly litter my hallway waiting for me to mess around with them before deciding if they are worth exporting or not.
I would say that most times I get a sample I’m not happy with it, maybe I’m a bit picky but then I think this is a good way to be. I want to minimise any returns or customer issues and a good way to do this in my eyes is make sure the product is as good as it can be.