Importing From China – How To Avoid Common Mistakes And Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid

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Most people who start their own ecommerce stores are often hesitant to import their goods from overseas. And their fear is understandable.

After all when you’re dealing with a vendor that is over ten thousand miles away, every little bit of miscommunication is magnified by 10X. And if you factor in the language and cultural barriers, it can be quite intimidating to pay a large sum of cash to someone in a completely different country.

Importing From China How To Avoid Common Mistakes And Why You Shouldn't Be Afraid

But the reality is that importing goods from China or any foreign country is not that difficult as long as you are careful and know what to expect.

In this post, I will address some of the most common fears and myths involved in importing your goods from China and hopefully show you that buying goods from overseas isn’t as intimidating as it sounds.

Myth #1: Asian Vendors Can’t Speak English

Chinese Sign

Most people think that doing business with a Chinese vendor requires an interpreter. But in all my years of doing business overseas, not once have I ever felt the need to hire a translator.

Wait a sec Steve… Aren’t you Chinese? Don’t you speak the language? The truth is that my Chinese is horrible.

While I’m technically Chinese, I was born in the United States and I would estimate that my language skills are on par with a preschooler or a kindergartener. Sure, I can tell someone very confidently that I need to go potty but that’s about it.

In fact one time I tried to bust out my Chinese with a vendor at the Canton Fair and he gave me a puzzled look and ended up replying to me in English!

The reality is that almost every Chinese vendor has at least one person who can speak English semi-fluently. And more often than not, they all have a decent grasp of written English.

As a result, communicating with your vendor should be relatively straightforward if you simply stick with email.

Don’t be intimidated by the language barrier!

Myth #2: Most Asian Vendors Are Out To Rip You Off

Scam

While it is true that there are scammers and con artists in every industry, I have yet to encounter a vendor who intentionally tried to rip me off. In fact if you do just a little bit of due diligence, you can easily sort the bad vendors from the legit ones.

For example, you can arrange a Skype chat with your vendor to get an idea of who you are dealing with. You can have them provide you with a virtual tour of their facilities.

You can also ask if they work with other businesses in your home country and take a look at their existing clientele. Use services like Panjiva or Import Genius to verify their claims. In general, I try to stick with vendors who are accustomed to working with US companies to keep things simple.

One thing that my wife and I also like to do is to attend the Canton Fair which takes place in GuangZhou, China twice a year. If a vendor has a booth at the fair, then you can pretty much bet that they are a legit vendor.

And even if you can’t make it all the way out to China, you can still find legit vendors by looking at trade show catalogs. For example, you can go to the Canton Fair website and download a copy of their directory to see if your vendor is on the list.

In general, as long as you are careful about who you work with and do the research, you can easily avoid the scam artists.

Myth #3: Quality Control Problems Can Not Be Avoided

assembly line
One of my biggest early concerns with importing a large quantity of linens into the United States was quality control.

Most transactions with overseas vendors are done via wire transfer. As a result, once you have received your merchandise, you are pretty much stuck with it and there’s no easy way to make a return.

So what’s stopping a vendor from shipping you complete and unsellable crap? Nothing really. But there are many steps that you can take to prevent this from ever happening.

The first line of defense is to request samples made from the exact batch of materials from your production run. Note: The last part of this statement is extremely important.

When you initially ask a vendor for a sample, chances are that they are going to ship you something that was made from excess material from a different production run. Sometimes, they’ll ship you left over stuff that’s been sitting on their shelves for months.

As a result, the sample you receive may not be representative of the final finished product.

My wife and I made this mistake many times when we first started out. We would ask for a sample which would look fantastic only to get shipped product made from a much thinner, lower quality material when we purchased in bulk.

Today, we always ask for samples made from the exact fabric that is going to be used in final production.

We also have the option to enlist a 3rd party inspection company to physically go through our goods in China before they are shipped. Not a big deal.

Myth #4: Asian Vendors Are Just Out To Make A Quick Buck

With all of the bad press coverage regarding manufacturing scandals in China, the media has led us to believe that all Asian vendors are out to make a quick buck regardless of quality.

But while there are vendors like that out there, I’ve found that most Chinese businesses that I’ve personally dealt with are in it for the long haul. In other words, establishing a long term business relationship with you is their primary goal.

For my wife and I, we always begin every new vendor relationship with a small purchase and gradually work our way up to larger orders over time as our mutual trust builds. Over the years, our vendor relationships have become so strong that we’ll often get shipped merchandise without having to pay anything in advance.

One time, a vendor accidentally shipped us a large batch of bad product and we decided to complain about it. Now technically the shipment was paid for, we were stuck with it and they could have told us to beat it. But instead, they worked with us to find an acceptable resolution to the problem.

When we could not come to an agreement on price, we ended up returning all of the merchandise back to China. But here’s what was hilarious.

Instead of shipping the merchandise back to China which would have been expensive, they ended up sending a random relative/friend to pick up the merchandise and take it back with them in suitcases on their next visit back home to China.

Anyway the point that I’m trying to make is that all of the Asian vendors that we’ve worked with legitimately care about the relationship. The purchases we make are not one and done. They are our partners for the long haul.

As long as you start out with small orders and gradually expand, you can weed out the “get rich quick” guys and focus on the factories that you want to work with on an ongoing basis.

Conclusion

When it comes to sourcing product for your online store, chances are that you will be able to find much better pricing overseas. Now importing goods from Asia can be intimidating if it’s your first time.

But if you start out with very small orders to get your feet wet and gradually grow over time, the process instantly becomes much more manageable with less perceived risk.

Importing your products from overseas is quite doable. You don’t have to buy an enormous quantity of goods. You don’t have to risk a lot of money. You just have to be willing to take a small chance.

If you are interested in learning more about how to import products from Asia, consider signing up for my full blown class. I’ll teach you how to find vendors for your store and hold your hand throughout the entire importing process.

Click here to check out my ecommerce course

photo credit: Don’t Park Here No More making signs on the go

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8 thoughts on “Importing From China – How To Avoid Common Mistakes And Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid”

  1. Hi Steve
    I always enjoy your posts. Very informative and often quite candid in what went right and what went wrong. Thank you for that. My question pertains to your blog today and what I read in a previous blog that discusses importing from China. We have finalized design and development of a new product. The manufacturer has provided us with a letter designating our product as ODM so we can proceed with the Patent process. Now, we’re about ready to pull the trigger and place our order for first shipment of product. Air will be way too expensive so by Sea is the way. You strongly suggests hiring a Shipping Agent to deal with the documents, customs, shipping, etc. The manufacturer says they use a shipping agent, but I am not sure they will be working for us instead of simply moving the boxes from the manufacturer to the ship. I realize that it is critical to get an agent to assist us, but where can I search for a reliable and honest shipping agent? How can I get an estimate of shipping cost so we are certain it is fair? Neither of the posts had a link for me to begin that search. Please help. Thank You for your time. Bruce

    1. Looks like my wife beat me to the answer:)

  2. Stephen says:

    Hi Steve, I always look at your post there is usually something of interest.
    In regards to communicating with china for products.

    I read last year that more people speak English in China than the rest of the world combined.

    I have a Chinese friend who goes to China every 6-8 weeks. He finds things for me.

    I can phone in business hours, for me they are 2 hours behind ( I am in Australia)

    Regards
    Stephen

    1. That is an incredible statistic. Thanks for sharing

  3. Hey Bruce,

    This is Jen, the better half of MWQHJ. As to your question, I do recommend getting a customs agent. That person will ultimately take care of filling out the custom’s paperwork before leaving China (Form ISF10) and after the shipment lands in the US. They will also work to bring the product out of customs/port and shipped to your location. We ultimately used a customs agent that was based close to our designated port. A customs agent works for the importer whereas the shipping agent (someone that typically works for the shipper forwarder) works for the exporter. We use the same one for all our shipments.

    In my opinion, you should just use the least expensive shipper forwarder you can find. When we first started importing, we just asked our manufacturer to find the least expensive shipper forwarder and provide us with a quote. Each of our shipments uses a different shipper forwarder. Unfortunately there’s not a clear way to “price check” the shipping cost as shipping prices can vary depending on different factors (size, weight, how many pallets, shipping destination, etc). Most companies in China, do FOB China prices which means, the manufacturer will handle the shipment to the port. After it’s been loaded onto the boat, the transfer of responsibility is to the shipper forwarder. Once it’s landed and off the boat, the customs agent is then responsible until it arrives to your location.

  4. William Clark says:

    Thanks for sharing. I am an American who has been working in China for the last 4 years and throughout my time here I been the head manager for a QA/QC American Company.
    From a first hand point of view and from hundreds of visits to the different factories all over China I can surely say that the following;
    1. Chinese suppliers are not the way to go if you are looking for a product. There are many American Sourcing companies in China you can use. Chinese suppliers from my experience are not reliable, trustful and always find a way to make things complicated. I have been in many situations where suppliers claim to be a factory but in the end after asking to see their audit reports they become silent and stop communication. Most suppliers are individuals who receive a small percentage from the factory. If you want to see a supplier to be real I recommend to have a Skype interview and ask them to show you their supplier certificate on Skype. As well to send you social compliance audit reports from the factories they find for you.
    2. Chinese factories are actually great business partners and most are in for the long haul, I just recommend to check the quality because most of these factories have workers that spend countless hours doing the same thing everyday and in return become complacent. That would happen to anyone working the same hours, so the factory is not to blame.
    3. Factories or vendors usually have one or two people in their sales department that speaks English, this comes with the new English teaching China has been incorporating in their educational system. But you must remember that the person speaking English is most of the time from my experience a sales girl who is usually just out of college and does not have much experience in the manufacturing world. So if you are trying to buy something from a factory and you run into quality/shipment/money/product issues the chances are that the inexperienced sales girl is going to be your translator.
    The most important thing to take from this blog is that I truly believe that Chinese factories are very welcoming, helpful, great business partners, and extremely friendly to us foreigners. and in the end one must be understanding and patient because afterall we are the ones in their country not speaking their language.
    Once again, thanks for the insight and all the useful information.

  5. Gary says:

    Great advice Steve. Especially important to get the pre-production sample – definitely a best practice.

    While you are right that one shouldn’t be intimidated by the language barrier, one should be careful because some suppliers with great english skills in China are in fact trading companies. At the same time I’ve run across good suppliers with great product and price but they cannot put together an email in English and are not found on Alibaba.

    Gary

  6. Gyan raj khatri says:

    best article for businessman i am from Nepal can u give vendor mobile number or contact number for business purpose.

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