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Importing Small Volumes from China – The Ultimate Guide

small volumes china

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Buying products in small quantities from China can be challenging to say the least. It’s hard to reach the minimum order quantities and product certification testing can cost thousands of dollars. But that’s not all. The market is already crowded and even global corporations struggle to maintain decent profit margins. In this article we take a look into the key factors that makes the difference between success and failure when importing small volumes from China.

Why small volume importers still should buy from manufacturers

To begin with I want to make it clear that a small volume buyer should forget about stocking up a whole store or e-commerce site with custom made products imported from China. You can’t reach the required minimum order quantity requirements (I’ll get to that in a bit) and managing the whole purchasing process for as few as one or two products is already very demanding and time consuming for small businesses.

However, this doesn’t mean that you should buy products from sites like Aliexpress instead of going straight to a manufacturer. While you cannot stock up a full range of products directly from a manufacturer, you can still buy one or two. Preferably these should be the products that you expect to sell the most of.

Yet, a store or a product catalog with one or two products won’t impress anyone. This is when small volume sites like Aliexpress can actually make sense. Since the MOQ requirements are really low (you can often buy one unit per product), Aliexpress can be a good platform for buying “filler products”. However, exclusively buying generic and Unbranded products “off shelf” in small quantities is not a sound business strategy. I’ll get to that later.

Products to avoid when buying small volumes

Certain product are not viable for small volume importing. Among these products I tend to include electronics, toys, cosmetics and chemical products. While these products may still be possible to purchase in Small Volumes from sites like Aliexpress. However, those “off shelf” products are manufactured for the domestic Chinese market and are not in compliance with US and EU product certification requirements.

Importing non-compliant items is illegal, and may result in confiscation by the customs authorities, or even a lawsuit in case a customer is injured by your product. Ensuring compliance with product standards, such as CE and FCC, costs money. Quality inspections and lab testing is not free, and I strongly suggest that you spend money on products to sell rather than lab testing and expensive consultants.

In the end, all products are regulated by one or more directives. That being said, certain products, such as cosmetics and medical devices, are more strictly regulated than others. In many cases, it’s also quite complicated to determine which regulation and/or directive is applicable to a certain product. But there’s help to get. When you order a Starter Package on Chinaimportal.com, we both confirm applicable product regulations and source suppliers able to show previous compliance. Click here to read more.

How to lower the MOQ requirement

A major issue for small volume importers is the MOQ requirement. Many Chinese suppliers require a minimum order of 500 to 1000 pieces per product. If it would’ve been for the total order, it could’ve been quite acceptable for a small business. However, 500 pieces per product times a few different products in various shapes and colors equals a huge minimum order quantity.

So, should you order 500 green T-shirts of the same size? No, that’s economic suicide. There are a few workarounds that still allow the supplier to manufacture a certain quantity products, while you can buy products in various shapes and colors – without raising the MOQ requirement.

The MOQ requirement is not a matter of negotiation. The supplier will lose money if they produce less, so you need to come up with something else. I call this “streamlining usage of components and materials”. Basically, this means that you should reuse materials and components on as many products as possible, and thereby create variation.

I’ve done this a few times. In 2012 I had a client coming over to Shanghai to visit a supplier of bathroom rugs. The problem was that their budget barely allowed them to reach the suppliers MOQ requirement for one product. Buying 500 pieces of bathroom rugs in the same color is not really viable for a small store such as theirs.

While the supplier refused to sell anything less than 500 pieces, they offered the client to cut the product in up to four shapes and provide the rugs in up to three different colors. While the rugs were to be delivered in the same material, the client still managed to get a range of 12 different products without adding anything to the MOQ requirement.

Branding your product

While I discourage small buyers to import highly customized products, I consider branding to be one of the most important factors of the whole strategy. Many small business owners assume that a brand is useless, unless it’s famous. That’s a paradox, because a brand cannot instantly become well known.

While it can take years for a brand to gain some recognition, it is certain to add value to your business from day one. A brand gives the product, and therefore the company behind it, an identity. In the long term you might also be able to put a price tag on your business, something that I’d say is almost impossible for a company trading in generic Unbranded products.

But branding costs a ton of money, right? No, it doesn’t and that’s why it’s so great. Getting your product branded doesn’t require more than a logo print on the product itself, on the product packing or both. It’s not only simple, but the price difference between a non-branded product and a branded product is minimal. Most suppliers won’t ask for than a few cents to print your very own logo on an existing product design.

Branding can be much more than a printed logo. There’s no real limits here. You can get your product in a customized color or ask your supplier to make a small design modification in order to differentiate yourself from other companies in your market.

Invest in product quality and don’t attempt to compete on pricing

This one should be fairly obvious, but small volume importers still tend to make this mistake over and over again. Forget about competing on price with giant corporations such as Wal Mart. No matter which product you plan to import from China, you won’t get the same price as they do.

Small volumes and razor thin profit margins is like oil and water. They don’t mix. Low profit margins results in huge risks. A small mistake or a late delivery can erase months of profit in a whim. It’s a dead end.

This means that you need to find a way to increase your profit margins. However, your buyers are not idiots. They won’t pay premium price for a below average product. Making a supplier and product selection primarily based on price is one of the most common mistakes made by small volume importers. The cheapest product is certainly not the best product, and you won’t be able to motivate a high price. Instead, you need to make a supplier and product selection based on quality.

Buying a quality product doesn’t mean that you have to invest millions of dollars. In fact, the price difference between a “low end product” and a “high end product” is often rather slim. Let me give you a sound example: Watch cases can be made in Zinc alloy and Stainless steel. When buying from a Chinese manufacturer, a Zinc alloy watch can be as cheap as US$5 while the stainless steel version costs three times as much. However, potential mark up on a Zinc alloy watch is slim. You can’t sell one for more than US$30. This is certainly not the case for a Stainless steel watch that can fetch up to US$250 (well, ten times that if you happen to own a brand named Rolex).

Do you get the point? A small additional investment can make a drastic quality improvement that in turn results in even more drastic improvements of your profit margins.

Summary

There are quite a few things to take into consideration if you wish to import small volumes and still make a worthwhile profit. That’s why I’ve prepared a summary list of all the factors that makes a major impact on your bottom line:

  • Focus your investment on one or two main product lines
  • Only use small volume sites like Aliexpress for “filler products”
  • Avoid products that require compliance with certification standards
  • Ask your supplier how they can offer a variation to your product without raising the. MOQ requirement
  • Brand your products with a custom logo print and/or product packing
  • Invest a bit into product quality in order to allow better profit margins
  • Never compete on pricing

Do you have more questions or experience to share about importing small volumes from China? Feel free to send us an e-mail or write a comment right here!

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    48 Responses to “Importing Small Volumes from China – The Ultimate Guide”

    1. sonny lee February 19, 2014 at 8:48 pm #

      so much talk on internet about being scammed on AliExpress.
      How to avoid?

      • Fredrik Grönkvist February 19, 2014 at 10:08 pm #

        Sonny,

        Yes, and for a good reason. However, Aliexpress.com has cleaned up it’s act quite a bit in the last few years. I suggest that you read our articles on the topic:

        http://www.chinaimportal.com/aliexpress/

        http://www.chinaimportal.com/blog/buying-from-aliexpress-without-getting-scammed/

        • mandeep singh May 11, 2015 at 10:12 am #

          hi fredick,
          i m from new zealand and i want to start new business of leather shoes and i am looking for some supplier.
          how can i find manufacturer with factory price. please guide me for that.
          thankyou

        • Nnamah kingsley January 5, 2016 at 8:41 pm #

          Helo sir am kingsley by name nd a Nigerian new in importation biz. I want to start importing baby diapas nd wappers in a small scal. Pls, sir i want u to guid me on how to gate a suppier that wont demand MOQ as well rebrand the product. Thanks

      • Kunbi February 8, 2016 at 10:13 pm #

        Hello I want to go to China to produce my own slippers designs Is it possible to get a manufacturer that will do fifty pairs per design.

    2. Shawn June 10, 2014 at 8:20 pm #

      I want to start selling baby items. My first Niche item is the boppy pillow and my own design pillow cover. It will be small volumes of 200 and the MOQ is 500, what should I do in this situation? Will the items the any certifications?

      • Fredrik Grönkvist June 11, 2014 at 11:02 am #

        Hello Shawn,

        In which country are you based? Children’s products are regulated in all western countries and penalties for non-compliance are harsh. In the United States, non-compliance with the relevant regulations may result in a US$15.5 million fine.

    3. Ziebster June 26, 2014 at 7:03 pm #

      Having been in touch with couple of the Chinese manufacturers in the past they don’t even want to talk to you if you don’t have the MOC qty. We custom OEM design our toy products and lots of time they simply flat out ignore our business request. We usually ballpark around 250pcs per item design per design but it just doesn’t interest them. We need varieties of items and designs in order to stay competitive and maintain our customer interested in the market place. What’s the solution here?

      • Fredrik Grönkvist June 27, 2014 at 6:11 am #

        Hello,

        Toys are heavily regulated in most countries, especially the US, EU and Australia. In order to comply with these regulations, the supplier purchase compliant materials and components.

        These materials are often custom manufactured for compliance with a certain standard. If anything is custom manufactured, the quantity requirement goes up.

        However, it may be viable for the supplier to accept your order if you re-use the same materials and components on several products.

        • Boris August 2, 2014 at 7:00 am #

          Frederik, can you give an examples of reusing same materials and components on several products? Are you talking about closely related products that share same materials for example ceramic cups, plates, pitchers? Or various children’s toys that typically are made from plastic?

          I don’t know if this method would work with manufacturers that sell in different niches like stainless metal watches, ceramics, plastic toys. Due to diversity of materials they have, the amount of stock materials available are more limited compared to manufacturers that closely specialize in certain niche. These may have high MOQ though compared to former broad manufacturers?

          I guess when I decide to reuse materials is when products in my product like share same core materials? Because if I have products which do not, reusing materials would not work in this case.

          • Boris August 2, 2014 at 7:43 am #

            Please ignore my question about streamlining usage of materials and components because I asked before getting to that point in article.

            It seems that this method won’t work when I am zeroed-in on 1 product only after liking only 1 sample from high MOQ manufacturer out of 5 given in total.

            In this case do you think offering higher price per unit method would work with manufacturer? Like if 1 unit out of 1000 MOQ costs $3 and I offer $5 per unit for order of 100-200 units?

            • Fredrik Grönkvist August 4, 2014 at 4:56 am #

              Yes, it’s true that this strategy will not lower the MOQ if you buy one product, without variations of any sort. However, it can lower the overall MOQ per item or variation, if you reuse materials and components.

              Sometimes a higher price works, it’s worth trying!

          • Fredrik Grönkvist August 4, 2014 at 4:54 am #

            Boris,

            There are no suppliers able to manufacture that many different products (apart from holding companies that are involved in different industries, but these might be considered separate manufacturers).

    4. Alfred September 19, 2014 at 3:19 pm #

      Hi Mate,
      I would like to import led lightings like bulbs and multi coloured led light chandeliers and light fittings from china to Newzealand for business purpose.But here in Newzealand they require a SDOC document ( Supplier deceleration of compliance) document or a safety test report for Newzealand and Australia standards.I am bit confused with this.Could you please guide me what and how to obtain this from my supplier.And how to find few suppliers who can manufacture light and light fittings according to Newzealand and Australia standards who can give me a test report so I can sell the lightings in newzealand.Looking forward to hear from you.Thanks very much.

      Best regards
      Alfred

    5. Alfredo Santos September 29, 2014 at 7:07 pm #

      I Fredrik,
      I m from Portugal and im about to start a litle business of cell phones and i m looking for some supliers.
      How can i find manufacturers with factory price?
      Tank you

      • Rijal Abd Shukor November 5, 2016 at 2:53 am #

        Hi Alfredo, Did you get a supplier yet?

    6. joe pittim October 22, 2014 at 3:10 am #

      I’m considering manufacturing an item for the first time and I’m trying to get an idea of how much would be the minimum i’d have to order. Say I want to order a completely custom metal dish, what would be a typical MOQ?

      • Fredrik Grönkvist October 22, 2014 at 6:05 pm #

        Hello Joe,

        I’d expect somewhere around 500 – 1000 pcs per product. However, the MOQ is often negotiable.

    7. Rylee December 8, 2014 at 3:45 am #

      What is the best way to find a supplier for small business for children’s clothing? I am opening a small children’s boutique US & I cannot find a supplier that is CPSIA compliant in China. Is there somewhere I can find one? I don’t need huge quantities of one product.

      • Fredrik Grönkvist December 8, 2014 at 10:03 am #

        Hello Rylee,

        Supplier rarely specify CPSIA compliance, as it’s a legal act and not a standard. CPSIA refers to various other ASTM and substance regulations, as different standards apply to different products.

    8. Ankur December 16, 2014 at 7:17 am #

      HI

      i am planning to import small quantity children clothes from China to India, what should i take care of and also how can i group ship my purchased products from aliexpress

      Regards
      Ankur

    9. Aaron December 16, 2014 at 12:54 pm #

      Hi Fredrik,

      How much % profit margin would be good? And what do you mean by not competing on pricing? Does it mean it’s okay for me to sell my product at a higher price than huge retailers?

      • Fredrik Grönkvist December 16, 2014 at 6:42 pm #

        Hello Aaron,

        The higher the better, but it depends entirely on the product. What I mean is that it’s not possible to beat large retailers in pricing. They have the advantage of scale which small businesses simply cannot stand up against. Instead, you need to find other ways to differentiate yourself, and thereby increase your margins.

    10. wisdom December 20, 2014 at 3:43 pm #

      Hello Fredrik, Am from Nigeria. Am so glad to find this article and I know from your experience I’ll be in safe hands. I’m thinking of contacting a manufacturer in China to buy and brand Tshirts there. I’m completely new to importation. So please I want you to suggest a company I can contact, their MOQ and very importantly their pricing as the Tshirts should be the kind that can be bought by anybody in my locality. Thanks

    11. custom made shirts April 3, 2015 at 12:14 pm #

      Hi there everyone, it’s my first go to see at this website, and post is in fact fruitful
      in support of me, keep up posting these types of posts.

    12. custom sweatshirts April 4, 2015 at 4:58 pm #

      This excellent website definitely has all the info I wanted about this
      subject and didn’t know who to ask.

    13. Nicole April 15, 2015 at 5:19 pm #

      Hi Fredrick,
      I am looking to import the “basha” baby leggings from China to start a small business in Canada. After reading your very informative article do you know of suppliers that already have approved certificates and requirements?

      Thanks.

    14. Zach H December 11, 2015 at 2:12 pm #

      I am having a hard time finding the answer to my question. Maybe you will have an idea. Lets say I find a product from China and I want to customize it a little bit and the manufacture agrees to it. Then I want to put my logo on it. Should I patent that product that I have customized or do I just sell it with my brand on it?

      Thanks,
      Zach

    15. Chatlani M.L. May 5, 2016 at 5:44 am #

      Hi Fredrick……………

      Primarily let me congratulate you on your, excellent, informative, site.

      We are planning to set-up a warehouse,cum online , export store catering to businesses and not direct consumers………in the furniture trade. The sale will be on a non minimum basis per item
      but a minimum 20ft. cont. load. We are seeking assistance in warehouse location..possibly
      in Foshan/Shunde Area. Any guidance would be of tremendous help. Thks.

      • ChinaImportal May 8, 2016 at 11:06 am #

        Hi,

        Unfortunately we don’t offer warehousing services. But, our shipping partner, Prime Cargo, might be able to do so.

        • Chatlani M.L. May 9, 2016 at 8:51 am #

          Att: Mr. Fredrick…………………..

          Thank you for your reply.

          Kindly put Prime Cargo in contact with us, so we may communicate with
          them.

          Thank you, once again.

    16. Mannie May 20, 2016 at 3:34 pm #

      I write from the US. I’m a starting inventor with lots of ideas and prototypes at the moment. My problem however is how to find reliable manufacturers in china since I can’t travel there now as a result of my current job.
      Please I need your advice on how to start up searching for companies to get my ideas in the market.
      I have a little money to invest on one or two of my inventions. Looking forward to hearing from you soonest. Thanks.

    17. Vicky Liu July 13, 2016 at 2:56 am #

      Usually, it is not that the manufacturer do not want to help you to lower the MOQ. But you know, wool comes from the sheep. The manufacturer of course won’t pay the cost by themselves, then who pay? Of course the buyer. But for most of processing, 100pcs or 1000pcs, almost the same cost, except the raw material. And at the same time, the manufacturer have to buy raw material at higher price if low volume.

      So the best way is to find ready made products.

      If not in large quantity but with many selections, taobao.com or 1688.com would be a good choice for you to save more cost.

    18. Isaac September 20, 2016 at 2:47 pm #

      Hello Fredrick
      I plan n stating a shoe company in the US. I need to find a good supplier to make the shoes. I planning on selling women shoes. Do you know of any manufactures or know where I could find some?

      • ChinaImportal September 26, 2016 at 3:38 am #

        Hi,

        You should have receiuved our email by now

    19. Dan October 23, 2016 at 11:16 pm #

      Hi Fredrick,

      I’m looking for a small quantity distributor for hats and gloves. I’m just starting out and I’d appreciate any info. Thanks for all the info above, great help.

      Regards,

      • ChinaImportal October 24, 2016 at 3:27 am #

        Good morning,

        We’ll send you an email later today

    20. Mak December 8, 2016 at 8:20 am #

      Hi Fredrick,

      I am interested in importing shoes to Australia and looking for suitable suppliers who can meet compliance requirements for Australian market.
      Can you please suggest some manufacturers? MoQ may vary from 100s to 1000s (different sizes, colors etc)

      Thank you

    21. Roy January 24, 2017 at 2:15 pm #

      Hey
      I’m setting up a online tie and pocket square company, but I’m looking for a company who will manufacture copys of ties that I have in my own collection. Is this something I could get done?

    22. Simon February 6, 2017 at 11:49 pm #

      Good Morning

      Does anyone knows contact of Netherlands Post in China or agent who works with Netherlands Post ?

      Because I have pending orders in China .

      Thank You

      • ChinaImportal February 12, 2017 at 7:57 am #

        Hi Simon,

        Why would you need such an agent? The postal services are linked together, so you don’t need an agent that works with the Neatherland post.

    23. china tin can factory March 2, 2017 at 2:31 pm #

      Great article! :) When it comes to importing products from any country, “caution” must always be on every level; be it at the level of the product to be imported or the supplier. The last thing but more important than all and that you mentioned is that it is always better to spend its money for products to sell than everything else.

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