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Importing private label products from Chinese manufacturers is often seen as a faster and easier way to launch new products. This is sometimes true, but only if done correctly. In this guide, I share everything I have learnt about manufacturing private label products in China – including which products are better suited for private labeling, specifications, making design changes, quality control, compliance, and much more.
A private label product is manufactured by Company A, but with the brand name (e.g. logo) of Company B. In theory, Company A, the manufacturer, provides a ready-made ‘product template’, to which other buyers can apply their own brands.
Other key criteria are that private label products are made using existing tooling, such as injection molds.
The benefit of private labeling is that you can create a branded product, without investing too much time and money in product development and tooling. Hence, you can launch a product much faster, and at a lower cost.
This makes sense if you intend to launch a ‘generic’ product that’s already on the market in some form. That said, you cannot make design changes to a private label product, which also makes it harder to break into an increasingly competitive e-commerce marketplace.
+ No mold or tooling costs
+ Faster sample production time
+ Makes sense for generic products
+ You can normally change materials and colors
– You may end up selling the same product as many other companies already do
– You cannot make changes to the design or dimensions
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Molded metal and plastic products are generally better suited for private labeling. There is less margin for error when the product’s design, functionality, and quality are already part of existing tooling. That said, private labeling is more common in certain industries where suppliers are more used to ‘creating’ their own catalog of standard products.
That being said, it’s still necessary to create a complementary product specification when buying private label products in any of the mentioned product categories. There are often options in terms of materials and components. It’s always best to avoid letting your supplier decide that for you.
Private labeling is hard to apply to products that are not made using pre-existing tooling or standardized parts. For example, private labeling is not really a thing in the clothing industry as the manufacturing process is depending on cutting and sewing.
In a perfect world, textiles manufacturers would have a set of standardized techpacks. However, this is not the case, which is why there is too much of an error margin without a clear product specification for private label clothing to work in practice.
It’s still necessary to create a product specification when importing private label products. The difference is that you create the specification largely based on the ‘existing’ private label product, rather than creating a product from the specification.
In practice, this often means that you’ll need to buy product samples and then document the following:
Then you must also include the elements you intend to customize:
In a way, it’s a bit like reverse-engineering the product. That said, it’s essential to “lock down” the product’s design, quality, and materials before you enter production. The supplier is more likely to make mistakes or even attempt to cut corners without the private label product specification serving as a clear reference point.
Keep in mind that suppliers often have multiple material options available even for private label products. You must discuss this with the supplier as you create the specification.
The definition of a private label product is that of a factory standard design, with a custom buyer brand. You can, in some cases, make minor additional design changes:
With that being said, as soon as you make changes to the design, functionality, or dimensions, you are no longer in ‘private label territory’, but have already stepped into the realm of OEM products.
Having a product branded is not expensive. The price difference between a private label product and a no-name product is usually very small.
Printing a logo on a product is most often not costing more than $0.2 to $0.4, per piece. In comparison to the added value (assuming you do it right), that is a very good return on investment.
However, the costs depend on many factors, including placement, the number of colors, and logo size. In some cases, suppliers also charge an additional tooling fee (print card cost), ranging between $50 to $200.
Getting your products labeled is not rocket science, but things can still go horribly wrong. As said, Chinese suppliers are accustomed to a “make to order” approach. Thus, they expect you to provide every relevant specification, in this case relating to the private label itself.
The stakes are high, as the supplier will fill in the gaps if you would fail to provide one or more labeling specifications.
What makes things worse is that many Chinese suppliers will not alert you of mistakes or other issues (for example, incorrect font), even if something is obviously wrong.
Yet, many startups and small businesses fail to realize the importance of providing comprehensive specifications to their suppliers, and instead think that the supplier “should know how to get it right”.
Yes, perhaps they should, but you are the one losing money when something goes wrong.
Your label can be printed, or affixed, to the product in various ways. There’s no right or wrong here, apart from the obvious fact that certain print types are not suitable for some products. Below follows an overview of various print types:
Always refer to a Pantone or RAL color code, depending on which color matching system your supplier is using. Never refer to RGB colors or other digital color systems.
The supplier must know the exact position where the logo should be printed. Thus, you must provide reference measurements, based on the actual product dimensions.
The artwork must be based on actual product design. Thus, you must either draft an Artwork template yourself, based on a product sample, or obtain one directly from the supplier. However, it’s quite common that Chinese suppliers either cannot or refuse to provide artwork templates.
Most suppliers prefer to work with the scalable vector file format, .eps (Encapsulated PostScript) or an Adobe Illustrator file (.ai). It’s critical that the files are set with the correct dimensions and resolution.
If you use a non-standard font, you must also provide the font file. Time and time again I see buyers making assumptions about these small things.
Most suppliers can offer a selection of standard packaging designs, that can be branded with the customer’s logo. The main reason to choose standard packaging is the MOQ:
Thus, buyer branded standard packaging is basically the only option for any company, looking to buy less than 3000 units.
So, how do you go about finding out which packaging a supplier can offer?
First, they rarely keep product catalogs, from which you can choose. Instead, most factories rather have their customers send them a few photos of ‘similar’ packaging options, which they then forward to their packaging subcontractors.
Just keep in mind that you must make clear that you are only looking for standard packaging, not custom-designed packaging.
You must also instruct your supplier to confirm the price, dimensions, available colors, and MOQ.
As a Startup buyer, you should focus on getting a product out on a market. While a glossy custom-designed box can be a good long-term investment, private label packaging is faster and cheaper to get on the shelves.
We often get asked whether quality inspections are necessary when buying private label products, as compared to custom-designed products. My experience tells me that private label products are in no way less prone to quality issues than customized products. As such, pre-shipment quality inspections – as part of a broader quality assurance process – are crucial.
In the end, you cannot return defective products to the supplier in China, so make sure that your products are inspected prior to shipment.
You must also provide product information to your quality inspection agency before the inspection takes place, including the following:
This is one more reason why a complimentary product specification is so important, even when you buy a factory-designed product.
Private labeling products are not exempt from product regulations, safety standards, labeling, and documentation requirements. Nor does the fact that you import private label products somehow make you less responsible for safety and compliance. Yet, many importers make the assumption that this is the case.
As such, make sure you research the following before placing an order:
Private label products are as a concept quite alien to many manufacturers outside of China. My theory is that manufacturers in Vietnam and India are often more large scale and are simply not accustomed to customers asking them for “their products”. Private labeling has grown more popular as a result of Alibaba.com, and some Chinese manufacturers have also adapted to this trend by offering a range of private label products.
Private label products are based on existing molds and tooling. However, such products are not necessarily mass-produced on a frequent basis or kept on the shelf by manufacturers.
Private label products normally only exist as a product listing on Alibaba.com, and will only enter production once a supplier receives an order from a customer.
The minimum order quantity (MOQ) requirement is generally the same when buying private label products as when you buy a custom-designed product.
The MOQ is normally decided by the material suppliers, rather than the design type. The fact that you can use an existing mold doesn’t have any impact on the MOQ requirement in any meaningful way.
You find private labeling manufacturers wherever you find factories of all sorts. As such, you can find them on Alibaba.com, Globalsources.com or at major trade shows such as the Canton Fair in Guangzhou.
Keep in mind that manufacturers rarely even use the term private labeling, as they don’t see themselves as such. From the factory perspective, it’s only a matter of whether you use existing tooling, or request a new mold to be produced.
Private labeling was not invented in China. It has existed for decades in the food industry, for example. That said, Chinese manufacturers have widened the range of items available for private labeling.
Our customers often ask us whether Chinese manufacturers ‘allow’ their products to be privately labeled, and the answer is almost always yes. There are very few suppliers that offer ODM products – but deny buyer branding.
Chinese suppliers are in general very flexible, as they make products according to buyer specifications. The positive aspect of this is that you can essentially get any product out there private-labeled, as long as existing tooling is in place.
Let’s look into what it actually takes to go down the private label path. First, you need to find out what sort of products the supplier has existing tooling for. Second, you need to get a list of product specifications.
However, as many suppliers lack both tooling and product specifications, you may need to both buy tooling, which sort of defeats the reason to buy a private label product and provide the supplier with a complete spec sheet (which completely makes it irrelevant).
Buyers often find themselves in situations where they must reverse engineer the ‘supplier product’. This can be far more time-consuming than hiring a product design freelancer and pay for custom-designed product samples from the very start.
The problem is that the supplier still expects you to provide them with a ‘complementary’ product specification, even when buying a private label product.
If not, they’ll “fill in the gaps” for you, in a way that benefits them – meaning that they’ll use the cheapest materials and components available, to improve their own, meager, profit margin.
Consider private-label products as nothing more than product design templates. In the end, the process is still essentially the same as if you’d go for a custom-designed OEM product.
1. Do you have design drawings or CAD files?
2. Do you have a bill of materials (BoM)?
3. Do you have an overview of material options?
4. Do you have lab test reports?
5. Do you own the molds and tooling for this product?
Manufacturers in China and other Asian countries are rarely specialized as private labeling manufacturers. They are still operating according to OEM ‘make to order principles’. In short, the OEM process can be broken down as follows:
1. The buyer provides design drawings, material specifications, reference samples, applicable safety standards, and labeling files
2. The supplier manufactures a product sample for two reasons: First, to learn how to produce the product, and to show the buyer that they have the expertise to do it
3. Production begins. The supplier procures materials and components from its subcontractors. After this is done, assembly begins
1. The buyer browses through catalogs and websites, picking out the products they want
2. The buyer sends a logo file to the supplier, and they work out the rest
3. The supplier starts production and manufactures the product according to an established set of quality standards and product specifications. The buyer can just sit back and wait for the next batch
1. The suppliers most often do not have a ‘fixed’ product specification (e.g. design drawings and material specifications)
They still expect the buyer to provide explicit requirements for labeling, materials, design, and product compliance requirements.
2. Most suppliers don’t develop their own products or even tooling
Browsing suppliers pages on Alibaba.com or at trade shows can give the impression that factories develop large product ranges, ready for anyone to order. What you find in the supplier’s catalog are partly products they’ve done for other customers, partly products they want to show that they can manufacture (but never actually did produce, so far).
As mentioned, a product catalog is not much more than a reference point for what the supplier has produced before, and what they suggest they can make.
I have dealt with companies that have tooling for less than 50% of the products in their catalog. In these cases, there’s nothing but a 3D rendering. No molds, spec sheets, or design drawings.
Further, even if they have the tooling, such as injection molds, they may (and should not) allow other buyers to use it given that someone else likely paid for it. I’m sure you would not be happy if your supplier allowed other importers to your injection molds or other tooling.
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Co-founder of Asiaimportal (HK) Limited and based in Hong Kong. He has been quoted in and contributed to Bloomberg, SCMP, Alibaba Insights, Globalsources.com, China Chief Executive, Quartz Magazine and more.
26 Responses to “Buying Private Label Products in China: A Complete Guide”
I am looking to start my own MAkeup line and thinking to get the products from Alibaba and have my own label on it. Don’t have any idea from where to begin as the articles are making me confused a lot. Any Help would be appreciated.
The process of private labelling is a complicated maze when dealing with China – a process that is complicated by different languages, time zones and quality expectations. We have hired staff that speak the language and try to set up long term relationships so the initial steps in setting up the relationships don’t have to repeated. This article offers some ways to speed up the process which is good. But expect problems, delays and frustrations. In the end it usually works out. So far we have had only one relationship that has completely failed.
You are absolutely right!
Nice to read this! Still, there are some best china manufacturers one can choose from.
Great post indeed! Really appreciate your sharing. Thanks! Waiting for your new posts!
Hi Boris- Thank you for having this forum available. I am looking to buy some promotional shaker bottles to giveaway with my logo thru Alibaba. The Blender Bottle Company has design patents (according to their website): https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/1099/1898/files/USD510235S1-S1697.10018US01.pdf I wanted to know if I will run into trouble for buying these bottles with my logo on them to give away mostly and also sell.
If the product is design patented, you cannot import and sell them without a license from the patent holder
Hi Boris- Thanks for the info. My confusion is that there are mfg’s in China which claim they have their own patents to their bottles and then I find similar bottles patented by BlenderBottle. I can clearly see the patents on the USPTO for BlenderBottle but if there are minor differences in the design I wonder if the design patent is still valid.
Thank you for the great information!
You mention briefly that it’s the buyer’s responsibility to ensure that the product is fully compliant and meets the safety standards and labeling requirements. But can you explain further how it is done if it involves everything from creating the correct labels to lab testing?
Thank you very much!
Yes, that is correct.
For example, the buyer must create the label files (and make sure that they comply with regulations). As for lab testing, it is up to the buyer to collect samples and book the correct tests.
Same thing goes for documents, or even confirming which standards / regulations apply to a given product, in the target market.
The key here is to understand that manufacturers are, well, manufacturers – not lawyers or compliance consultants.
I don’t understand how Daniel Wellington is not a private label brand. I found most of the same watches, without their brand of course, for about $10 on Alibaba. Maybe I’m misunderstanding what private labeling is.
Those are just replicas of the DW watch. Hence, they can hardly be classified as a private label product.
Thanks for the information. Currently, we are in the process of doing OEM. I would like to know whether it is possible to use the barcode of producer, but our own design and trademark. Is it legal?
I think you must buy EAN codes from an organisation, such as GS1UK.
ok here is a close example.
i am trying to buy an electric ballon that can go up and down. a US company already made and patent this product. i see other sellers(not too many 2-4) selling the exact product w/diff private label name and image/description. I asked amazon and they replied saying I CAN list and sell the item as long as i make a few changes, make my own brand name, and use a diff ASIN and amazon registry brand. but my aliababa supplier told me that the company has an agreement with amazon to be the sold seller. so i dont get it? i dont want to be taken down and lose all that money or have the original company send a cease and desist letter? but from what i hear, as long as the brand/item is not huge like apple/sony/nike, you are allow to resell just not under same name/image/etc. thank you
It is an interesting article. What is funny is it always come back to the same topic which is quality, and reliability because in the end this is what people suffer from the most.
A good way to verify capability of supplier is to perform some Factory Audit, also called Supplier Audit by visiting them directly or sending someone to visit them.
We do this every day and this is funny to see how diversified the bunch of supplier is in terms of quality assurance capability.
Thanks for the article as I am in the process of getting a Trademark from the USPTO as I already have 1 US patent and this time I’m going with trademark on a LOGO. My question is I have ordered the product from China that I ordered at least 200 pairs of, yes I have a shoe fetish, Anyway they have the symbol on the that is a very large company here and thus company does not make this type of shoe but China makes them. Recently I found they are not selling g or shipping the shoes (expect me because I have there private email) I get so many compliments it’s crazy, people want to take pics and where I bought them which I don’t say, so I figured if I put my LOGO on them and make it legal here to sell I’d be ok. My application is in and I’m not worried about it being denied, like I said I already have a US Patent a d was guided through the process with a friend from USPTO. I’m still able to order these in the meantime and I’m getting emails after emaila from China manufactures from the seller I have been buying this product from. He’s a great guy and know a little more English than most,
My question is I am in the process of looking for a manufacturer for the product and maybe some advice as of now I am skeptical in sharing my idea but would eventually if we could have a rapport going. I’m interested in corosponding with you if that would be possible. Again thanks for the article!
Good info. Would like to import stuffs to Singapore. Are you still base in China? Any good recommendations for goods with high ROI? Drop me an email. Thanks
+65 9619 6639
If I have ordered a clean product without any logos on, can I still get my own buy box on amazon?
Or do I need to buy my own barcodes for it to be a private label?
Or how does it work?
Hello, thanks for good information.
Let guide us how to find private label supplier on alibaba or other site. I try to find by keyword but most of result is screen label company. Do you have any suggest or tip to find them.
I plan to import a generic product and wish to differentiate myself through packaging. Is it better to source a separate factory to handle the packaging design (I will provide designs) or do some factories have a separate department that handles packaging design and production.
If I decide to use a separate factory for packaging, is it a challenge to coordinate between the two factories to match the product and the packaging?
1. No, I advise you to use a subcontractor of the supplier you choose. Buying products and packaging from two different suppliers may cause various complications (both related to local export tax regulations and design issues). Most suppliers already have established relationships with packaging subcontractors, rather than managing printing in house.
2. Yes, and if something would ever go wrong, they will most likely blame each other and refuse to take any responsibility.
Thanks Fredrik. What would you suggest if I find a supplier that I like for the product but the packaging they offer is substandard?
As most suppliers use subcontractors for this purpose, there should always be flexibility in terms of design. That may result in extra tooling costs though.
In case the packaging subcontractor is unable to meet your requirements, you could source a packaging supplier by yourself, but only consider this as a last resort.
1. No, you still can’t refer to RGB colors but most refer to Pantone or RAL (depending on what the supplier is using)
2. I suggest you read this article on Product packaging: https://www.chinaimportal.com/blog/product-packaging-china-guide/
3. Yes, you are right. From a legal perspective it was certainly not our responsibility, but would still have been a major issue, and it would have damaged our reputation either way.
4. Many suppliers do invest in R&D, but their designs are rarely entirely unique (which is not saying they are all selling illegal copies). As you say, all products are not patented (trademark is a different thing though)
5. Yes, we also offer consulting on managing such risks when buying from China
6. Sure, would be interesting to see that report!
Thanks for writing this article!
1. When you mentioned logo methods, you referred to logos on products. But when it comes to logo method for product’s box, what color code is used in this case? Is it or RGB this time?
2. In section about IP infringement I don’t understand why you say if client would have not given you call that day, your career would have been cut short if you are not the one who picked and sourced product for them. They are the ones who confessed about not owning design. It would be their fault, unless they actually asked you to ensure their picked product is not subject to IP infringement.
That’s actually the issue that many importers do not pay enough attention too. They think if manufacturer makes this item then he must own IP rights to it and making it available to others. But you said manufacturers make OEM which leads me to think that they never develop their own designs and instead remanufacture OEM designs previously made by other companies. I guess what matters here is not whether items are made this way but if these items are patented and have trademarked designs.
You are not IP lawyers as you wrote below but do you provide anything similar in your services like if product to be sourced has its IP protected?
I am sure you are familiar with OXO – kitchen utensils manufacturer. I remember report where their competitor accused them of using patent which competitor thought belonged to them while it wasn’t because that’s not original patent. OXO just improved and innovated product having right to do so. Also OXO said they believe in contribution to society by making things better and better and won’t chase after everyone trying to do that. I have report on my computer and can send you if you want.
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