China offers the world’s largest furniture manufacturing base. While it may not be rocket science to cobble together into a sofa or armchair, things can still go horribly wrong. In this article, we explain what you must know before selecting a furniture manufacturer in China. But before we get started, I’ll explain why it’s rarely viable to purchase from furniture wholesalers, instead of manufacturers.
Why you should think twice before buying from a Chinese furniture wholesaler
We often receive inquiries from small businesses in the US, Europe and Australia looking to purchase small volumes from furniture wholesalers in China. The reason many small buyers prefer wholesalers rather than manufacturers is that the former has lower MOQ requirements, compared to the latter. While it’s true that furniture wholesalers in China often have a low MOQ, sometimes starting from 1 unit per model, it’s rarely a viable option for importers in the United States, Europe and Australia.
Few Chinese furniture wholesalers are able to ensure compliance with applicable fire retardant and substance regulations. In fact, most are primarily, sometimes entirely, geared towards the domestic market in Mainland China. For natural reasons, such supplier have no profit incentive to ensure compliance with foreign regulations. With this said, I have explained why this article concerns furniture manufacturers, rather than wholesalers.
Important factors when selecting a furniture manufacturer
There are thousands of furniture manufacturers in China. Its manufacturing base includes everything from small workshops to large and highly organized factories, producing tens of thousands of units on a yearly basis. The questions now is how you shall differ between these two extremes, and all the manufacturers that fit in somewhere in between. Keep reading, and I’ll explain the factors that really matters when selecting a furniture manufacturer in China.
1. Product area
Manufacturers producing all sorts of furniture under one roof doesn’t exist. As in the case of every industry, furniture manufacturers are always specialized in a certain area – with the following being the most common:
- Office furniture
- Hotel furniture
- Bedroom furniture
- Bathroom furniture
- Living room furniture
- Children’s furniture
- Wooden furniture
- Dining sets
- Outdoor furniture
- Metal furniture
- Plastic furniture
- Wicker furniture
While you may find a supplier specializing in more than one category (e.g. Dining sets and living room furniture), you’ll never find a manufacturer offering the whole spectrum. If you need to cover more than one type of furniture, you shall therefore consider sourcing different groups of suppliers, rather than trying to find one that offers everything on your list.
2. Substance Regulations
Compliance with applicable substance regulations, for example REACH in the European Union, is mandatory in various markets. Fabrics, and even leather, often contain amounts of restricted substances, such as Glyphosate and Formaldehyde. Phthalates, a highly restricted plasticizer that is potentially cancerogenic, are also found in vinyl, wood varnishes, and lacquers. Even Flame retardants are sources of harmful, and often restricted, chemicals (e.g. PBDEs).
Most Chinese furniture manufacturers are unable to show documents proving previous compliance (e.g. a REACH compliance test report). While a substance test report is not indicating that all the suppliers products are compliant by default, it’s a strong signal that the supplier is at least capable of controlling substances. That can, however, not be said about the vast majority of China’s furniture manufacturers.
Substance control is a complicated issue, as all materials and components are purchased from subcontractors. These subcontractors may in turn use restricted substance without the furniture manufacturer’s approval, or knowledge. Thus, it simply takes a bit more than telling a furniture supplier to “only purchase REACH compliant materials”. A manufacturer that cannot show any proof of previous compliance may therefore not be able to control substances at all.
3. Flame Retardancy Regulations
In the United States, there is no federal furniture flame retardancy regulation that manufacturers and importers must follow. However, California Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117) has become the de facto standards followed by the majority of furniture manufacturers, and importers, in the US. The CPSC suggested implementation of a nationwide standard, 16 CFR Part 1634, in 2008, but it’s yet to be implemented.
In the European Union, there are various compulsory fire safety requirements applicable to upholstered furniture, bedding and seats. Certain regulations also apply to specific applications (e.g. for use in trains and ships).
Keep in mind that it’s always the importer’s responsibility to ensure compliance with all applicable standards, including those regulating substances. This responsibility cannot be shifted to a foreign manufacturer. Importing non-compliant items is illegal, and may, in a best case scenario, result in fines and a forced recall. In case someone is injured, or if property is damaged, the importer may be forced to pay millions of dollars (or Euros) in damages.
Compliance with all applicable directives and/or standards must be verified before the cargo is shipped. Returning items to a manufacturer on the other side of the planet is not an option. However, there are plenty of quality inspection firms, and product testing companies, based in Mainland China and Hong Kong, that can help you verify compliance before it’s too late.
4. Minimum Order Quantity (MOQ)
The MOQ is often on top of the requirements list when importers source suppliers. That’s not the right way to go. As most furniture suppliers are unable to ensure compliance with chemical and fire retardancy regulations, you’ll most likely end up wasting precious time on suppliers that are not even qualified to supply to begin with. Thus, the MOQ is only relevant when said compliance is verified.
Right, back to the topic. The MOQ is the minimum number of units a supplier is willing to sell. Mostly, the MOQ requirement is set per product. This may cause a serious headache to smaller businesses, as this MOQ quickly multiplies to hundreds of units, assuming you want to import a variety of different models.
The good news is that Furniture manufacturers tend to be a bit more flexible, compared to those in other industries. There are also strategies that can be applied to lower the MOQ. A couple of years ago a client, owner of a small furniture store, visited us in Shanghai. At the time, they were about to launch their first branded product – bathroom rugs. The problem: they had a $20,000 budget. That’s about enough to match the MOQ requirement of one bathroom rug, in one color – not really what makes a new product line.
Instead, we had to come up with a strategy that enabled the supplier to offer a higher degree of product variation, while not interfering with their manufacturing limitations. We decided to visit the supplier in their sales office to determine how this could be achieved in practice. The discussions quickly uncovered that the MOQ requirement was largely based on the manufacturers material supplier. However, such limitations did not apply to the processes handled by the manufacturer, in this specific case, cutting and dying.
The solution turned out to be far simpler than we thought. Instead of vastly increasing the client’s budget in order to match the MOQ requirement of several products, we decided to only use one fabric for all bathroom rugs – but cut them in three different shapes, and dye the fabric in an equal number of colors. All of a sudden we had nine different models, instead of only one rug in the same shape and colors.
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