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Price negotiation with Chinese manufacturers, when executed properly, can offer significant product price reductions and keep future cost increases at bay. That said, cut too deep and you may inadvertently also drive down the quality of your products – or reduce your supplier’s profit to such a low level that they simply don’t care for your orders anymore.
In this guide, I explain why suppliers raise prices, and some tactics you can use to counter price increases. Further, I also share some of the price negotiation scripts we use for different situations.
This is covered
Common reasons for raising prices
Price negotiation scripts
How to better counter price increases
Other ways to get a better price from your factory
Price negotiation is expected in China
Chinese suppliers don’t expect you to accept the first price offer. Price negotiation is even expected, and you’ll surprise your supplier if you don’t even bother to raise the question. While there are limits to how far you should push the price, it’s alright to send them your target price and ask them to go down to match it.
Some may lower a bit while others walk away.
If the supplier quotes a price that’s way above your target price then ask why, and also share prices offered by other suppliers.
Further, I recommend that you request a price reduction shortly after having received the initial price quotation from the supplier.
Common reasons for raising prices
Here are some reasons or excuses manufacturers sometimes use to raise prices.
1. Material price increase
Increasing material prices is the most common reason for raising prices. While often legit, I strongly recommend that you check raw material data websites to determine if the supplier is just making it up as they go – or have the number to back up their claims.
It can sometimes turn out, either after product sample development or a first production run, that the product was more costly to manufacture than initially anticipated. For example, it may turn out that certain production stages were very time-consuming, or resulting in an unexpected amount of material waste.
This can drive the supplier’s profit margins below zero, which is something they likely aim to recoup at a later day – meaning your next order.
4. USD to RMB exchange rate
Most suppliers only accept payment in US dollars, while their expenses are mostly paid in RMB. When the USD is losing value compared to the RMB it means the supplier is forced to raise the USD unit cost to maintain their profit margins.
The USD to RMB exchange rate is quite stable, and a quick search on XE.com will help you determine if they got something to back up their claims.
Price negotiation scripts
Here are some tactics you can use to convince your supplier to offer a price reduction.
Example A: RFQ
We have received your quotation. Unfortunately, it’s not in line with our expectations. We sent this RFQ to 9 suppliers in Mainland China and received the following:
Order volume: 1000 pcs (200 pcs per size)
Material: 100% organic cotton (180 gsm)
Delivery terms: FOB
Price ranges: $4.21 – $5.15
Your price quotation at 6.25 USD is therefore significantly higher. We will consider placing a sample order with your factory, but only if you can reach our target price of 4.8 USD for a product matching the specification above.
Example B: Product Manufacturing Cost Reduction
You previously claimed that the unit cost must be increased to 12.5 USD as a result of the material cutting process taking longer than expected. You also claimed that the material processing time (cutting) makes up 30% of the unit cost – as it takes on average 14 minutes per unit.
We have tested the cutting process in our office and found that the new method explained in the video can reduce the cutting time to only 5 minutes per unit.
New price requested
As such, we require that you test this method and calculate a unit price as soon as possible.
Notice that we can only go ahead with this order if you can reach our target price of 9.2 USD (FOB Shenzhen).
Example C: Material price increase
Thank you for your update concerning the unit cost. We are aware of the increase in polyester prices. However, an increase from 4.5 USD (March 2021) to 6.2 USD, which constitutes a 37.8% increase, is not acceptable.
Please see the attached PDF. It clearly shows that the material cost only increased by 11.8% over the same time period.
We will therefore not accept a price exceeding the higher material cost. 4.5 USD + 11.8% = 4.995 USD.
How to better counter price increases
Here are some ways to better prepare yourself and counter attempted price increases from your suppliers – without trying to drive your supplier to zero profit.
1. Set a realistic target price
Before you can engage in meaningful price negotiation, you need to set your target price. If you don’t already have one, you’ll need to contact suppliers to request quotations, and thereby find a price baseline.
Your supplier will ask you for both your specifications and target price when asking for a lower price. Sometimes they even ask before sending an initial quotation.
Further, it also helps you to know what to aim for. That said, your target price must be realistic.
2. Be clear about your quality requirements before you start negotiating
A product can, as I mentioned, be made using different materials and components. You need to have a ‘fixed’ product specification and understanding of what makes or breaks the quality of your product.
Otherwise, you can’t say if a price is good, acceptable, or bad.
18 dollars is a decent price for a stainless steel watch.
11 dollars is a terrible price for a zinc alloy watch.
If you don’t understand the specifications and customization options for your product, you cannot successfully engage in a price negotiation.
3. Price negotiations must be done at the right time
You can’t start negotiating after a supplier has made the tooling and prototypes for you. At this stage, they already know that they got you. The supplier already knows that you will place an order. Hence, they have no incentive to reduce the price.
What else will you do at this stage? You have spent months, and possibly hundreds of dollars, on samples and molds.
Will you just dump the supplier and spend six months developing new samples elsewhere, for the sake of shaving off a few dollars on the unit price?
You won’t, and they know that.
Negotiate the price before you make any commitments to the supplier, not when you are stuck.
4. Be ready to walk away at any time
Let’s look at price negotiation from the opposite side. What if the supplier decides the raise the price, just when you are about to place the order? This happens, and the suppliers tend to have all sorts of reasons. Labor costs went up. Taxes went up. Material costs go up. It’s their ‘most busy season’.
It doesn’t matter, because they got you, or at least they think they do. If a supplier tries to rip you off at this stage, you must be ready to walk away.
Chinese suppliers also cite increasing labor costs and taxes, when providing a context for a price increase.
However, labor costs increases have panned out in recent years, and the Chinese government has been quite diligent in lowering taxes for small to medium-sized businesses too.
6. Accept that the supplier must also make a decent profit
Rather few importers are aware of the (very) low-profit margins that most Chinese suppliers struggle with. It’s simply not possible for them to offer a 10 to 20% price reduction unless the price was way off, to begin with.
Asking them to lower the price by more than 3 to 5% is the same as asking the supplier not to lose money on your order.
Yet, many importers are obsessed with price haggling and try to force the supplier to make a loss.
If you’re lucky, the supplier will simply tell you to go somewhere else. If you are not as lucky, they may actually give in and lower themselves to your (unrealistic) target price – and adjust product quality accordingly, something that may come as a nasty surprise further down the line.
A product can be made using various different quality standards, materials, and components.
In such a scenario, you have successfully priced yourself out of a good offer, only to pay a premium for a low-quality product. Not to mention the number of defective units. You will also get less attention from the supplier, as they will focus on customers that generate a worthwhile profit.
All of this makes sense. Yet, in the west of coming from the viewpoint that a ‘deal is a deal and that it’s up to the supplier to ‘produce high-quality products on time’ regardless of whether or we price them down below the production cost.
Because you have more orders in the future. And the supplier should for that reason ‘invest’ in you, because your product is special, and so on.
But the mindset in Asia is different. Don’t forget that factories have wages to pay too, and it’s not like they are swimming in cash, to begin with. Customers that pay slightly better get much better quality, lower defect rates, and better treatment. Not always, but often.
Go ahead and try to shave off a few percentages, but don’t become obsessed. At the end of the day, what will a 10% or even 20% reduction on the factory price even do for your business?
Perhaps you should be more focused on cutting costs elsewhere if that is so important.
Other ways to get a better price from your factory
Price negotiation is far from the most effective tool if you want to reduce your unit prices. Here 5 methods that will likely reduce your price far more.
1. Buy larger volumes
This one might seem fairly obvious – buy more and you’ll get a lower unit price. However, many importers tend to buy from more suppliers than necessary and thus lower the quantity purchased from each one of them.
Orders can easily be concentrated on a smaller amount of suppliers if you base your product selection on what the suppliers have to offer, rather than selecting a number of suppliers on a predetermined product list.
2. Use standard materials and components
A product is a composition of materials and components. Your supplier needs to purchase these materials and components from their subcontractors. A large number of various components and materials results in a higher amount of purchases that need to be made, and thus higher costs.
The best way to avoid this issue is simply to reuse the same materials and components in several products. A positive side effect of this approach is that you might also be able to lower the suppliers Minimum Order Quantity (MOQ) requirement.
3. Avoid unnecessary product customization
Customized products often require customized tooling, such as injection molds. While an injection mold can be used for a very large number of units (often counted in the hundreds of thousands) it’s in general paid for by the importer.
Thus the more customized products you order, the higher the tooling cost will be. If you’re specifically importing unique products that have no equivalent on the market, then you can stop reading.
However, plenty of importers fail to understand that even the slightest change in a design may lead to dramatically increased tooling costs. I list my suggestions below:
a. The importer is usually expected to pay for any additional tooling. Avoid product customization unless it’s essential
b. Limit the product customization to components and/or materials that don’t require expensive tooling
4. Lower your quality requirements
I’ve seen plenty of situations where the importer requires a quality standard that simply cannot be matched by the supplier. This could be dimensional tolerances that are too narrow or other product specifications that are all but impossible for the supplier to comply with.
From the supplier’s perspective, quality requirements that are very hard to reach increases the waste and the risk of a total loss. The end result is that the supplier is forced to raise the price in order to compensate for the increase in waste and risk.
If a supplier clearly communicates that your requirements are hard or impossible to reach, you should do any of the following;
a. Look for another supplier
b. Accept a price increase
c. Adjust your requirements according to the supplier capability
5. Book sea freight instead of last-minute air freight
Even though the freight cost is not decided by the supplier, many importers tend to waste money on not so cost-efficient transportation. Sea freight is in general much cheaper than Air Freight, something that can have a big impact on the unit price.
However, Sea freight is not as fast and takes around 30 to 40 days to reach most ports in Europe and North America. Thus it requires the importer to have some foresight and place the order well before the existing stock runs out.
It’s rather common that importers end up wasting their profit margins on expensive last-minute air freight bookings because they “simply cannot wait 35 days” for the cargo to arrive.
This is what I advise you to do;
a. Place your order at least 3 months before you expect to run out of stock
b. Ask your supplier to quote you a DAP price that includes shipping all the way to the final destination
How has COVID-19 affected price negotiation with Chinese manufacturers?
This depends entirely on the industry. For example, medical supplies exporters had far more orders than they could fulfill during the first half of 2020, resulting in skyrocketing prices, MOQs, and one-sided payment terms.
On the other hand, we noted that suppliers in some other industries became more willing to cut prices for the sake of filling their order books.
When should I ask for a lower price?
I recommend that you ask for a lower price after receiving the initial quotation. You should also make your supplier aware of your target price.
Can I make the supplier lock or freeze prices?
Some buyers attempt to make their suppliers agree to a price freeze, meaning that the suppliers must commit to a fixed unit cost for a certain duration of time. This is not realistic given the volatile nature of raw material prices, inflation, and currency exchange rates.
Ultimately the supplier must turn a profit, and trying to negotiate them down to near zero profit – or even a loss – is counterproductive.
Price negotiation is mostly about keeping inevitable price increases in check, rather than haggling over prices with new suppliers all the time.
Can you bargain on Alibaba.com?
Yes, you can request a quotation and ask for a lower price using the Alibaba message system. The supplier can adjust the price freely, and Alibaba.com doesn’t get in the way between the buyer and seller when it comes to price negotiation.
Do I need to be in the factory to negotiate the price?
While price negotiation is generally faster and effective when done face to face, you can still negotiate via email, Skype, or WeChat.
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.