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Ordering Product Samples from a supplier is a key part of the import process. However, there are various types of samples, that each has a unique function.
In this article, we explain everything you must know about buying product samples from China: Including factory samples, pre-production samples and batch samples.
We also answer many of the most common questions we receive, related to sample development, including how you can protect your Intellectual Property, shipping methods and how much you should expect to pay for samples.
Types of Product Samples
a. Factory Sample
A Factory sample is a ‘ready made’ product sample that is not manufactured according to the buyer’s design or customized specifications.
It serves as the most basic form of ‘evidence’ of the manufacturer’s production capability.
Commonly, factory samples are purchased as part of the vetting process, as they can be obtained from a large number of suppliers rather quickly.
However, a factory sample doesn’t demonstrate a supplier’s ability to manufacture a customized product. As such, the factory samples serve as a first introduction, rather than a signal for final selection of a supplier.
In addition, factory samples can be divided into two main categories:
- Material samples (i.e., fabric samples)
- Standardized products (i.e., Machine parts)
- Previous Batch Samples (i.e., Products manufactured on behalf of other buyers)
b. Pre-Production Sample (Custom Design or Private Label)
A Pre-Production Sample is used to verify the manufacturer’s capability to produce a product, according to the buyers specification.
It is also part of a learning process, both for the buyer and the manufacturer.
Developing new samples is unpredictable, and the fail rate is high. Getting a product design right can take everything from a couple of weeks, to several months.
In extreme cases, it can take years.
This is part of the process, and not all suppliers will be able to meet your requirements. Hence, you need to have backup suppliers to work with, in case your preferred choice fails to live up to expectations.
It is also critical to provide the supplier with clear product specifications, before production starts.
Don’t let the supplier fill in the gaps for you (i.e., pick out materials and components), as this can result in them using cheap and substandard materials.
The Pre-Production Sample is extremely important. Until you have an approved sample on your desk, you don’t know if the supplier is capable of manufacturing a product according to your requirements.
You shall not place an order until you and the supplier has reached this milestone.
c. Production Sample / Batch Sample
A Batch sample is collected from the mass produced lot of goods. Batch samples (or Production samples) are used for various purposes:
A Batch sample shall preferably be collected by a third party, to ensure that the supplier doesn’t provide samples that aren’t from the actual batch of products.
Don’t expect perfect product samples
There are limitations to what manufacturers can achieve when it comes to pre-production samples. For example, creating a material in a certain pantone color requires a certain volume, and cannot be done on a small material sample.
Likewise, sample production is more manual than mass production, which can also result in differences between a pre-production sample and the final product.
Similar, technical and economic, limitations also exist when it comes to materials, components and design.
It’s important that you are aware of these limitations before you start production. If not, you might end up waiting forever for a level of perfection that no supplier can ever reach, be it for technical or economic reasons.
Questions & Answers
How can we protect our Intellectual Property?
You must share product information, such as logos and design files, with the suppliers before they can make a sample.
Many importers are worried that the supplier will steal their designs.
Such concerns are grounded in reality. Suppliers in China do have a reputation after all.
You may require the supplier to sign an NDA, before you share any product information. Still, such agreements are hard to enforce. At least without professional legal assistance, that is out of reach of most startups and small businesses.
And, even if you succeed in enforcing an NDA, you may not be able to secure proper compensation from the supplier.
In addition, it’s also possible to circumvent NDAs by passing on the product design to a new company, that is not bound by the contract.
The only way to be “safe” is to patent the products design and functions in all major markets, including within China. All trademarks should also be registered, in the USA, EU and China.
Then again, this is expensive and time consuming, and not a viable approach for most startups and SMEs.
Unfortunately, there are no quick, cheap and simple ways to protect your IP when buying product samples from China, or other countries in Asia for that matter.
How much should we expect to pay for a product sample?
The cost depends on the type of sample, and whether new tooling (i.e., injection molds) are required to produce its components.
When ordering a factory sample, for example, you normally only need to pay for shipping.
However, when ordering customized product samples, you may end up paying anything from $10 to tens of thousands of dollars – all depending on the cost of tooling (if any).
How can we keep costs down when developing a new sample?
Additional tooling is the main cost, when developing new samples. As such, reducing the need for new tooling can help to keep costs down.
However, this requires that you choose existing components, rather than customizing parts according to your own design and functional requirements.
This approach also requires that the supplier owns such tooling, which is not always the case.
While many suppliers tend to showcase a large number of “catalog products” (i.e., on their company website), they are rarely willing to let importers use tooling owned by other buyers.
Thus, it is not always possible to “reuse” existing tooling
How do I communicate my product specifications prior to buying a product sample?
The main document is the product specification (sometimes called Techpack), which may include the following information:
- Design drawings
- Material specification
- Bill of materials
- Circuit diagrams
This is the document that the supplier will use, during sample production.
As this document will be passed between engineers and subcontractors (i.e., material suppliers), it is crucial that the product specification is extremely clear and simple to understand.
Do not leave anything open to interpretation, as this can easily result in misunderstandings.
What if a supplier refuse to send a sample?
While you cannot expect a supplier to give away or produce samples free of charge, you should always be able to get samples as long as you pay for them.
Suppliers that come up with excuses for providing samples normally have something to hide.
You shall not consider doing business with such suppliers.
What if the manufacturer fails to produce a sample according to our specification?
As mentioned, a pre-production sample is made to test the suppliers’ ability to manufacture your product.
It is to be expected that many suppliers are unable to comply with your requirements, and deliver a satisfactory pre-production sample.
If a supplier keeps failing, after two or three sample revisions, you shall not waste your (or theirs) time. Simply move on when a supplier can’t manufacture a product the way you want it.
Can the final (mass produced) product differ from the pre-production sample?
Yes. It can go both ways.
Making Product samples enables the supplier to invest considerably more time per produced unit, than for a mass produced unit.
In addition, the higher pace of mass production can give rise to previously unforeseen quality issues.
When placing the very batch of a new product design, you should consider minimizing the order quantity as much as possible.
You are also recommended to have the products inspected, prior to shipment. However, that is not limited to the first batch, but all orders.
Can we order a 3D printed sample instead?
No, a 3D printed sample cannot replace a ‘real’ pre-production prototype. At best, a 3D printed sample can help you designing the product.
As mentioned, the purpose of a pre-production sample is to test your suppliers ability to manufacture your product.
Should we buy product samples from more than one manufacturer?
Yes, letting suppliers ‘compete’ is a crucial strategy – especially in the apparel industry.
The fail rate is often as high as 50%.
In a worst case scenario, you could end up investing thousands of dollars, and several months, into a supplier that just keeps failing.
Instead, you need to have a set of suppliers, which enables you to simply disqualify suppliers that don’t live up to your requirements, while you focus on those that can.
This strategy is more costly, as you must pay more than one supplier.
How can I get the product sample delivered?
Product samples are normally delivered by airmail.
Basically, all manufacturers can ship samples via their freight forwarders. However, you can also arrange your own forwarder to collect and ship product samples.
In order to save on delivery fees, can we have samples from multiple suppliers send in one package?
Yes, this service is often offered by freight forwarders and purchasing agencies.
Do we need to pay import duties and other taxes when importing product samples?
Yes, but it does depend on the order value.
In many markets, there are minimum thresholds, or even exemptions for commercial product samples. If the sample is valued at below the threshold, you do not need to pay import duties or other taxes.
However, if the customs value of the sample is above the threshold, you must pay import duties (and possibly other taxes), according to the applicable duty rate.
Notice that this can result in significant amounts, as tooling is considered as part of the customs value.
Thus, you cannot decide to only declare the value of the product sample, and leaving out the cost of the tooling. The latter can cost several thousands of dollars.
When is the right time to order a sample?
Don’t start off with buying a lot of samples before you’ve made a bit of price research and confirmed whether or not a supplier is compliant with the required product certification standards in your country.
The sample costs add up quite quickly if you order them from several suppliers and it’s a waste of time and money to buy them from suppliers that are not qualified to begin with.
How should we store samples?
When you receive a sample, mark it with the supplier’s name and the date of its arrival.
The sample is your quality reference that shall be stored as long as you stay in business. You might also want to order a few additional samples so you got something to show your own customers.
Another mistake you better avoid is to send back your only remaining sample to the supplier as a part of the order confirmation. If you’re left without product samples you’ll have a very hard time to prove non-compliance in case of failed production.
Do you want to launch your own private label or custom designed product?
It can be hard to go from a design drawing to finished product. To help you manage the entire process – from creating a specification, to sampling and quality control – we created a Starter Package:
a. Private Label & OEM Product Manufacturer Lists
b. Product Specification Templates
c. Product Label Samples
d. Tutorials, Video Walkthroughs and Task Lists that guide you step-by-step through the entire process
In addition, you can also book quality inspections, lab testing and shipping directly from the platform. Click here to learn more.