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Product samples are essential when importing products from China, and elsewhere in Asia. Obviously, you want to see and feel the product before you start production. However, ordering product samples is also a way to test if your supplier is truly up to the task.
In this guide, you will learn everything importers must know about product samples, including costs, types and lead times.
Product sample types
- Factory samples
- Custom made product samples
- Production samples
- Virtual samples
- 3D printed samples
- Product sample costs
- How to pay for product samples
- Injection molds and tooling costs
- Sample production time
- Import duties and taxes
- Interview: How to Get a Prototype or Sample Made in China – By Kevin Lee
Why do I need to order product samples?
Buying product samples is a critical part of the importing process and must be done before you commit to placing your first ‘real’ order with a new supplier, or whenever you intend to launch a new product.
There are three key reasons why you must buy product samples:
Test your product design: You need to see, feel and test your product before you go into mass production. Design, functionality and overall quality must be ‘verified’ before you enter mass production.
Injection molds and tooling: When buying certain products, you cannot even start production. As such, you must get your product samples manufactured before you can move to the next step.
You must test your supplier: This is the number one reason why you need product samples. Your supplier must prove that they can deliver acceptable product samples before you should commit to placing an order. A suppliers ability to produce good samples should never be taken for granted.
Types of Product Samples
1. Factory Samples
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 the final selection of a supplier.
In addition, factory samples can be divided into two main categories:
- Material samples (i.e., fabric samples)
- Standardized parts (i.e., Machine parts)
- Existing production samples (i.e., Products manufactured on behalf of other buyers)
2. Custom Made Product Samples
A Pre-Production Sample is used to verify the manufacturer’s capability to produce a product, according to the buyer’s 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 have reached this milestone.
3. Production Samples
A Batch sample is collected from a 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.
4. Other types
Here are some less common types of product samples that are still worth mentioning.
Virtual Product Samples
Virtual product samples can be anything from a 2D rendering created in photoshop, to showcase the product design, to more sophisticated 3D product models that can be performance tested in a digital environment.
We are already using renderings as part of the product sample production process. That said, such renderings are not a replacement or substitute for physical product samples, especially when tooling is involved.
That said, virtual samples can still serve its purpose as a way to confirm that your supplier has correctly understood your design requirements, or simulate how the sample will behave when used in real life – before you invest in expensive injection molds or other tooling.
Companies like Li & Fung are increasingly applying these methods to cut product development times, by using virtual samples at an early stage to avoid costly delays further down then line.
- 3D models
- Material simulations and testing
3D Printed Product Samples
3D printing and rapid prototyping methods can help you create demonstration samples in a matter of hours. It’s a great way to test the design and certain aspects of functionality. That said, 3D printed samples don’t replace the actual pre-production samples for these reasons:
You still need to ‘test your supplier’. A 3D printed sample from a rapid prototyping studio doesn’t do that.
You may need injection molds and tooling before you can start production. The sample that really counts is the one made using the tooling, as only this sample is a final representation of the final product.
In some cases, it makes sense to send reference samples to your supplier to demonstrate certain aspects of a product. For example, you can purchase a shirt from a local clothing store and ask your supplier to replicate certain details, such as the fabric and design.
However, the supplier must also provide a counter-sample made by them, using their material. That’s the only way to test a new factory.
Product sample and prototyping limitations
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 order volume, and cannot be done on a small material sample.
This also applies to materials, as the factory may only be able to use stock material that is, to a varying extent, similar to your product. They cannot custom-make materials for a single product sample.
- Incorrect colors
- Incorrect materials
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 order product samples. If not, you might end up waiting forever for a level of perfection that no supplier can ever match.
Questions & Answers
Can I send product samples to my factory and ask them to make the product that way?
Yes, and sometimes it’s easier to ‘communicate’ your design and material requirements by sending a physical reference sample.
That said, the supplier must still provide counter-samples made in their factory and using materials from their subcontractors. Keep in mind that a key reason you need product samples is to test the supplier’s ability to make the product the way you want it.
How can we protect our design and brand when ordering product samples?
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 design and functions of the product 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 do product samples cost?
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).
Product sample cost examples
- Garments: $20 – $150
- Wristwatches: $300 – $800
- ODM Electronics: $10 – $200
- OEM Electronics: $800 – $6000
How do I pay for product samples?
You can use any standard payment method when paying for product samples. Here are a few examples:
- Wire transfer
- Alibaba Trade Assurance
It’s increasingly common that suppliers create digital invoices via the Alibaba payment gateway. I also recommend that you request to pay via Alibaba.com, as that guarantees that the payment is sent to the right company – and not diverted to a different supplier.
Can I order product samples on Alibaba.com?
Yes, in the sense that you can find suppliers offering to make product samples. Further, you can also pay for product samples using Alibaba.com.
Are samples free on Alibaba?
While some suppliers may offer free product samples, they always expect you to pay the DHL or FedEx delivery fee which normally ranges between $30 to $40.
How long does it take to make product samples?
That depends entirely on the type of product sample. Simple material samples can be sent via DHL and FedEx in a day or two, while more complex products can take more than a year to develop.
Here are a few examples:
- Material samples (in-stock): 3 – 7 days
- Material samples (made to order): 14 – 30 days
- Clothing samples: 14 – 45 days
- Injection-molded samples: 45 – 70 days
How can we keep costs down when developing a new prototype?
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 should I do if a supplier refuses to send product samples?
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.
Do I need to get product samples before each order?
No, you don’t need to get pre-production samples every time you re-order the same product, from the same supplier. That said, you must order product samples in each of the following scenarios:
- You order a new product from a new supplier
- You order an existing product from a new supplier
- You make design or material changes to an existing product
As such, every time you intend to order a new product, work with a new supplier or make changes – you need product samples before you enter mass production.
What should I do 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 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 first order 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 design the product.
As mentioned, the purpose of a pre-production sample is to test your supplier’s 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.
Can samples from multiple suppliers be sent in one parcel?
Yes, this service is often offered by freight forwarders and sourcing companies.
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, SKU and the date of its arrival.
- Supplier name
- Date of 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 proving non-compliance in case of failed production.
How to Get a Prototype or Sample Made in China: By Kevin Lee
In this interview, Kevin Lee of Asianconn shares his best advice to Startups and SMEs looking to get their prototype or product sample manufactured in China.
Kevin, please tell us a bit about your background and current business
In early 2000, China became what many call “World Factory”. It had a reliable and cheap labor pool, a friendly business ecosystem and low production cost. However, that “potential” came with certain issues that make the business full of risks.
Compared to big companies, many middle and small businesses didn’t have the ability to implement an international purchasing strategy. On the other hand, excellent local suppliers totally didn’t know how to deal with customers abroad.
In 2009, I finished my work in Hong Kong and built this business with my friend Vincent to connect reliable Chinese suppliers to Western purchasers and help them hold the entire trade process to avoid various kinds of risks.
The sampling process is perhaps the most complex part of supplier sourcing. Why is it necessary to order product samples before ordering from a supplier?
Well, let us look at this part by starting with an example. When a person goes to the store to buy some new clothes, I would say that most of us will try these clothes on before buying it, to see if it is the way we want it to be. Here an analogy can be drawn to the product sampling process.
You want your product to be (as funny as it may sound) “the way YOU want it to be”. You have certain expectations in regards to the materials manufacturers will use, production process, how the final product shall look and of course quality.
Not all of the manufacturers in China are trustworthy, they need to be monitored on a constant basis in order for you to receive the final product that you have ordered.
The main reason why the sampling process is important is that your mass production should be based on it. So you have a sample that has been confirmed and reconfirmed with the manufacturer. The factory is supposed to produce your batch according to this confirmed sample and its agreed standards.
So you might think of this process as a way of safeguarding yourself and your money. If products are not produced according to the confirmed sample, then you can get your money back, or get new products or work out some other type of deal.
Is sample development relevant when importing private label products, or is it only necessary for custom designed products?
Sample development is relevant for any sourcing activity out there. We all understand that for custom designed products it is a bit more complicated because their products are more customized and unique, so those guys want to absolutely make sure that everything is top-notch.
If you are doing private labeling, my advice to you: “Make sure to get the samples, check them, confirm them before you place your order.”
Let us say you decide to private label a small notebook. You can go two ways here, whether purchase the product from the factory in their standard packaging and just sell it that way or you can put your own logo on it.
In either way, you want to make sure that your product will be of a certain quality standard and you will not be able to confirm that until you see and hold the actual sample in your hands.
You receive the notebook, you look at it, you open it, go through it, write in it and anything else you can think of how your customers might use it.
The goal is to test it to the limit to make sure it is what you want and it will be what your customers will buy and it will last them for more than one week.
When starting a sampling process, the buyer may need to share their IP, such as design drawings and labels. How do you suggest that buyers protect their IP before starting the sampling process?
Many clients are worried when it comes to this particular topic and let me tell you, there are ways that buyers can protect themselves. The first solution to consider is to sign an NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement). I strongly suggest to use proper legal counsel rather than drafting paper yourself or downloading it and having it signed by the manufacturer.
It is very hard to enforce an NDA in China and if you were lucky enough do to that it doesn’t mean that you will get any compensation from the supplier.
Another solution I can recommend is to patent one’s product on all the major markets like the EU and the USA. This method’s disadvantage includes costly and time-consuming procedures. So if you are a start-up without any major investments or an SME this approach might not be viable for you.
In general, what you have to understand is that it is hard to protect your product when you are producing it in China and even though you might have an NDA or a patent the product might still get copied.
Sampling may also involve the purchase of new molds and other tools, which can cost the buyer hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
How can the buyer ensure that they are the owners of the tooling they pay for?
The procedure for this is very standard, buyers simply sign a contract with the manufacturer. I think what buyers should remember is that this contract should not only include the mold ownership, but also terms that will protect the molds from being copied. Here are some examples of what I would include in such an agreement:
-This mold can only be used to produce company X product and it cannot be used to produce products for any other party;
-A deposit of XXX is given by the manufacturer to the buyer for X mold. In the event, the manufacturer breaks the terms of this contract total amount of deposit will be awarded to the buyer. Additional damages can be requested;
-If the contract is breached by the manufacturer liquidated damages will be awarded to the buyer in the amount of XXX.
As with the IP law in China when it comes to mold and tooling purchase you are not guaranteed to get you mold back. Do make sure to have all the contracts done legally and in accordance with both Chinese and International Laws.
Product development can take months. Do you have any tips for reducing the sample development time?
First, make sure that you are working in the same time zone as China. If it is 9 am in China and 11 pm where you live it shouldn’t matter to you. Hours can be lost in communication with suppliers, especially when you are developing a sample. So always be available and work on Chinese time.
Make sure to not only communicate through email but also Skype and other video chat services. This will build a better relationship with the supplier and increase efficiency.
Be aware of Chinese national holidays, major ones happen three times a year: Chinese New Year, International Labor Days and National Day.
Other than that, stay calm, friendly, push if necessary, but make sure not to overdo it. Delays, often due to misunderstandings, can also add months to the sampling process.
How do you properly communicate quality requirements to the supplier to avoid time-consuming misunderstandings?
Depends on your product and your manufacturer. Usually, when ordering a sample a PI (Proforma Invoice) is being signed by both parties.
In this mini-contract, you need to list all the specifications, drawings, requirements, pictures, anything you have available in order to make the process easier for the manufacturer. Remember to have all of those stamped and signed.
I want to stress one point, reconfirm your specs for the product sample at least twice through different channels.
Make sure you have all the information documented in the emails and have a Skype video chat with the supplier. I faced situations where suppliers confirmed the understanding of how the sample should be done. But when the sample actually comes out you realize that you just wasted a lot of time.
The sampling process is still about resolving technical issues. How do you think buyers should report sample issues to the supplier?
Logos get wrong, wrong material, colors, etc. It’s part of the process and expected. How shall buyers report issues to suppliers so they can solve them?
Whether you are an SME or a huge international conglomerate you still might face technical issues in regards to the sampling process, nobody is “insured against that”.
When making a sample manufacturer might use wrong material, color, shape, logo, standard well just basically if something can go wrong something will.
Buyers should be ready for that and they need to understand that giving feedback on a sample is a natural process of things. The most common way is to look at the specifications you have listed in your PI and first write everything down in the email with pictures, of what is wrong and how it should be.
After your supplier receives the email and goes through it, make sure to yet again do a video conference with him and ask him/her to tell you what are the issues that you have mentioned. You need to confirm that the other side does actually understands what is wrong.
In the future, I would suggest that before supplier ships the sample asks for sample pictures and video, this way you can at least eliminate some problems without having the supplier send you the sample thus wasting valuable time.
How do you think that buyers should deal with suppliers that keep failing making samples according to the specification?
First buyer should ask these questions. Are there any other suppliers available? What are the reasons that the sample is not produced? What is the manufacturer’s reputation (use search engines and Google translate for that)? Who are the manufacturers’ clients?
At the end of the day, I would suggest if you have been waiting for your sample for 2 months now and received zero updates, move on. Under certain circumstances, 3 months grace period can also be accepted.
There are also limitations to what can be realized in product samples, as compared to the final product. Perhaps the supplier cannot get the color right. What kind of ‘gaps’ should buyers expect?
Sometimes to have exactly what you want is simply impossible. But impossible for what reasons?
Because someone is too lazy, doesn’t want to compromise or just doesn’t do the job in the way he/she should. Or sometimes it comes from unclear instructions.
Buyers should always expect gaps, as I previously mentioned they can be related to color, shape, product material, etc. And at the end of the day buyers might have to accept the product that on some level differs from the sample.
This is why one of my suggestions would be to order at least 3-4 samples of the same product to see what can go wrong, how mass production can differ.
Assuming the sample cannot be a complete replicate of the final product. How do you suggest that buyers should ensure that the final product is matching the specification?
Well, first things first. As I mentioned in the previous question order a batch sample rather than just 1 piece. Secondly, when the final product is mass-produced and you have a Quality inspection agent coming to check it before shipment, make sure to prepare a checklist.
This checklist should include all the possible acceptable and unacceptable product variations. Meaning this shade of blue on the notebook is still ok, but the other dark blue one cannot be approved by QC and has to be redone.
I do also encourage buyers to visit the factory during the production process. You will be able to see the different components for your product, intervene if something is not going right. In general, having a much more hands approach will assure a better quality of your product.
Thank you, Kevin. How can Asianconn help buyers with supplier sourcing and sample development?
Asianconn helps buyers with everything from supplier inspection to international logistics. We are capable of catering to our services in a unique way to every client. You know why? Because every client is absolutely unique in his/her requests. If you want the whole package, no problem, if you want us to help you with just one or two issues, that is also possible.
Our goal is to make money not only for ourselves but for our clients as well. We do this by providing different types of services: procurement outsourcing, contract manufacturing, product development, and express sourcing service for small businesses.