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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 IP risks, payment terms, cost examples, sample types, and lead times.
Product sample types
Custom made product samples
3D printed samples
Supplier-led product development
Intellectual property risks
Product sample costs
How to pay for product samples
Injection molds and tooling costs
Sample production time
Import duties and taxes
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:
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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 supplier’s 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 a way to verify 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.
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 their 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.
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.
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.
Supplier-led product development
Some buyers attempt to engage in complex product development projects managed entirely by the supplier. The buyer, lacking a product specification and the relevant files, expects the supplier to develop a product based on their idea.
I theory it is indeed an attractive approach. Share your idea with an eager supplier and sit back while they do all the hard work to bring it to market.
That said, I have never seen this work out in practice. It is impossible to get product samples made without a detailed product specification.
Intellectual property risks
It’s natural that buyers are protective of their product design and other IP. However, it is impossible to get product samples manufactured without sharing a product specification, including design files.
There is always a risk that a supplier, or one of their employees, may use your product specification. That said, this is a fact you will always have to live with – including that of unrelated companies (e.g. not your supplier) copying your product once it’s out on the market.
You should always expect to pay for product samples and tooling. The payment terms can differ though and largely depend on the amount of money changing hands. Here are two examples of payment terms applicable to product samples and tooling:
General product sample payment terms (< USD 1500)
Our customers normally pre-pay the entire amount upfront for all product samples, including injection molds, costing less than 1500 dollars. You can attempt to negotiate with the suppliers but don’t expect that they’ll agree to anything but 100% upfront.
ODM electronics samples
Tooling sample terms (> USD 1500)
Payments for injection molds and other more costly product samples are usually split up in two – first before production starts, and once the buyer approves the sample. Injection molds can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and there’s always a risk that a supplier may fail to deliver a sample according to your specification.
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.
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:
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:
Bill of materials
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 3D printed product samples?
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?
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.
Why do suppliers often fail to make product samples?
If it was certain that a supplier could make a product according to specification, product samples wouldn’t be necessary in the first place. The reality is that you may pay for samples that never get delivered – at least not according to specification.
Here are two reasons why this happens:
1. The supplier is not qualified: The supplier may simply lack the experience, machinery, or subcontractors to realize your product. If this happens you simply need to move on to the next supplier.
2. Your product is difficult to manufacture: There are technical and economic limits to what can be manufactured. As a small buyer, you cannot expect cutting-edge materials and technology available to giants like Apple. Likewise, your specification may require tolerances or design elements that are not realistic. If this is the case you’ll need to go back to the drawing board.
How should we store samples?
When you receive a sample, mark it with the supplier’s name, SKU, and the date of its arrival.
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.
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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.
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