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The main reason many small businesses fail (as in losing a ton of money) when buying from China is because they contact a random supplier Alibaba, refer to a product listed in the supplier’s directory and specifies “good quality” as their only requirement.
That’s also where the problems begin. There’s no universal definition of what good quality really is. Neither will you ever win a court case in China (assuming that you could even afford one), because a supplier didn’t provide you with products compliant to your imaginary and vague definition of “good quality”. Instead, you shall provide your supplier with a product specification. In this article we explain why a product specification is needed, what it shall include and how things can turn bad if you don’t make one.
How Chinese manufacturers operate
Wouldn’t it be easier to simply refer to a product link from Alibaba? After all, they are the manufacturer and should know which product quality you require? Yes, that’s how it works if you purchase products from a wholesaler or manufacturer in the US or Europe. However, China is different. I’ll explain why.
Chinese manufacturers are accustomed to manufacturing products according to the buyer’s specifications. This is also called “make to order”. In general, Chinese manufacturers don’t have strict internal guidelines that ensures that a product meets a certain quality. In practice, this means that one batch of products can be completely different from the other. Simply because the materials, components and quality requirements are expected to be specified by the buyer. The Chinese manufacturer acts as a tool box – they provide labor, machinery and manufacturing expertise. You tell them what to make.
Now, wouldn’t it be hell of a lot easier to skip to the good part and simply purchase ready-made products from the supplier’s warehouse? Well, if you’re based in the US, Europe or Australia, buying “off shelf” is not option. The products that are available off shelf in China, are manufactured for the domestic Chinese market. Such products are not compliant with the strict product certification standards in the mentioned markets. Importing electronics, toys or textiles (and a wide range of other products that are regulated) that are made for the domestic Chinese market, is therefore illegal. Thus, you are going to be highly involved in the manufacturing process whether you like it or not.
What a product specification shall include
There’s no template that works for every single product. Obviously, a product specification for solar panels looks completely different compared to a product specification for a wedding dress. However, the essence of a product specification is that everything that defines the products design, function and quality shall be clearly specified. Thus, a product specification may include, but is not limited to, the following:
Design (Design draft or 3D design file)
Colors (Pantone or RAL colors)
Dimensions and dimensional tolerances (i.e. 350 mm +/- 5 mm)
Weight and weight tolerances (i.e. 400 g +/- 15 g)
Material specifications (type, weight, treatments, colors)
Guidelines are not enough. You must be overly clear. Your product specifications shall be so crystal clear that the supplier simply can’t find an excuse to misunderstand them – or use cheap and substandard components without your knowledge. This means that absolutely everything that defines your product shall be included in your specification – nothing is too small or unimportant to be left out.
A product specification is not limited to a text. Providing graphical instructions, such as 3D design files and images, together with product samples, is likely to further increase your chances of receiving a product that’s matching your expectations.
What might happen if you don’t draft a list product specifications
There are two key (nightmare) scenarios that might unfold if you don’t provide your supplier with crystal clear product specifications – or leave something out. Firstly, it’s likely to result in a misunderstanding. Even the most reliable supplier, with the best intention, is very likely to screw up if they are not provided with clear product specifications. Yet, the result might be a product that is non-compliant with your quality or design requirements – or worse, non-compliant with the legal certification standards in your country or market.
Number two. This one is more tricky. If you don’t provide a supplier with sufficiently detailed specifications, they’ll fill in the gaps for you. Let’s say you want to import furniture, but forget to tell your supplier that you want Italian leather. Well, you’ll get leather, but not of the quality that you originally had in mind. There’s a logical explanation to this. From a supplier’s perspective, it certainly doesn’t pay off to provide free of charge quality upgrades. The opposite, which is cheapening the product in order to increase the supplier’s profit margins – does make sense.
What certainly makes things a whole lot worse is the fact that many supplier’s use this to their advantage. This means that they are quite unlikely to even tell you if you made a mistake and left import product specifications out. For the supplier, it might be considered a golden opportunity to make a few hundred dollars (that’s right, many supplier’s are willing to cheapen products even if the potential profit increase is very small)
“I’m not an engineer – what should I do?”
This is a very good question. What should you do in case you don’t possess previous experience designing and selling a certain product? Well, as sourcing agents, we’re facing the same issue on a daily basis. Considering that we work with everything from Low carb noodles to LED screens, it makes quite a lot of sense.
Chinese suppliers tend to list at least half of the important product specifications on their websites. If you review five or ten of these, you’ll probably be able to figure out which specifications to put on your list. Similar information is often also presented on your (possibly future) competitors websites. Below follows an example of what an LED bulb light product specification on Alibaba, might look like:
Ready to import and launch your own product?
We know how hard it can be to go from an idea, to a mass produced and profitable product. The Starter Package is the only all-in-one solution that includes everything you need to get through every step of the process:
a. Private Label & OEM Product Manufacturer Lists
b. Product Specification Templates
c. Product Label Samples
d. Compliance Document Samples
e. 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.
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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.
Hey there, I’m Fredrik!
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