This post is by Gary Huang, an American based in Shanghai, China. Gary has been working in sourcing since 2008, and is the creator of 80/20 Sourcing which teaches online sellers and small business importers how to save time and make more money when sourcing from suppliers in China.
Every year the seasons change and we enter spring and fall. Do you know what that means? Besides the changing weather, it’s trade show season!
Just as there’s “more than one way to skin a cat” there’s more than one way to find a Chinese supplier. Besides using sites such as Alibaba, did you know that trade shows can be a great way to:
- Quickly identify qualified suppliers (and weed out the bad ones).
- Meet them face-to-face to build trust.
- Get your hands on samples immediately.
- Find new products and trends.
Imagine all the time you save speaking with someone in person rather than emailing back forth every night to get a sample delivered to you.
So in this article I’ll explain how to find the right suppliers, ask the right questions, and get the right product at the right price when attending trade shows in China.
Before the Show
Before you hop on a plane to China, do yourself a favor and take time to prepare so you can maximize your trip.
- Pre-register online and print out the confirmation code – this way, at the fair, you will skip the long registration lines like a VIP.
- Research the exhibitor list and highlight the ones who are relevant for your products.
- Get a head start by contacting suppliers before you go. This way you won’t be as overwhelmed when you get there. Another benefit is that you will get a head start on the other buyers at the fair because suppliers already know who you are and you can work on warm leads.
- Review the fair map to plan your attack.
- Best practice: If visiting mainland China (e.g. the Canton Fair), sign-up for a VPN before leaving your home country! Anything Google-related (such as search, Gmail, Maps etc) will be a pain in the butt to access from China. Forget about Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and certain news sites such as The New York Times. Things change but they are blocked completely as of now. Certain 5-star hotels may have enabled their own VPNs, but I wouldn’t hold your breath. Here are the VPNs that I use.
Trade show everyday carry
You will meet a ton of suppliers at the fair. And you will forget who’s who. That’s human nature. So to make the most of your visit, your goal should be to organize this information so you can recall it when you follow up after the fair.
Here’s the system I use, which is a hybrid of old school note-taking and high-tech smartphone tactics. If I meet a supplier that I’m interested in, first I staple their card into my notebook. Then I take notes on the page about their product, export markets, reference pricing, who I spoke to, and next steps. Also I write down their booth number in case I want to return later (very easy to get lost!).
Finally before I leave I take a picture of their card in front of the booth and products to remind myself later if I do decide whether to follow up afterwards. Sometimes I take a selfie with the salesperson I spoke with so we remember who’s who.
Here’s my everyday carry:
- Business cards – bring more than you think you’ll need. At least 200.
- Smartphone – take pictures of the booth, products, and people.
- Pens – cheap ones that you can leave behind.
- USB charger and cable for your smartphone – this is a lifesaver.
- Wheeled luggage for catalogs and samples – save your back, they get heavy!
- Comfortable shoes – dressed to walk but look professional.
30-second elevator pitch and “EPAC”
Think of yourself interviewing for a job. Just as a hiring manager vets their applicants, suppliers will vet and even grade their prospective buyers! How do you make yourself into a “Grade A” buyer in their eyes?
To make a good impression and get the supplier to notice you, first put yourself in their shoes. Suppliers would love to get a huge order from a Target or Walmart, and traditionally they didn’t pay much attention to small-volume buyers selling online. To put it bluntly, to them you were a nobody.
However times are changing and with the global economic slowdown as well as the explosive growth of ecommerce recently, they may be willing to listen to you if you play your cards right. So how do you persuade them to pay attention to you?
When meeting suppliers first make sure they can supply the product you need. Do this by simply asking. If not, then move on. If so, begin by introducing your company, which market you sell into, and the products you’re interested in.
Some keys you need to demonstrate are your experience, your ability to buy, and your potential. There’s no need to get into too much detail, but just enough to hook them and get them to start telling you more about their product and company.
I call this system EPAC: Experience, Products, Ability to Buy, and Call to Action.
- Experience – Highlight your strengths just as you would on your resumé, to get them interested. Which market do you sell in? Have you imported from China before? How long have you been in business? Suppliers would much rather work with experienced buyers so don’t be the rookie who doesn’t know an FOB from a T/T.
- Products – What type of products do you sell now and what are you looking to buy? Best practice: a picture is worth a thousand words – save pictures on your smartphone and show them to the suppliers. This will cut down on a lot of misunderstandings. Better yet, have an RFQ ready that you can email them after you meet. This will put you in front of other less-prepared buyers.
- Ability to Buy – Suppliers like it when you share a purchasing plan and not just try to negotiate down minimum order quantities (MOQ) to start. For example “We plan to purchase 200,000 units per year if the quality and pricing are acceptable. We will start with a trial order of 500 to 1,000 units after evaluating samples.” This is much more of a turn-on than dealing with someone who can’t even meet the MOQ. Of course this can be negotiated but MOQs are designed to filter out less-qualified buyers.
- Call to Action – You want to know more about them so start asking questions. Are they a manufacturer or trading company? Where do they export to? Do they have XYZ certification needed for your market? What’s their reference pricing for 10,000pcs?
Finally as a bonus, think of the value you can bring them!
- Value – What’s in it for them? Listen to what they say and find a need you can fill. For example, which markets do they export to? Maybe they would love to get into your market. One supplier I met recently at a trade fair told me they have competitors who sell to the US and on Amazon. They are not selling there yet and they would love to get in, which I can help them do. So they are willing to offer me better pricing. Think about their needs, fill them, and bam – you’re in! It’s not an essential, but it adds to their impression of you if you can offer them value beyond just the order.
The 3 S’s of communicating with Chinese suppliers
Keep in mind that for Chinese suppliers, English is their second language. Imagine if you had to speak to them in Mandarin Chinese!
It’s not easy, so it will require a different set of vocabulary than talking to your friends or colleagues. I like to think of it as explaining your business to your grandmother: simple language, slowly, and with a smile.
- Simple: Simplify your language. Remember you’re talking to grandma. No slang.
- Slowly: You’re nervous. Or excited. But don’t rush. Speak clearly and slowly.
- Smile: Body language is universal and a smile builds rapport and makes them more open to you.
In summary remember the 80/20 rule:
- Before the trade fair front-load the work online first to save time.
- Use your everyday carry to streamline your visit.
- Practice your “EPAC” 30-second elevator pitch with the 3S’s in mind to make suppliers want to do business with you.
With these tips – and practice – you’ll find the right suppliers at trade fairs to get better product and pricing than your competitors who are only searching online.
At the Show
First let’s take a step back. Many of you will know the 80/20 Rule or Pareto Principle, “The law of the essential few and trivial many”.
- 80% of the world’s GDP is controlled by 20% of the people.
- 80% of a company’s sales come from 20% of its products (bestsellers).
- 80% of your results come from 20% of your work.
In terms of sourcing: 80% of suppliers out there are NOT the right fit for you. Your job is to find the right 20% and focus on those! Let’s call them the YES suppliers for the purpose of this article.
So let’s apply the 80/20 rule to trade show sourcing. By now you’ve already pre-registered for the show and reviewed the map, so you know which halls to target and will hit the ground running.
At the show your goal is this:
- See as much as possible in a limited amount of time.
- Decide who are the essential few to follow up with.
In other words, 80/20 the suppliers and don’t waste time on the “trivial many”. Trade shows are huge. When I visit one, sometimes I walk 20,000 steps a day!
In fact it’s a “Meet Market” and I compare it to speed dating. Just like one of these networking events, you’re not going to talk to everyone. Use your eyes to see which suppliers may be the right fit for you first before you approach them. As I’m doing this, I keep in my head 3 buckets: “YES, NO, and MAYBE”. I ask myself “Where will I put them?”
Before we get into asking questions, first you should question yourself. Remember your elevator pitch that you prepared in advance (see above). Many first-time trade show goers forget about this step. In fact a proper introduction will build confidence and make suppliers more comfortable in doing business with you. This can mean revealing products that are not on the trade floor, lower prices, and a greater incentive to do business with you.
7 questions that I ask suppliers
- Do you manufacture [XYZ product]?
If yes, then continue. If no, thank them and move on
- Are you a factory or trading company?
Many Amazon sellers prefer to work with factories, so here are some ways to tell them apart from middlemen. Most times I ask them directly and they tell me. Another way is to look at their product selection and see if there is a common theme. For example silicone product manufacturers will offer silicone baking sheets, silicone gloves, and silicone measuring cups – they focus on one type of material. On the other hand trading companies will offer everything under the sun such as iPhone cases, USB power banks, and selfie sticks. Telling them apart is both an art and a science.
- Which countries do you export to?
I call this the country test. If your marketplace is the US and the factory exports to Africa or the Middle East then BEWARE. Their quality will be about the level of a 99-cent store. In other words CHEAP. They will claim they can make better quality, but this is risky. In fact their whole supply chain is configured to low quality standards from cheap raw materials, to low-skilled labor, to low quality control standards, to heavy-handed packaging procedures, etc. I normally select suppliers who have experience with my market or similar quality-level markets.
- What other products do you manufacture?
There are two benefits to this question. First you are double-checking the test to verify that they are a factory. Also you can discover new product opportunities this way. Million-dollar Amazon sellers report that they ask suppliers for product suggestions.
- What quality control system do you have?
Depending on your product, you can ask about quality control systems. ISO 9001 is one of the most common. But beware: it’s quite a common practice to purchase ISO9001 certification in China, so take this with a grain of salt.
- Can you private label for me?
This is important for Amazon private labelers. It’s good to check that they can do this for you right at the beginning. They will normally require a minimum order or tooling fee – both of which can be negotiated.
- How much is that?
To me the price is just one variable of the supplier equation and not necessarily the most important at this time. I get an estimate first and then ask for a firm quotation by email after the show.
Now remember your everyday carry (see above) and use the notebook and other equipment to capture all the information.
To recap, I quickly take notes in my notebook which I will use when deciding whether to follow up. First I staple their business card to the page. Then I take down the name of the person I spoke with (not necessarily the same as the name on the business card) and the main points. Also I will note their booth number. I’ve forgotten to do this before and when I tried to find them again I got totally lost. It saves a lot of time.
I also take pictures of the product and the people. I learned this trick from one of my clients. It helps a lot after you return home and are trying to figure out who’s who. Also this builds the relationship or guanxi as it’s an appreciated gesture.
Finally I note the next steps for follow up: questions, request for quotations, and research (e.g. Jungle Scout).
I’m not perfect and here are some mistakes that I’ve made over the years attending trade shows.
- Don’t fall in love too fast. Just like in speed dating there’s plenty of fish in the sea so don’t commit to anyone until you’ve walked the entire floor.
- Don’t spend too much time with unqualified suppliers. If they’re a “NO” supplier, thank them and move on quickly.
- Don’t spend too much time talking about pricing. Get a reference quotation first. There’s a couple of reasons why. One is that the salesperson does not have the authority to give a formal quotation by themselves. Normally the sales director, boss, and/or engineer needs to have a say. Also they just met you and don’t know you well enough to give you a low price.
- Don’t forget to follow up. Just like you, suppliers will have met hundreds of buyers and they may have 100 things to do after returning to their factory. Take the initiative and email them first.
Once you’ve seen the entire show, leave.
Trade show tips
Here are some tricks of the trade that will get you ahead of your competitors at the trade show:
- Get there early – there will be less people on the floor and you will get more attention from suppliers.
- Talk to the most senior person – I try to meet at least a sales director or manager, as they have more decision-making power.
- Take an early or late lunch to avoid the lines.
- Avoid the afternoon of the last day – everyone will be closing down and not in the mood to talk business.
- Combine your trip with other goals – factory visits and other trade shows.
- Don’t go out and get drunk at night – complete rookie move.
After the Show
Wait – you’re not done yet. You need to filter and follow up.
After the show I will have a ton of business cards, notes, and catalogs. I will separate them into 3 stacks:
- YES: For follow-up.
- NO: For the trash.
- MAYBE: Keep on file in case you need backup suppliers.
So how do I manage all the emails after the show? I create a spreadsheet with the YES suppliers and their contact information, reference quotation, notes, and next steps. Then I follow up with an email template that I copy and paste. In the subject line I include their company name and product so I can quickly recognize who’s who.
Best practice: Never give them your primary email address! I create a separate email address for sourcing. Be prepared for a lifetime of Happy New Years, Merry Christmases, and an endless supply of spam.
The follow-up email will address these essential points leading up to a trial order:
- Request for quotation (RFQ) based on your specifications.
- Questions about their company and product.
- Arranging samples if needed.
- Trial order.
Remember you’re at work and a good trade show can be priceless. With these tactics you will be on your way to finding the right suppliers and products at trade fairs so you can own that 7-figure business and swim in your money like Scrooge McDuck!
After showing you how to attend a Chinese trade show like a pro, I’d like to leave you with a FREE sourcing bonus pack you can use when following up with suppliers after the show. Get it here.
What’s your #1 problem when attending trade shows? Comment below and let me know.
You can contact Gary Huang and subscribe to his free sourcing newsletter at 80/20 Sourcing.