When we first tossed around the idea of creating our own private label product (a line of baby wraps for babywearing), we had no idea where to begin. Should we find a textile company in the U.S.? How do we even go about finding a company that will print custom fabric? (I use and love Spoonflower for the fabric for my personalized baby blankets, but it’s super pricey, and they specialize in smaller projects – their fabric comes in fat quarters and 1-yard increments – rather than large bulk orders.) I knew that if we were going to sell any kind of volume, I didn’t want to be doing any of the sewing myself. Ideally, I wouldn’t have to do any of the work – the finished products would show up at my door, I’d put them in my custom packaging and ship them off to Amazon, and Amazon FBA would do the fulfillment for me.
Preliminary web searches directed us towards several sites with manufacturers from China, including Aliexpress (a retail site) and Alibaba (a wholesale site.) Aliexpress allows you to order items that already exist and are in stock; on Alibaba, you can order these same items, but in bulk, with your own branding, usually at a cheaper price. If you have some money to invest up front, Alibaba is a better choice, but if you’re working with a tight budget, Aliexpress lets you buy 1 at a time and test the resale waters a little bit.
An example of identical items that can be ordered from both Aliexpress and Alibaba. Alibaba is on the top – note that the MOQ is 50 pieces (which is very low for most Alibaba wholesalers), and the price is $2.40 – you’ll likely only get the $2 price if you place a huge order, probably 500+. This price also doesn’t include shipping, which tends to be almost as much as the cost. The Aliexpress listing is on the bottom – you only have to order 10 and the shipping is free, but they are $8/piece. If you wanted to start selling these cloth diapers in your shop and didn’t want to make a huge initial investment, but just wanted to see if there is customer interest, you could go the Aliexpress route with a small order.
How Do I Find a Supplier on Alibaba?
In addition to the items they already offer, many manufacturers on Alibaba will do custom orders. You can put out a “Buying Request” specifying what you are looking to order, and manufacturers will contact you with their offer, price and MOQ (minimum order quantity). A Buying Request is a way to get a good idea of what an average price and MOQ will be for your product. HOWEVER, I don’t really recommend using only the Buying Request option. A lot of the responses I got seemed a little shady or like they didn’t really know what I was asking for – for instance, I specifically asked for a custom fabric order with a low MOQ, and they would reply to tell me they could only do in-stock fabric and the MOQ was 1000. I highly suggest doing a search of products similar to what you want and seeking a reputable supplier that way, looking carefully at the listings, photos, and making sure they are a Gold Supplier and offer Trade Assurance.
Once we had brainstormed our product, I spent several hours searching “stretchy baby wrap”, reading over product pages in great detail, and bookmarking the listings that looked the most professional and promising. Some of them specifically said they welcome custom orders. Most of them listed a MOQ of 500 or so, which was too high for us, but that can often be negotiated down. I didn’t bookmark any that had a MOQ of over 500, because I didn’t think I could talk them down far enough.
Here is my initial email to the supplier we ended up going with:
I am looking to order some baby stretchy wrap carriers for my business in the USA. However, I want for them to be made from my own fabric pattern. Is this possible? I am uploading attachments with a couple samples of fabric that is similar to what I am looking for. I need to start with a low MOQ, 50-100 pieces per design, with the intention of ordering bigger quantities in the near future and hopefully expanding to 8-10 designs. We hope to grow and eventually order 1000+ a month. However, we must start small, with 1 or 2 designs and 50-100 units per design.
Please let me know if you can help me and what your pricing would be. I am looking to spend $10 or less per unit including shipping to the USA. Thank you so much.
Plenty of suppliers I spoke with said they couldn’t lower their MOQ, or they were willing to lower it until they found out we wanted our own pattern rather than their stock colors. (Even though I was pretty clear and specific in my initial email, a lot of them didn’t read it closely or pay attention to what I was actually asking for. Be as specific as possible!) Linda, the merchandiser who contacted me after receiving my message, said that her manager said the MOQ for a custom print would be 250 wraps. That was significantly better than a lot of the other suppliers (some were coming back with numbers like 800 and 1000), but still not low enough for us to afford at that point in time. We sent a few messages back and forth and I really liked her – she was professional and helpful, but I told her I was going to have to get back with her once I heard from some other suppliers because I was really looking for a lower MOQ, or else wait a while longer once we could afford to make a bigger investment.
I didn’t get back with her for a week or two – not intentionally, life got busy and I was still discerning what to do and waiting to hear back from another supplier – and she suddenly messaged me and said her manager had approved a lower MOQ of 100 (it ended up being 120 in the end because they shipped in cases of 30.) We jumped on that! Contact with 25 other suppliers made it pretty clear that it wasn’t going to get better than that.
The entire process was very transparent and Linda was extremely helpful and quick to respond. We sent her our image file for our fabric. This factory already manufactured baby wraps that were the same dimensions as what we wanted, so they just had to print the fabric and then do the cutting and stitching – it wasn’t any different than what their employees normally do. Within a few days, she had the sample fabric and our labels ready; she sent us a few photos, we paid for the sample via PayPal, and she sent it air mail. The sample was perfect, so we gave the go-ahead for the 120 wraps. We paid our 30% deposit; it took them about a week and a half to get them finished. She emailed photos of the finished product, including a photo of the wraps polybagged and in a box ready to ship with her handwritten notes, so we were extremely confident that our product actually EXISTED now and we weren’t just being scammed. We sent the final 70%, they shipped them, and they showed up at our door about 6 days later.
[We didn’t hit our target of under $10 per unit as mentioned in my email to her – the unit price was slightly more than that, but then we added shipping in, which was $450 (almost $4/unit!). I suggest offering a little less than what you can actually afford because the costs will creep up, and the suppliers are usually willing to haggle. Don’t lowball too much, because they will sometimes accept your extra-low offer, yet the quality will suffer. We were okay with paying more than our initial target price because they lowered the MOQ so much for us. It is hard to find anyone to do custom fabric printing with a low MOQ because of the hassle factor in setting up the printer.]
Should I Use a Chinese Supplier? Is it Risky?
China gets a bad rap for making cheap crummy goods, but not all factories are created equal, and there is a good chance that some of your favorite, higher-quality items in your home come from China. The country of origin isn’t necessarily an indicator of quality (we’ve had some “Made in the USA” clothing fall apart pretty quickly, and a lot of well-regarded clothing companies own their own factories in China.) And although there are a lot of scammers out there to be aware of, there are plenty of legitimate suppliers that do quality work. Knowing what to watch out and what kinds of interactions are filled with red flags is half the battle in finding a company that is reputable.
Things to look or ask for:
- Photos of the factory and workers
- A complete factory address. You can look them up independently on your own (hooray Google) and make sure it actually exists.
- Factory inspection certificate/CPSC
- MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet). Our supplier was able to quickly supply scanned copies of the MSDS that was inspected by an independent source, showing that the materials are, in fact, what they are stated to be (our baby wrap is 95% cotton and 5% spandex, so there was no surprise 100% polyester wrap showing up at our door).
- A willingness to send samples. There may be a small charge for a sample – shipping is expensive! – but they should be willing to offer to send you some product. Often they will credit the sample cost to your final order if you decide to go with them.
- Communication via Skype. This may be difficult to arrange as China is half a day ahead of the U.S., but it is worth it. The willingness to have face-to-face communication is a great way to determine whether someone is legit, or a scammer looking to make a quick buck. Some are willing to give you a live “virtual tour” of parts of the factory – this is great!
If you ask to Skype and they seem reluctant, this doesn’t necessarily mean you should cut off the deal instantly. Many of the merchandisers have excellent written English but are not confident in their speaking skills. Explain that you just want a quick chat to make sure they are a real person and company and they are usually happy to oblige.
- A tour of the factory. I’m assuming you actually don’t have a week and a few grand to jet off to China to tour the factory. 🙂 HOWEVER, finding out whether or not they would allow you to visit can be a great indicator as to whether or not they are honest, fair, and legitimate. Any reputable factory is happy to have potential customers visit; they are proud to show that they hold themselves to a high standard and make quality products.
Simply ask, “Would it be possible for me to come visit and tour your factory?” Don’t lie and say you’re going to if you’re not, but don’t admit up front that you can’t. Just see what their response is. If they tell you they don’t allow potential customers inside the factory or they don’t have a product showroom, that’s a pretty big red flag.
- Bringing in an independent inspector: For a few hundred bucks, a much cheaper price than flying to China yourself, you can hire an outside quality inspector to visit the factory and assess your product before they ship. Typically suppliers require a 30% down payment on the goods before they begin to manufacture them, with the other 70% due at shipment. It is pretty nerve-wracking to not see your product at all until it’s at your doorstep and you’re 100% in! Most suppliers do offer a “money back guarantee”, but if they don’t make your product well or right in the first place, their integrity is already on the rocks.
Hiring an independent inspector can make that 100% in a lot less risky. You’re only 30% deep when the inspector arrives to check out your goods and make sure they are what you actually ordered. Here is a great post on how to handle this aspect of ordering from China.
[We didn’t hire an inspector due to the relatively small order we were placing – it would have cost us more than 20% of our total bill – but we felt comfortable when we paid our final 70% (still pretty nervous, but mostly comfortable!) due to the amount of communication we had had with our supplier, and because we were thrilled with the samples they had sent. If we were at all worried about a communication error or we had an order for an item that was significantly different than anything else the factory made, we would have gone the inspector route.]
Unless you go to the factory to open up the packages of your finished products and handle them yourself, there is never a guarantee that you won’t be out money with some subpar goods in hand. There is an inherent risk ordering overseas, and you don’t have a whole lot of recourse (sure, you could threaten a lawsuit, but they aren’t held to U.S. law and hiring a Chinese lawyer to go after them is probably more expensive than the money you’ll be out). But by being careful and deliberate, requesting samples, and not rushing into a deal, you can avoid most of the pitfalls of ordering from overseas, and end up with a product to which you are proud to attach your company name!
I am happy to answer any questions you might have about this whole process in the comments below! Ordered from overseas suppliers yourself? Let us know about the good, the bad, and the ugly of your whole experience!