Buying Race Supplies from China: A Beginner's Guide
If you've been putting on races long enough, chances are you've thought about ordering some of the supplies your races need directly from China.
Ordering direct from China, through platforms like Alibaba, is increasingly becoming the default choice for race directors who are happy to take on some of the responsibilities of managing their own supply chain, in exchange for greater product choice and significant cost savings.
In the rest of this guide, we'll show you have you can do it too. From finding the right products to vetting suppliers and making secure payments, we'll take you through the entire direct-ordering process with concrete tips and hard-earned advice from members of our race directors group who have been there and done it before.
Why order direct from China
When you think of China, the first word that likely pops into your head is "cheap". And, while you're not wrong to think that buying directly from China will save you money, getting stuff cheaper is only one of the benefits you'll get.
It may or may not come as a surprise to you that most suppliers you currently buy medals, T-shirts, flags, inflatables and other supplies from themselves route your order to a Chinese manufacturer.
When your supplier intermediates between you and the goods manufacturer in China, they help manage some risks for you, such as finding a reputable supplier, and also take on all logistical aspects of ordering and importing your order from China on time. That is essentially what they get paid for.
When you choose to order from China directly, you forfeit some of the protection and experience your local supplier provides by sitting in the middle. But, by doing so, you also gain significant benefits:
- Lower costs. The obvious and most immediate result of dropping your local supplier from the supply chain is not having to pay them their markup for intermediating with China. This can have a very significant impact on your final cost, as much as 50% or more of what you're currently paying for your supplies through your local supplier.
- More product and customization options. It is very likely that your local supplier only does business with a single supplier and even there carries only a part of their product catalog. Managing your supply requirements directly through a platform like Alibaba will open up a much broader range of products and allow you more flexibility on customizing the end product (more on this shortly).
- Direct point of contact with the manufacturer. It's always easier - and faster - to raise product questions directly with the product manufacturer instead of playing telephone through your local supplier. You will actually find most contacts at the Chinese manufacturer very keen to help and quick to answer questions (although, admittedly, the effectiveness of the communication depends on your contact's English proficiency).
- Relationship manager with local contacts. Once you find a company you are comfortable doing business with (which is the majority of businesses, if you do your homework right) you can hope to rely on them for a variety of products or to provide recommendations for other quality suppliers for products they don't themselves offer. This is very typical of how Chinese companies work and getting a reliable relationship manager with one manufacturer, essentially gives you a valuable concierge in the Chinese manufacturing market for all your supply needs.
Where can I find Chinese suppliers?
Probably the best way to think of Alibaba is as a wholesalers' Amazon. Businesses who want to source goods in large quantities can use Alibaba to contact manufacturers directly.
AliExpress gives you access to pretty much the same vendors as Alibaba on retail terms, i.e. you can order one or a handful of items, instead of placing a bulk order (a lot like Amazon, in fact). As a result, the per-item price of goods on AliExpress is higher than on Alibaba, but there are no minimum order restrictions.
Both sites, who are part of the Alibaba Group, offer a number of buyer protection features, from payment security and shipping insurance to different levels of vendor vetting (more on this in the "Vetting suppliers" section below).
What kinds of stuff can I buy?
Short answer: anything. If you can buy it back home, chances are it can be made in China - if it isn't actually made there in the first place.
Some of the types of race supplies race directors turn to China for include:
- Custom race medals and awards. Probably the first and most common item race directors turn to China for, as most local suppliers of this core race purchase also turn to China for their clients' needs.
- Custom clothing. From finisher T-shirts and buffs to volunteer jackets, you can find everything you need on Alibaba. Even premium items you would earmark for your race merchandise store, if you have one, can be sourced from Alibaba suppliers.
- Pretty much any kind of swag, goodie bag or promo item, such as cups, buffs, pins, key rings etc.
- Inflatable arches. These can be purchased from China at a significant discount, making them very attractive to cost-conscious race directors, but need to be approached with caution, as there are risks in purchasing substandard or dangerous race arches.
- Flags , banners and other promotional items. They all make perfect choices for purchasing on Alibaba.
The above is just a "most popular" list of items you can source from China. You can also find many more items, such as race bibs, but it may not always make sense to order those from China, given the value of the items and the shipping costs involved.
Finally, if your company offers race timing services on the side, you can also find a number of timing equipment components and disposable supplies on Alibaba, such as RFID antennas, RFID and NFC chips and even RFID readers (but you should exercise caution when ordering electronic equipment; more on this later).
How to order from Alibaba
Scouting Alibaba for the right suppliers, navigating the ordering process and avoiding pitfalls when it comes to secure payment and refunds are all steps you will have to master. So we'll go over each of them in some detail and in the context of an example: buying tear drop flags.
The first step in the process - finding manufacturers that can supply the goods you need - is easy. Simply go on Alibaba.com and start with a product search for the things you're looking to buy.
We're after tear drop flags, so here's what a search for that term gets us:
There's 1,567 products that match our search term "tear drop flags" from 361 unique suppliers. There's more products than suppliers because some suppliers offer multiple products that fit the term "tear drop flags" (you can see all 361 suppliers by clicking on the "Suppliers" tab at the top left of search results).
That's a lot of products and many more suppliers than we'd care to contact. So we need to narrow down our results.
First, let's filter results by minimum quantity and per-item price. For example, let's only keep products than can be supplied in a minimum order quantity of 20 or less and for a maximum of $25 per item:
You'll notice we also filtered results for suppliers offering Alibaba's Trade Assurance. We'll discuss Trade Assurance and other Alibaba protection schemes later, but suffice it to say here that a supplier offering Trade Assurance is a very good thing.
With that, we've managed to narrow down our results from 1,567 to 369 products. Next, we'd want to narrow this list further by looking more closely at two things: product specs and supplier info.
Alibaba makes both these jobs a lot easier, by exposing key information about each product on our search list, and the supplier behind it, in a neat product summary that looks like this:
Looking at product specs first, we want to make sure the product is made of the right materials, has the right dimensions and - very importantly - looks like a quality product in the pictures. You can check most of this from the product info pane without leaving the search results page. If you want to dig deeper (and usually there's a lot more info available if you do) you can click on the product link to view the full listing page for any product.
Moving on to supplier info (the right-hand pane on any product summary), there's a bunch of useful information to help you get a quick feel for the supplier:
- Transactions: There are two pieces of information that provide insights into a supplier's trading activity on Alibaba. The diamond-based "Transaction Level" is perhaps the less helpful of the two, as it's a points-based system that doesn't easily translate into something useful. The actual transactions information at the bottom of the supplier pane is more meaningful. Here you can see the number of transactions and total transacted volume for a supplier over the past 6 months. The higher the volume, the higher the reliability and trustworthiness of the supplier.
- Established Year: This is the number of years a supplier has been trading for. The longer a company has been in business, the higher their credibility as a potential supplier of your order and, likely, the more experience they would have working with buyers on Alibaba.
- Trade Assurance: Having this symbol means the supplier has signed up for Alibaba's Trade Assurance scheme which offers buyers payment protection on eligible orders. More on this in a minute.
As with product specs though, this neat little summary will likely not tell you everything you'd want to know about a supplier. For more information, you need to click on the supplier name to visit the supplier's company page.
And here you'd want to look for a number of things...
As part of Alibaba's efforts to provide buyer peace of mind and ensure supplier claims are genuine and accurate, the platform has been providing a number of verification services to buyers, performed by either Alibaba themselves or independent verification companies.
You can access details of a supplier's verification status through the supplier's Home tab or by clicking any of the relevant verification icons on the supplier's mini website.
Verification checks include:
This is a basic A uthentication & V erification check all Gold Suppliers should undertake (this includes all suppliers in mainland China) and it involves checking the contact people, contact info and business licenses of the supplier.
Also mandatory for Gold Suppliers in China, this includes a check of the supplier's premises and of the supplier's legal status by Alibaba or a third party partner. The check means the supplier is legally registered and the company premises are for real.
Assessed Supplier status is an optional service for Chinese suppliers, but many still choose to take it. It involves further checks on a supplier's facilities, certifications, products and staff, and it is undertaken by prestigious independent verification companies, such as Bureau Veritas.
Vendors without any of the verifications above likely operate on Alibaba under a free membership, have registered as a supplier from outside mainland China or are new sellers on the platform.
If you have a choice - and you almost definitely will for most products - always go with verified suppliers who have been at least onsite-checked and have been trading on Alibaba for a number of years.
Most quality suppliers on Alibaba are signed up for the platform's Trade Assurance (TA) program. So, if a supplier you are considering contacting doesn't and you have other options, move on.
Alibaba's Trade Assurance provides protection to buyers, if any of two things happen:
- The order is not shipped by the agreed shipping date
- The received goods don't meet agreed product specifications
Buyers whose orders are covered by the TA policy will be able to claim a refund from the supplier up to supplier's TA limit, which can be viewed by clicking the TA icon on the supplier profile page:
There are some things you'll need to keep in mind to ensure your order is covered under the TA program:
- As we saw already, the supplier needs to be signed up to the program. Look for the TA icon on the supplier profile page to make sure.
- You order to the supplier should be placed through Alibaba.
- Although not a strict requirement, conducting supplier communications and - very importantly - discussions on product specs through Alibaba helps.
- Your should make payment either by credit card (Visa/MasterCard) or by telegraphic transfer to the supplier's TA Citibank account as designated by Alibaba.
In any case you will not be covered for refunds outside the supplier's TA limit and for any amounts not directly relating to your order.
There are a lot of things that neither Trade Assurance nor any formal verification will be able to tell you about a supplier's responsiveness to customer requests and their overall performance through the ordering process. For that, you've got buyer reviews.
You can access a supplier's reviews by clicking on Company Profile > Business Performance > Ratings & Reviews or by scrolling down on the company profile page. The reviews you'll find there are left by verified buyers after the delivery of their orders, so they can be trusted to reflect the opinions of buyers like you who have already dealt with a supplier from start to finish.
Also under Company Profile > Business Performance you can access information on the company's transaction history and buyer interactions, which will tell you how much business the company has been doing through Alibaba and some stats on the company's responsiveness to buyer communications.
Ok, back to the results page.
Once you're happy with your supplier and product due diligence and want to start a discussion with a supplier, click the Add to Compare button at the bottom left of the product summary:
As you add more products to your compare list, you should see a bar appear at the bottom of your browser with a count of your comparison basket. You can add up to 20 products on your compare list.
Once you have added all the products you want to reach out to suppliers with, you have two options. You can click the Compare button to see a side-by-side product breakdown, from where you will be able to contact suppliers as a next step, or click the Contact Supplier button and go directly to the supplier contact page. Let's do that:
At the top part of the page, you have a stack of headers with all the suppliers whose products you've added to your compare list. For each product there's a minimum order quantity specified (MOQ) by the supplier. If you've done everything right, each of these MOQs should be lower or equal to the quantity you used to filter results (20 in our case). Go ahead and enter the actual order quantity you're interested in purchasing for each product.
Under the stack of suppliers you're contacting, you have a single text field where you'll type your message. This message will be going out to all suppliers. You can, if you want to, choose to contact suppliers individually, but at this stage it makes more sense to contact multiple suppliers with the same request for info and a quote.
In terms of what you should go in your message, make sure you include the following:
- The date by which you need the product delivered and/or the date you need the product shipped by
- The color and material of product you're interested in, if there's any ambiguity or choice
- Any branding/special printing requirements
- Any special packaging requirements
If you have images you want to include or other information on file, click the Add attachment link under the main text area to include your files with your message.
Keep in mind that the more precise your specifications and instructions to the supplier, the easier it will be to claim under the Trade Assurance scheme should something go wrong and goods turn up outside of specs. When you're happy you've included everything suppliers need to know in your message, press the Send inquiry button.
Put the kettle on...
Choosing a supplier and placing your order
Depending on your location and the time of day when you send that initial message to suppliers, responses can start coming in almost immediately.
💡 At this stage, some suppliers may prefer to move the discussion off Alibaba and onto services like Skype or WhatsApp. Although there's nothing inherently suspicious about this, and it could help move things forward faster, always make sure you keep transcripts of all off-site communications and, if possible, re-confirm all key terms on Alibaba before ordering.
If a supplier comes back with a green light on all aspects of your request (product specs, shipping dates etc) and gives you a quote you like, the next step is to discuss payment terms, i.e. when and how you will make payment for your order.
Typically, when placing an order, you will be expected to make an initial payment of 30% or thereabouts before the order is manufactured, with a settlement for the remainder of the order amount before the order ships. Often, a supplier will be happy to be flexible around the splits and timing of your payment, as long as it's all settled before shipment.
From your point of view, if you are paying for your order using one of Alibaba's secure payment methods and/or order through Trade Assurance, you won't need to care much about how you split your payment, as it will all be covered by Alibaba regardless. That said, it's best, if you can, to postpone payment until the latest time possible. That way, even if a Trade Assurance of other claim arises, you will still have as little as possible under dispute.
When you're are ready to proceed with your order, re-confirm all key terms with the supplier over a message and place your order on Alibaba. There's three things you'll need to specify in your order:
- Product details. Here you should select the product you have been discussing with your chosen supplier, add the quantity and price you have agreed, as well as any additional specifications you have discussed with them.
- Shipment terms. These are the terms under which the product will be delivered to you and also the conventions that determine which party (you vs the supplier) is on the hook for losses should something happen to the product in transit. There's two sets of shipping commonly used: FOB, where delivery of the goods to you is deemed to take place when the goods are placed in the care of a courier (after that, what happens to the goods is your problem) and DIP/DDP/DAP, where delivery of the goods (and transfer of ownership and risk of loss) happens when the goods reach you at the shipping destination. Both sets work fine, if you understand what's involved in each case. For more details on these and other standard international commercial terms, take a look at Alibaba's INCOTERMS guide.
- Payment terms. This is where you specify the payment method you will use to settle your order and how the total order amount will be split between the initial and balance payment (as well as when each installment will be due).
Paying for your order
Perhaps because Alibaba is so often compared to Amazon, people expect that paying for their orders also has to take place on the platform. It doesn't.
In fact, paying for orders on Alibaba is a relatively new thing. Up until a few years ago, Alibaba's primary function was connecting buyers with Chinese wholesalers. It is only recently that Alibaba has introduced payments into the ordering process through its Alipay subsidiary.
There are currently two main ways to pay for your order through Alibaba:
- Bank transfer: There are two bank transfer mechanisms available on Alibaba. Telegraphic transfer (T/T) is the most common of the two, while e-Checking is a cheaper alternative that is available to buyer US checking accounts only.
- Credit card: Visa and MasterCard are both accepted on Alibaba but expect to pay a 2.95% processing fee on your total order amount when paying by credit card.
All credit card payments taken on Alibaba and bank transfers done through Alibaba to Alibaba's dedicated supplier Citibank accounts get covered under Alibaba's Trade Assurance scheme, up to the supplier's Trade Assurance cover limit. So if a dispute arises between yourself and the supplier that gets settled in your favor, your money can be refunded up to that amount.
If, for whatever reason, you choose not to pay for your order through Alibaba, there are other options available to you, most prominently PayPal. If you do go with PayPal, keep in mind your order will not be covered by Alibaba's Trade Assurance. But your payment may be eligible under PayPal's own Buyer Protection program, so make sure you know where you stand before clicking on that payment button.
Before we move on, a quick word on what to expect when requesting samples from suppliers, as this is something you may be planning to do.
It's important to understand that almost any sample you request (with very few exceptions) will come at a cost. The exact cost and what you end up paying for will depend on the item.
Straight off the bat, you'll be expected to pay shipping costs for your samples - the manufacturer will almost never pay for that. This practically probably means paying for a courier service, since air freight and sea freight are too slow and too impracticable for small shipments.
Then, there's the cost of the sample itself. Depending on the item and the degree of customization you'd want to see in the sample, things can go a number of different ways.
If you're ordering something cheap with little to no customization (e.g. RFID chips, pins, custom bags) it's likely you won't have to pay for the item(s) and even if you do the cost will be minimal.
If you're ordering things like tear drop flags, then the manufacturer may be willing to ship a sample flag that may not be printed to order but could still provide a good idea of manufacturing quality. The same would be true of things like mugs and other white-label items.
Unfortunately, it's quite difficult to provide samples for things like custom medals without incurring significant designing and prototyping costs. So if you need a sample for a custom medals order, you should expect to receive either a previously cast medal, as a sample of the vendor's work, or have to pay up for the costs of casting your own design, even for a single sample.
The silver lining in all this is that you can probably get the vendor to agree to partly offset the costs of the samples against the main order, should you decide to go ahead with that. Which is, at least, a small consolation.
💡 When thinking of ordering samples, always think of lead times as well as cost. Ordering samples will increase significantly to the delivery time of your main order. So keep this in mind if you're on a tight schedule.
Importing from China
Doing your diligence and negotiating with Chinese suppliers is one key aspect of successfully navigating the Chinese supply chain. Not tripping up on the import process is the other. So let's look at a few things you'll need to keep on top of when importing goods from China.
Managing the delivery of your order and ensuring that the goods arrive on time for your even should be one of your highest priorities in ordering supplies from China.
Here's where your local supplier has an edge on you. They have built their supplier relationships over many years and have experience working with Chinese vendors and managing delivery lead times effectively. You too will need to gradually learn the ropes, from anticipating local holidays to deciphering feedback from your supplier's sales rep.
In the end, you will be perfectly fine if you start the process of finding vendors and placing orders early enough. Realistically, you should give yourself six months for the whole process, with up to 12 weeks before agreeing an order and getting it cleared through customs and delivered to you.
There will be unavoidable delays along the way - that's not a China thing, it's a business thing - so give yourself as much breathing room as possible, particularly with your first couple of orders with new suppliers.
Taxes and duties
In addition to lead times, you should be fully aware of taxes and duties that may be due on your imports before placing your order. These can vary by item, but as an example consider the duty/taxes you'd have to pay on race T-shirts, which carry a 16.5% tax rate in the US and a duty of 12% in the EU.
With the US currently in trade negotiations with China, you should be extra vigilant about changes that may impact your cost of import.
Lastly, there's the issue of goods regulations and standards.
If you plan to import things like electrical equipment, you should always check what safety standards and general requirements apply in your country of import. Otherwise, you might be putting yourself and your team at grave personal and legal risk, if something goes wrong with goods you have imported.
If you're importing electrical devices into the US, be sure the electrical products you order are certified by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In Europe, be sure electrical products meet ETSI standards.
A few more tips and things to watch out for
Before we wrap up, here's a few more tips to keep in mind when doing business with Chinese suppliers, as shared by race directors in our ever helpful race directors group:
- Pay close attention to differences in quality. While on the surface different product brands may look similar, there could be significant quality variations lurking underneath. Inflatable arches, for example, come in vinyl or fabric and they both look the same, although the materials give them different properties and durability.
- Understand the people you're working with. Although people on the other end do speak English, they are not native English speakers and it's easy for them to misunderstand you and vice versa. So don't assume anything and keep everything explicit .
- Know the Chinese holidays and plan around them. The holidays are government enforced and will mean the factories shut down, sometimes for weeks at a time. Here's an up-to-date calendar of office holidays in China, but also look up your own.
- Be very clear in what you're looking for. Vagueness is your enemy when ordering online from China and qualitative remarks that are open to interpretation should be avoided. Make sure you provide specifications of sizes and other aspects of the products that need to be met to satisfy your order. When specifying color, spell out the exact hex or Pantone color code - don't just say "blue" or "dark blue". Keep in mind that your specifications will likely be followed to the letter, so be as precise as you can when laying it all out.
- Provide mockups. Designs for things like medals can be difficult to communicate by text. So, in some cases, it might be best to have a local designer create a mock up that the Chinese medal supplier can follow. This may cost a little bit more, but it will get you a better result with fewer headaches in the end.
- Use secure payment options. Direct bank transfers to Chinese bank accounts should be avoided, particularly over your first few dealings with a new vendor. If ordering through Alibaba, only use payment methods that preserve your protection under the Trade Assurance program.
Ordering direct from China may seem like a daunting task. Everything does, at first.
In reality, things are a lot more straightforward. If you stay within the confines of the ordering process discussed above and follow some basic common-sense rules, there's little to worry about. And the benefits to you could be considerable.
If you have further questions about the ordering process or a tip to share from your own dealings on Alibaba, come join us in our Facebook hangout or leave a comment in the section below.