Over the past couple of weeks, e-commerce experts and practitioners vouched for product samples and the key role they play in any sourcing journey in our Q&A series.
Both John Niggl of InTouch Services Ltd and 80/20 Sourcing’s Gary Huang said samples aid in supplier vetting. John said samples help buyers gauge if a potential supplier can meet product expectations. Gary, meanwhile, said samples give buyers an initial look into suppliers’ soft skills such as communication and attention to detail.
For this installment, we have StartupBros’ Will Mitchell. StartupBros is a business coaching company that has helped more than 3,000 new entrepreneurs start similar businesses.
Will entered the e-commerce world early. Here’s his story in his own words: I started buying counterfeits as 12 years old and selling them online, but quickly figured out that was not a great long-term business model. I made good money though (especially for a 12-year-old), so I fell in love with the concept of entrepreneurship and e-commerce.
By 15, I figured out it was actually easier to make money with legitimate products, and started skipping school to sell stuff online. At 17, I dropped out of high school entirely, and still don’t have a diploma 😊
Since then I have made every mistake possible while selling thousands of different products under nearly 100 different brands. Last year my e-commerce company sold over $12.5 million worth of our products, and this year we’re already on track for $17 million.
Global Sources (GS): You’ve been immersed in the e-commerce/sourcing world for quite a while. What’s your take on buying product samples? Is this easy to do?
Will Mitchell (WM): Buying samples is ultra-easy and ultra-quick. For new sellers, it’s a great warm-up for what’s to come – because it’s only getting more complex from here!
It does not get much easier to buy samples, but big sellers do have the advantage of getting free samples much more often than a new seller would. There’s the obvious reason that big sellers can push big volume, but big sellers can also have samples thrown into spare space on incoming shipments.
Since new sellers are usually paying for the shipping alone (and not the cost of the sample), this dynamic creates the illusion that big sellers get free samples. But it’s just because it’s free for a supplier to toss in a few samples instead of extra bubble wrap.
GS: Can buyers skip this stage? Why or why not?
WM: I would NEVER skip the sample stage. You NEED to evaluate your product before putting in large orders with a supplier.
Nobody would purchase a house by looking at 4-5 pictures on the internet and wiring the owner $500,000. There are systems of checks and balances to keep each party secure, and samples are a part of that. Every supplier will expect you to want samples, and would be shocked if you didn’t.
Buying samples allows you to check for many things:
- The actual look of the product
- The feel of the product
- The performance of the product
- Consistency of product samples
- Experience with supplier: I’d say about 5 percent of the suppliers I have ordered samples from have sent me entirely incorrect products, severely damaged products, or no products at all.
- Supplier comparison
There’s a lot more benefits I could cover such as the experience gained by new sellers, and this could be a much longer list. Bottom line is, don’t skip samples!
GS: A buyer gets samples from three or more manufacturers, all of which meet his requirements. He’s satisfied with quality. How does he narrow down his choices?
WM: Assuming all products are entirely the same quality – There’s some obvious answers here like lead time (how quick can the shipment get delivered to you) or service quality (how well does this supplier perform for you).
But I personally would think about it a little differently…
I would look at everything else this supplier manufactures, and the size of each one. I always want a factory that specializes in MY niche. I would rather have a knife factory than a kitchen goods factory that makes knives too.
However, you must also balance that with the fact that ordering all your products through one or two suppliers can create huge shipping (and thus pricing) efficiencies. So it really depends on the long-term growth path of you company, and which supplier seems like a better fit to grow together. This would matter to me more than pricing – I’d rather have the best supplier in the world and pay 10 to 20 percent more.
WM: I absolutely love Global Sources’ product samples feature! Alibaba does not offer any help with samples, and many people just end up overpaying on AliExpress. It’s much more complex on Alibaba – you have to speak with every supplier, and talk them into samples, arrange payment yourself, etc. It’s very time consuming compared to Global Sources’ instant product sample feature.
GS: Any tips or advice importers need to keep in mind when they buy product samples?
WM: I’d get samples for every new product you’re sourcing, even from established suppliers. My company distributes some of the highest quality products in our niche, and we still have to go through several sample stages to get things perfect for our customers (texture, color, smell, consistency, etc).
It doesn’t matter if it’s custom made, unbranded from the factory, or even wholesaled from a major manufacturer. You ALWAYS need to protect your downside through a scrutinizing sample process.
As for protection, protecting yourself in China (and in business) is a bit of a myth. You can sign all the contracts in the world, but you still need money to sue people and enforce judgements.
The right way to protect yourself in this business is through brand recognition and brand equity (which can be more effectively protected by a trademark in the country of sale), ownership of the customer relationship, having a great relationship with your supplier, and then there are many little things you can do as you grow to keep yourself protected (such as owning your molds).
But if Chanel and Apple can’t figure out how to prevent counterfeiters, we probably won’t either! That’s something that comes with the success.
GS: How can buyers avoid product sample nightmares?
WM: Don’t compromise on samples. The samples are usually the best that the factory has, so if there’s ANYTHING wrong with the samples – you MUST bring it up with your supplier. People drastically underestimate how assertive, frank, blunt, and to the point you need to be with Chinese suppliers. Due to the culture and the language barrier, Westerners tend to fall victim to their politeness and assume the best in a supplier.
If there’s something wrong with your samples, even something small – you MUST address it directly and frankly, or else you will be ordering many many products with this same defect.
Don’t ever assume the manufactured product will be higher quality than the sample. Find a supplier who matches the quality of product and service you’re trying to bring to your customers.