I found a great widget at a killer price on alibaba. How do I judge the quality?
I’ve had a lot of emails lately from people asking how to judge the quality of products they find on alibaba. All of the other issues with alibaba aside, this is a key problem facing you, the importer. If product x is $5/unit on one listing, and an identical product is $10/unit on another, how do you judge quality?
Let’s take a look at how to manage your risk and judge initial quality note that maintaining ongoing quality levels is a different matter.
Look at the factory’s other listings and website
Keep in mind that a factory that is an expert at producing widgets at a high level of quality may not be an expert in Western-style web design. Still- most factories that have managed to produce at a level of high quality have also reached a level of success in their business that they can present a somewhat respectable face to the outside world.
Look at the offerings of the factory as a whole. Do they appear to be producing goods for export to countries with high levels of quality expectations? Do they list any ISO quality ratings (e.g., ISO 9001)? Do they appear to produce for large multinational corporations? All of these are good signs, but the lack of these signs on the website/alibaba is not the death knell for quality.
Side note: What countries are known for consumers with high standards?
- The US
- Western Europe, especially Germany
Side note: What countries are notorious for consumers with low quality standards?
- Most of Africa
- The Middle East
- Eastern Europe
Communicate with the factory over email or Skype.
Does the factory seem to have a grasp of international business and English? If so, this is usually a good sign this means they likely have some international customers in “high standards” areas of the world.
Can the factory produce any third-party certifications of quality? The before-mentioned ISO standard is one that rates a factory as a whole but sometimes individual products have certifications as well. Check for things like UL ratings on products (if applicable). Even though UL is a safety certification that the fact that a factory can produce products that meet a Western safety standard is a good sign.
Order a sample, silly.
Once you’ve investigated the factory a bit from afar, order a sample if you believe the factory might be a good one.
If you have a very straight-forward product- a backpack, for example- the most line-of-sight way to judge quality is to order a sample, receive the sample, and judge the sample for yourself. In this example, you would probably order samples from a few competing factories and judge them head to head.
Once you get a few samples in, you can determine where quality is deficient. For our backpack example, you might pay extra attention to the craftsmanship of the bottom of the bag, where it will rest on the ground, and the stitching on the straps, for example.
What about intangible quality problems?
If you are ordering complex goods like appliances, or products that can have health or safety problems, you are well-served to be familiar with your products and your market. Otherwise, you risk ordering products with potential health and safety problems.
You can also engage third party labs to test for safety and engineering problems. I have previously used CSA for this- but they are expensive.
Secret weapon- The shortcut
If you are able to vet the customers of a factory, this is a shortcut to vetting the factory as a whole. Here’s what I look for in a factory:
- Multinational customers
- Customers in the US
- Products with US safety approvals or good reputations (secret weapon within the secret weapon- check Amazon reviews!)
- High levels of organization and QA procedures
If you can find a factory with the above, the quality will likely be high.
To find the customers of a factory, fire up my favorite secret weapon, Panjiva.
If you’re using this method of “quality assurance by proxy,” you’re cutting time and cost out of your development process. And just like all shortcuts, there is a cost- the cost of increased risk in your supply chain.
If you are small and bootstrapping to get your project off the ground, you can probably accept this risk. If you are a more established venture, you need to put better QA procedures into place.
What if it’s a big industrial unit?
If you’re looking for a big discount on an industrial unit- and you only want to buy one or two- you’re playing a dangerous game. Think about it this way- the factory knows that once they ship and get paid, you have almost no recourse against them. You won’t even be able to leverage the future relationship, as there is none.
If you really want to go down this road, you need to know the specifications and requirements of the unit down cold, and pay a third party to inspect the units at the factory to ensure that they meet your requirements before shipment (and ideally before any payment flows).
And then you need to cross your fingers and hope you get away with this big risk!
A resource if you need it.
If you’re serious about importing, you need to build a relationship with a QA professional. I strongly suggest checking out Renaud at Sofeast. He can help you sort initial and ongoing quality. I use him largely for pre-shipment inspections currently, but he is an expert on QA and Chinese sourcing.
Now sally forth and sift through suppliers. Did I miss anything?
Let me know in the comments. Whether you are a newbie with unanswered questions, or you’ve sorted quality professionally (Renaud), I love all input and feedback.
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