The Fall session of the Canton Fair is set to kick off on October 19. The Canton Fair is the mecca for importers, and every year over 180,000 buyers make the pilgrimage to Guangzhou to source products from over 60,000 Suppliers.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Canton Fair, it is the largest trade show in China and has been taking place for over 50 years. I’m a huge advocate of the idea that finding Suppliers on Alibaba is a great way to find Suppliers, especially in the beginning, but visiting trade shows in China is the best way to find Suppliers. For the first time visitor of trade shows in China, the Canton Fair is the best introduction. It has something for almost everyone, no matter your industry, and it is very Western friendly.
Who Should and Shouldn’t Visit the Canton Fair
Who should go:
- You should go if you have been finding Suppliers via Alibaba and want to make the next leap
- You should go if you have current Suppliers who will be exhibiting at the fair (makes it easy to meet and a greet with multiple Suppliers)
- You should go if you’re a first time business visitor to China (the Canton Fair is very Western friendly)
- You should go if you’re importing mass-market consumer commodities
Who Shouldn’t Go
- You shouldn’t go if you’ve visited China before and your industry has better industry specific trade shows (i.e. if you’re importing fishing products and there’s a Fishing and Hunting trade show in China)
- You shouldn’t go if you have a short amount of time in China and your first priorities are in far away provinces and cities (i.e. Beijing, Shanghai, etc.)
As I mentioned in the introduction, the Canton Fair is the absolute ideal starting point for people who have done a few imports through sites like Alibaba and want to make the next leap in their business. Trade shows are invaluable for two main reasons. First, visiting trade shows will help you find Suppliers not advertising on the internet (and thereby eliminating a good percentage of your competition). Second, you can meet your Suppliers in person which builds rapport and shows you’re a serious buyer (ever have an email ignored by an Alibaba Supplier? This almost never happens when you email someone you meet at the Canton Fair).
The Canton Fair has something for everyone. From heavy duty industrial tires to virtual reality headsets, the Canton Fair has Suppliers from almost every industry. The caveat is that there are many niche industries that have trade shows in China specifically for that niche, i.e. a fishing and hunting trade show. You’ll almost always get more out of those shows. Just like a serious soccer player probably doesn’t go to Walmart to buy soccer balls and cleats, you too will be better served if there is a more focused trade show for your products. Check out ChinaExhbition.com for a list of most trade shows in China.
The Canton Fair waters are also warm for Western buyers taking a dip into the world of China for the first time. Guangzhou (pronounced Guang-Joe), as one of the three main cities of China, is always a fairly easy entry point for Westerners but it becomes easier around Canton Fair time when hordes of university students eager to practice their English line airports and metro lines to help Western visitors.
When to Go
The fair is held twice a year in the Spring and the Fall (normally April and October) and lasts nearly a month each time. The Canton Fair is split into three phases (different products and Suppliers in each phase) with each phase lasting 5 days each and a 3 day gap in between. You can see a full list of product categories covered under each phase here. Don’t make the mistake I made the first time and plan to go to the wrong phase of the show, so read the description of the phases very carefully (or post in the comments below what products you’re looking for and we’ll help you decide what phase to go to).
How to Get Here and Where to Stay
The fair is in Guangzhou, one of the three main cities of China (the other two being Shanghai and Beijing). It’s located very near Hong Kong, about a 1.5-2 hour train ride. If you’ve never visited Hong Kong before, then you should consider flying into or out of Hong Kong (or both in and out) as it’s incredibly different from Guangzhou. Remember though, Hong Kong is essentially a separate country with different visa regulations and customs formalities. The biggest implication is to ensure you have a multiple entry visa for China, which most Westerners now receive with 10 year visas BUT make sure you have one. Most Westerners will not need a visa to visit Hong Kong. I’ve known people stay their entire time in Hong Kong and take the train to Guangzhou in the morning but it’s not recommended as it makes for a lot of commuting time.
Guangzhou is a city with over 10 million people and there’s no shortage of rooms in the city. Even if you book your room the day before, you’ll be able to find a room somewhere although it will likely be a long taxi ride or require multiple transfers on the subway. The best value rooms in the most popular hotels will sell out so you’re best to book 3 or 4 weeks in advance if you can.
Pick a hotel near a Metro (almost every hotel should be within a few minutes walking to a Metro station) where you do not have to transfer more than once. The Canton fair is on Line 8.
You should register for the fair beforehand, although you do not need to. If you choose to register at the fair it will cost you 100 RMB (about $20USD). You should register beforehand simply to save the $20 it costs to register at the show. Like all Chinese websites, the registration website is terrible and you will think your information has gone into a black hole. Someone will actually review and approve your badge (check your spam folder). Once approved you will still have to pick up your actual badge at the show. In years after, they will send you a badge during each phase via postal mail for at least a year.
If you don’t pre-register for whatever, don’t stress out – just do it at the show and pay the $20 or so in fees.
If you register beforehand, you’ll be warned about the importance of making sure you bring a passport photo and a paper copy of your badge registration. If you forget (like the thousands of other people) you can do it at the show, although be prepared to pay another $5 for the photos and wait in line.
You can get your badge at the show the day before a particular phase opens. If you’re in town and close by to the fair, you can avoid all the lines and get your badge then. Other wise, the show staff are fairly efficient at dispensing badges but expect to wait 20-30 minutes (your pre-approval for a badge saves you 100RMB, not time).
Preparing for the Show
To have the most successful buying experience at the show, you should do a lot work before hand. Here are some tips:
- Determine what products you’re looking for beforehand (don’t go there hoping to find products)
- Research potential Suppliers beforehand using the Canton Fair website
Like any trade show, you should be doing hours of research beforehand on the Suppliers and vendors who will be there. The Canton Fair website isn’t great unfortunately and you’ll have to rely on the Canton Fair’s crappy search functionality which also isn’t great. I always like to generate a list of 20-30 Suppliers beforehand (along with their booth numbers) that I plan to visit.
Ideally you should know exactly what types of products you’re looking for. This way you have a list of intelligent questions to ask about the product and Supplier. You can also research the viability of selling a particular product (i.e. through Amazon and eBay research). Other questions you should be prepared to ask Suppliers are things like:
- What are the exact specifications of this product (hopefully you know the important specifications)
- Can I make it in xyz color/size and if so, how much does it cost?
- What are the package dimensions? How many items per box?
- Where is the Supplier based? Who are their main customers? What is a typical order trial order size for them?
By researching products beforehand, it helps you narrow your search and intelligently look at product samples and ask questions. Otherwise when you go, you’ll basically be in an “OMG, this product is awesome and the products are so cheap!” state of mind and fail to really examine the product and find out information about the Supplier. Yes, you’re going to go to the fair and find some products you never even thought about, which is one of the greatest parts of the fair. However, if you have absolutely no direction you’ll be entirely less effective – ambiguous goals lead to ambiguous outcomes.
How Long Do You Need for the Show?
For most people, I would say that you need 8-10 hours at the show, divided between two days for each Phase you go to (most people will only go to one phase, but if you go to two phases, then you need 16-20 hours). The first day you’re going to walk away with a suit case full of product information and catalogs. You want to go back to your hotel room, sort through it, and make detailed notes (trust me- you’ll forget 95% of the information the second you leave China). The next day you can follow up with the Suppliers that you’re really interested in, hopefully with some follow up questions.
There’s a lot of value in using the Canton Fair as a common meeting ground for current and potential Suppliers. Aside from arranging breakfasts/dinners with current and potential Suppliers, many Suppliers rent hotel rooms that are mini show rooms where the real business is discussed. Allow for an extra day or two of meetings in Guangzhou.
How to Dress and What to Bring to the Show
What to bring with you to the show:
- Comfortable shoes and breathable clothing
- A rolly bag or backpack to carry all of the materials you’ll accumulate
- A LOT of business cards (ideally with an email address you don’t mind getting spammed to death)
- Your badge and/or registration approval
- A full charged cell phone for photo purposes, ideally with backup power supply
A lot of people wonder how they should dress at the show. The best answer is comfortable. You’re going to be doing a lot of walking (including through Metro stations, in queues, and around the show) and Guangzhou is incredibly humid so wearing dress shoes and a suit isn’t exactly practical. Suppliers know this and aren’t going to think any less of you if you aren’t suited up. At the same time, don’t dress like a slob – something like shorts or breathable pants (no jeans!) and a polo do the trick.
During the show you’re going to accumulate a ton of material and catalogs from Suppliers. If you’re there during the first few hours of a particular phase, Suppliers may even give you rather large gifts (i.e. tea sets). Bring something comfortable to carry this all in- rolly bags are everywhere.
Every Supplier is going to ask you for a business card as well as a million hawkers around the fair. Bring a ton of business cards but make sure you have a secondary email address on them unless you don’t care about having your email put onto a million Chinese mailing lists.
You’re going to be taking a ton of pictures of products and booths so make sure your phone is fully charged. Better, bring a backup power supply as finding power outlets is difficult.
At the Show: Pricing, MOQs, Samples, and Communication
Over the last 10 years or so, pricing in China has COMPLETELY changed. Prices have become much more static as more competition is prevalent and pricing is becoming more transparent. Before Suppliers would quote high prices in the hopes they could suck every extra marginal dollar out of you. Today, they’re afraid if they quote even a dollar too high they’ll lose your business. Long story short, unless you’re ordering an absurd amount, the prices are relatively fixed (with an absolute maximum of 5-10% negotiation).
MOQs are the much bigger negotiation point. Suppliers at the Canton Fair seem to always quote very large MOQs. IMO this is like pricing in the old days- they start high and then work their way down. My real test is to ask about the MOQ for a trial order. If a Supplier quotes me 500 pieces I ask “Is 100 pieces OK for a trial order?”. Most will say yes. Once you’ve made a small order and the Supplier knows you’re not wasting their time, it’s likely your ‘trial order’ MOQ will continue in the future (what Supplier can turn down an order?)
Very few Suppliers are going to give out any free samples unless you visit their factory (at least if the sample costs over a few dollars). The exception is in the last couple hours on the final day of the show when Suppliers are packing up when many will be happy to give you their samples.
Many readers ask if they need an interpreter for the show. You can book an interpreter at the show (or beforehand) for around 500-800RMB or ($100-150US). However, 80-90% of the booths will have someone who can speak very reasonable English. If they don’t have someone at the show who can speak reasonable English, how are you going to communicate with them after the show and/or when something goes wrong with your order? Yes, the Suppliers at the show who don’t speak great English are also going to be the Suppliers with the lowest prices- they’re also going to be the ones you have serious communication issues with down the road.
For anyone importing from China, you should at some point in your life visit the Canton Fair. Giving a sense of the scale of the fair through a blog post can’t begin to do it justice. It’s truly huge. It will open your eyes to the scale of Chinese manufacturing and possibilities you had never even considered before.
Have you visited the Canton Fair before? Or are you planning to go to one of the upcoming sessions? If so, share your experiences below or any questions you may have.