2021 Buying on Alibaba Guide: Price Negotiation, Payment, & ShippingMay in Blog, Buying Products, Chinese Importing, Finding Suppliers
Price Negotiation, Payment, & Shipping
Alibaba is the place to go when looking for suppliers of private label products in China. On the surface, using Alibaba seems relatively straightforward. But how do you find reliable suppliers, negotiate with them, and get your products shipped? In this article, we’ll cover all of these things.
- What is Alibaba?
- Is Alibaba Safe?
- Types of Suppliers on Alibaba
- How to Find Great Suppliers on Alibaba
- How to Contact Suppliers and Get Responded To
- How to Negotiate Rock Bottom Prices with Alibaba Suppliers
- How to Negotiate Low MOQs
- How to Order from Alibaba and Make Payment
- How to Ship Your Products from China
- How to Review Your Shipments for Any Problems
- Alternatives to Alibaba
What is Alibaba?
Alibaba is one of the biggest e-commerce companies to date. Just like Amazon, it caters to online buyers. However, it deals more on bulk purchases, and unlike Amazon, you can find manufacturers and suppliers in Alibaba that you can contact to get private label products from.
It is essentially a directory of Chinese factories and trading companies in China. If you’re looking for Chinese suppliers, it’s one of the best resources you can find. In fact, even Chinese companies use it.
Alibaba Group was founded by Jack Ma in 1999 and is a massive conglomerate of different web properties including Alibaba.com, Aliexpress (a website for foreigners to buy products from China), and Taobao (China’s version of Amazon).
Of all of Alibaba Group’s different properties though, only Alibaba.com is of relevance for importers. Although some e-commerce sellers use Aliexpress because it allows low-quantity orders, the prices are very high.
Can You Drop Ship from Alibaba?
Most suppliers on Alibaba want you to purchase a Minimum Order Quantity (MOQ) of at least $500 or more. Therefore, Alibaba is not very good for drop shippers.
If you want to drop ship, it’s better to use Alibaba’s sister site, AliExpress.
You can also check out our article on how we use AliExpress to validate products before launching them on Amazon.
Is Alibaba Safe?
The question I probably hear the most about Alibaba is, “Is it safe to use?” The answer is yes.
Alibaba is safe to use, but with one caveat regarding quality (which I’ll get to in a second). If you order from Alibaba, as long as you follow some normal precautions, you will almost certainly always receive your products. In nearly ten years of using Alibaba, I have ordered millions of dollars worth of products from dozens of suppliers, and I’ve never been scammed.
However, it’s still best to take precautions. These are some of the basic ones to follow:
- Order from Chinese companies only.
- Buy from Gold Suppliers only.
- Making payment via wire transfers for larger orders is normal, but always make sure the beneficiary name matches the company name.
- Order small at first and gradually increase your order size.
If you follow these basic guidelines, you will almost certainly not be scammed.
Now, the caveat I mentioned regarding quality. Receiving inferior quality products in China is a very big concern when ordering on Alibaba. Stereotypes are sometimes true, and the crappy “Made In China” products stereotype will be true for you if you do not follow some fairly easy best practices. When you’re reading to order products, review our article below on ensuring quality products.
How to Buy Wholesale from Alibaba
While there are companies in Alibaba that allow buyers to purchase as few as one item, this e-commerce giant is designed mainly for wholesalers. As opposed to retailers, wholesalers purchase in bulk and generally do not sell to end-users.
Here’s a quick summary of the steps to successfully buy wholesale from Alibaba.
Determine the exact product you want to buy wholesale. Find a niche first, then pinpoint the exact products you want to buy. Be particular about the specifications, quality, and features of the product.
Search for the right suppliers and negotiate with them. The last thing you need is having to deal with a scammer. Once you find a reliable supplier, it’s time to talk about important factors such as the MOQ, product quality, and manufacturing lead time.
Ask for samples. Don’t take their word for it. Pictures are easily manipulated and you will be hard-pressed to find a supplier that will bad mouth their own products to potential customers. When asking for a sample, make sure to consider not only the product but also how it is packed.
Pay your suppliers. Fortunately for wholesalers, Alibaba doesn’t release the payment without a go signal from your end that you’ve received the products in good condition. You can always pay suppliers privately, but you will have to do this at your own risk. If you’ve already established a good relationship with them, then this wouldn’t be much of a problem.
Related reading: How to do a Quality Inspection and Why You Need One
Types of Suppliers on Alibaba
On Alibaba, there are two types of suppliers: Gold Suppliers and non-Gold suppliers.
A Gold supplier pays a premium for increased ranking, marketing services, etc., and Alibaba does some limited identity verification of these suppliers. However, take note that just because a supplier is a Gold Supplier on Alibaba does not mean that this supplier has good quality products. It does, however, give some indication that this supplier is a legitimate and invested one.
I personally try to work only with Gold Suppliers simply as a filter mechanism, but again, remember that a Gold Supplier does not mean they are an excellent supplier.
Alibaba is open to both Chinese companies and non-Chinese companies although Chinese suppliers make up the vast majority of suppliers. Suppliers can also come in the form of trading companies and factories.
A trading company does not manufacture the products they produce and generally have slightly higher prices but also slightly more consistent quality and a larger product selection. Factories have slightly lower prices and more limited selection and more unpredictable quality. Neither is good nor bad inherently, but know the differences between these types of suppliers.
How to Find Great Suppliers on Alibaba
Before even worrying about MOQ and freight costs, you need to find the right supplier first. In order to look for suppliers on Alibaba, you first need to create an account. If you don’t have a registered company, don’t worry. You can put in whatever you want as the company name.
With your account set up, the next thing to figure out is what product you want to search for. Once you know what it is, go ahead and search for it on Alibaba. Your ultimate goal when looking for suppliers should be to find 3 to 5 potential suppliers, contact them, and get price quotes for your product.
The first thing I do when starting a search is to have my results sorted by supplier, not by product (which Alibaba will do by default). Otherwise, the top search results will be dominated by just one or two suppliers. See the image below.
You want to look for suppliers who have products similar to what you’re looking for. Keep in mind that many suppliers simply steal photos of Western brand’s products. I like to look for signs that the photographs are authentic, such as
- Signs the photo was taken in China (i.e., Chinese people or Chinese writing in the photograph)
- Company watermark on the photo
- Average quality photos (most suppliers don’t take retail-quality photographs)
You can also check out Supplier Blacklist to make sure the company you’re dealing with is not among the recognized bad suppliers.
How to Contact Suppliers on Alibaba
Finding the right supplier involves both skill and luck. Make sure to do a quick Google search about the company. Look for red flags by adding the words scam, warning, or beware in the search bar.
Aside from this, suppliers on Alibaba can be very picky with what buyers they choose to work with.
You will see on the search results page the Supplier Response Rate. You will almost always see that this Response Rate is far lower than 100%. Alibaba suppliers will often simply ignore many buyer requests.
There are several ways to increase the likelihood that a supplier responds to you. Consider asking the following questions:
- Do you know exactly what products you’re looking for? Or are you fishing for an entire catalog and price list?
- Are you clear, concise, and to the point? Or does your supplier have to put a lot of thought into answering your email, which is especially hard for a non-native English speaker?
- What country are you from? Certain countries are more desirable to suppliers such as countries the supplier doesn’t currently do business in. Your supplier can see what country you are emailing from via Alibaba.
- Are you a big buyer with brick-and-mortar stores?
In my first email, I aim to ask only a couple of questions about a product. It usually involves the price and maybe a simple product specifications question. Do not overwhelm them with a lot of questions in your first email. Also, remember that English is a second language for suppliers, and each response from them takes a lot of time.
I also ask them for the WeChat ID – almost everyone now in China prefers to communicate over WeChat compared to email or other means. If you’re serious about importing from China, download WeChat on your phone immediately (it’s free).
The Great Firewall
Chinese censorship is prevalent and can affect your emails from getting through.
The Great Firewall blocks access to common services like Google (including Gmail), Whatsapp, Facebook, and Dropbox. Avoid using any links to these services.
Also, the internet in China is very slow, and large attachments can take a very long time to download.
Given the unpredictability of email, it’s best to use WeChat whenever possible.
Sample Email to Supplier
I am from Chinese Importing Products Inc. We are based in Vancouver, Canada and we are a retailer/wholesaler of Horse Saddles. We are very interested in the Horse Saddles your company offers.
Can you please tell me the price on your Adjustable Leather English Horse Saddles, Mode SA138, as shown here: http://shanghaisaddlery.en.alibaba.com/product/736255569-214759027/adjustable_gullet_english_leather_saddle.html
Also, what is your WeChat ID?
My goal is just to get a response. I avoid mentioning MOQs, which may scare off a supplier. It’s easy for a supplier to simply ignore an initial email. But once a supplier has actually responded to you, it’s difficult to ignore future emails. If they add you to WeChat, it’s almost impossible for them to ignore you.
How to Negotiate with Alibaba Suppliers
The key to negotiating with suppliers is to determine the market price of your desired product.
Unless you know your product extremely well and the cost to manufacture it (VERY few people do) your absolute only way to know the fair price of your product is to receive competing offers which is why you need to contact several suppliers.
You should at this point start to receive prices from your suppliers. If they ask you how much you will be importing, let them know your ideal annual order amount (be an optimist but don’t promise the moon) rather than the individual order amount.
Beware of suppliers that have very low prices relative to others. Normally, there is a catch to this. Typical catches include:
- Shipment terms are EXW as opposed to FOB, which makes it much more expensive.
- The material is of a much lower quality, e.g., 150 denier fabric instead of 600 denier fabric.
- They only accept extremely large orders.
Once you are comparing apples to apples, i.e., you know each supplier is quoting a product constructed of similar materials and with similar shipment terms, then ask the other suppliers if they can match the lowest offer. There’s a temptation to lie and say “Your competitor Ningbo Saddles offered me these saddles for $24” when in fact they offered them to you for $34. Your supplier will smell you out, and you’ll lose credibility. There is not as much room for price negotiation in China as there was previously. A 10% price discount is often huge.
At this point, you will likely have two or three suppliers with comparable prices and comparable products. You want to find a supplier that can accommodate your smaller order size.
Shipment Terms: What’s the Difference Between EXW, FOB, and CIF?
As you’re getting quotes, pay careful attention to the shipment terms. These are especially important if you’re shipping your items via sea freight.
There are three common shipment terms that essentially determine who pays for shipping:
- EXW (Most Expensive for You): You have to pay for the cost of freight directly from your supplier’s factory to your desired destination. Essentially you’re paying the cost of Chinese Land Transportation and sea freight.
- FOB (Most Common): Your supplier will pay for shipping from their factory to the closest Chinese port. You will pay for the sea freight but your supplier will pay for the inland transportation in China.
- CIF (Least Expensive for You): Your supplier pays for the cost of Chinese inland transportation and sea freight to your desired port.
Read more on our article All About Shipment Terms.
How to Negotiate Low Minimum Order Quantities (MOQ)
Minimum Order Quantities (MOQ) is one of the most important issues you’re going to face when first dealing with suppliers.
Suppliers have MOQs for normally two reasons:
- They mass-produce the product and keep stock of it, but it’s not worth their expense to ship a small number of products.
- They only produce the product on demand therefore they need a big enough order to warrant a production run.
If an item is customized or is a very niche product that your supplier does not keep stock of, then it’s very difficult to negotiate MOQs as your supplier will lose money (not just time) for small orders.
In these cases, all you need to do is decrease their cost of time. Assume you have narrowed down your selection process to one or two suppliers and both insist their MOQ is fifty units but you only want ten units. The following email will get your supplier to accept your order more often than not:
I understand your MOQ requirements but we would like to purchase 10 saddles initially to introduce to our customers and proceed with a larger shipment on the next order.
If you can understand our needs, please see the attached PO for 1o units of SA138. Please confirm with a copy of your invoice which includes FedEx shipping charges to Vancouver, Canada. Also please include your banking information and I will wire 100% payment to you tomorrow.
Thank you and I look forward to working with you on many future orders,
Very few suppliers can say no to having money wired to them in full.
Note that when you do this strategy, you have very little room for negotiation. The second you start to try to negotiate price, payment terms, etc. you’re imposing a money cost and time cost on your supplier.
If you have Jungle Scout you can see exactly how much your supplier exports to America by looking at their export history (in America, import/export records are public information meaning anyone can see this info).
For example, by searching for Shanghai Saddlery company, we can see that in the past, they did an order to Blocker Ranch Inc. for just 41 units. This is a good indication they would likely accept an order from us for around 41 units (or much less).
Using Import Records to Find and Vet Suppliers and Snoop Competitors
One of the best things an importer can do is to use import records to help them find products to import and vet suppliers.
As mentioned, in America, import and export records are public information, however, the government does not catalog or give easy access to this information. However, there are tools that do allow you to easily search this information, the most popular and cheapest being Jungle Scout (others include Import Genius and Panjiva).
These tools allow you to:
- Find out what Chinese supplier a competitor is using (great for finding products)
- See how much a supplier exports
- Find out what suppliers export specific products
See our article A Secret Weapon for Doing Supplier Research
How to Order from Alibaba and Make Payment
Once you’ve picked a supplier and they’ve agreed to send your desired quantity, you’re ready to pay for and ship your order.
Make sure to ask for any promised sample cost refunds on your first real order (your supplier won’t give them if you don’t ask).
Keep in mind that some suppliers may not charge you for the cost of one sample, but they will almost certainly get you to pay the cost of freight. They will almost certainly charge you for any samples beyond one and the cost of freight. Do not try to negotiate this. It makes you look really small. However, most suppliers will promise to pay you back this sample and freight cost on your first real order.
Most suppliers will send you something called a proforma invoice, which is just a fancy word for an invoice.
If your order is smaller (under $5000 or so) use Alibaba’s Trade Assurance. This will more or less guarantee that your items are shipped but will not give you quality guarantees (despite what Alibaba claims). Once your orders get larger, most suppliers will expect a 30% deposit via wire transfer and the remaining 70% payment when the goods are ready. Suppliers don’t typically like PayPal unless it’s for sample costs.
Order Several Samples Instead of One Sample
Many books and websites say that you should always order a single sample from a supplier and inspect it for quality et al. There are some problems with doing it this way:
- Your first sample is guaranteed to be of good quality. i.e., you will get the “Golden Sample.”
- The freight costs to get a single sample is outrageously high.
- One sample gives you no chance to try and sell the item on eBay, Amazon, etc.
Therefore, I always recommend people to order at least 10 of an item if possible at first. At the very least, this gives you a chance to sell the items on eBay or Amazon. If you import one sample and sell it the very first day on Amazon, you may have simply lucked out. Selling ten is a far better sample size.
How to Ship Your Products from China
If this is your first time ordering from China, it’s often best just to ask your supplier to arrange for shipping and to add the charges to the invoice.
If everything is being shipped via air, then there’s really no surprises. Simply tell your supplier your address. They will likely ship it via DHL, FedEx, or UPS. If your goods are being shipped to the US and are valued at under $800, then there will be no duty charged because of America’s very generous de minimis rules.
Generally speaking, items under 200 lbs or so should go via air courier (e.g., UPS, DHL, and FedEx). Expect to pay anywhere from $6-15 per pound. When the shipment is heavier than this, air freight and sea freight become more cost-effective but also more complicated. Check out our article below.
If you’re shipping your products to Amazon FBA warehouses then check out our article How to Ship Your Goods from China to Amazon FBA.
Why is Shipping from Alibaba and China So Expensive?
Shipping items from China overall can be very expensive due to the distance.
If an item is under 5-10 lbs it can actually be shipped for quite cheap from China but very slowly using something called ePacket.
If your item is heavier then normally you can expect to pay around $10-20 per pound with a minimum of $75 or so.
If you are shipping hundreds of pounds of products it is normally best to ship via something called Air Freight or Sea Freight. See our article How to Ship Your Goods from China via Sea Freight and Air Freight
How to Review Your Shipment for Problems
If you’ve had your order shipped via air, then it should arrive in anywhere from 3-10 business days. If via sea, this will be more like 30 to 45 days. When your shipment arrives, here are some things to inspect, which may be talking points for future orders:
- Quality. Is the product the quality you expect? Use and abuse the product for a bit of time. Does it hold up how it should? If not, remember that you’ve likely received their best quality samples and quality is only expected to be the same or decrease on future orders.
- Packaging: Is the packaging sufficient to ship to your customer? Or was everything lumped into one box and you need to purchase all new shipping boxes? If so, request your items to be boxed on future orders.
- Instructions. Did it come with instructions (if applicable)? If not, does your supplier have instructions? If they don’t, you should start creating or borrowing some and include them with your product.
- Does your item have “Made in China” marked somewhere on the box? If not, you should request this on the next order.
Once you’ve received your order, you should email your supplier to let them know that you received everything but you have not had a chance to review the products yet and let them know that you will contact them shortly to discuss things and to hopefully make another order. There’s no rush to do the above. Just like in dating, playing hard is sometimes a good strategy.
Alternatives to Alibaba
There are several alternatives to Alibaba that exist, although none are anywhere near as exhaustive as Alibaba. Some of these alternatives include:
- 1688: This is the Chinese-only wholesale version of Alibaba for Chinese buyers. Use Google Translate if you don’t know how to speak Chinese.
- Global Sources: Not as exhaustive as Alibaba and has more Hong Kong trading companies. However, the quality of supplier skews higher.
- Aliexpress: If you want a small number of products, Aliexpress is a good option although you’ll pay slightly higher prices.
This covers most of the basics of using Alibaba to find suppliers and products. If you want a more in-depth guide to starting an importing and private label business, I strongly suggest you check out our mega guide on How to Import from China.
Do you think Alibaba is still a good place to find suppliers? Let me know below or share any other questions you have about buying from Alibaba.
Dave Bryant has been importing from China for over 10 years and has started numerous product brands. He sold his multi-million dollar ecommerce business in 2016 and create another 7-figure business within 18 months. He’s also a former Amazon warehouse employee of one week.