Steve Chou and his wife Jennifer started Bumble Bee Linens, a store focused on linens for special occasions like weddings, in 2007 after learning they were about to become parents. Steve and Jennifer source their products primarily from China and within just a year, they were able to replace Jennifer’s 6 figure income from Bumble Bee Linens. Today, they also run a website, MyWifeQuitHerJob.com which helps others to start selling their products online. It’s one of the best resources available for importers hoping to sell their products online.
What was the first product you imported for Bumble Bee Linens and how big was your first order?
We imported handkerchiefs and I would say we imported twenty dozen of them.
Our story is a little bit funny because we had gotten these for our own wedding and we’d only needed 3-6 of them. So we used these 3 to 6 of them for our own wedding and we ended up with all these handkerchiefs and thought “How are we going to get rid of these things?” So we ended up listing them on eBay in different lot sizes. And they actually all sold out within about a week. We didn’t start to sell in a store at this point. It wasn’t until later that my wife became pregnant with our first child that we thought about starting a business and got in touch with our Supplier again. On the next order, we ordered about $1000-2000 worth of a wide variety of items, without actually testing them.
How did you find your first supplier?
Our first Supplier we found through Google and our subsequent Chinese Suppliers we found through the Canton Fair. However, we’ve also started working with Suppliers throughout the world including India and Eastern Europe.
Do you still work with that first Suppler?
We do actually! We use him more as an emergency supplier though. He keeps a lot of product in stock so when we need products quickly we have him air ship us the items.
How often do you go to China?
We try to go to every two years. We normally only go if we’re looking for new products or we want to see a vendor’s new array of products.
Do you find it’s still important to build long lasting relationships with Suppliers in China? Or have things changed more to being more transactional than anything?
I think long term relationships are still huge. I can tell you a story- recently about 6 months ago, our vendor actually contacted us and let us know that someone had contacted him and wanted to sell one of the products we sell in our store. He gave us a heads up and asked us “Do you mind if we sell to this company? Do you care?” We let him know, “We understand that if you need to make the money then you can go ahead and sell to them, but we prefer if you didn’t.” Ultimately, he ended up telling them that we were an exclusive customer and didn’t sell to them. So I do think relationships are very important when dealing with Suppliers.
One of the things you detail in Start An Online Profitable Store is getting a premium price for your products. If someone is selling an off-the-shelf product do you have one tip importers could use to market their product to get premium prices?
One of the things we try to do is find a way to find some unique way to present the product to make our products stand out. I’ll give you an example. We have a lot of competitors who sell handkerchiefs. But we sort of rebrand them in different ways.We have handkerchiefs dedicated for weddings, dedicated for funerals, dedicated for sororities, and so on. And by simply reframing products in the exact same light we’re able to charge a lot more for them. We don’t play the price game. Another thing we’ve found as well is that when we price a product too low, the customers tend to complain more about the product.
Have you had any quality nightmare stories importing from China?
We’ve had lots but mostly early on. We’ve gotten sent products where we ordered a sample, and the sample looked good, but when it came time to production we got sent completely different fabric. We’ve had fabric come crunchy and we’ve had fabric that disintegrates in the wash. So the thing with samples that we’ve learned over time is that they simply give a cut out of fabric from a piece of material they have lying around. But when it comes to production, they’re purchasing whole new rolls of fabric, so it’s very important that you take a sample from the roll of fabric they are actually producing from.
How do you deal with problems like these?
Well here’s a funny story. On one of the first orders we made with a Supplier it was absolutely unsellable. We let our Supplier know this and he was very apologetic and offered us discounts on what we had gotten which was unacceptable because it was unsellable. He then suggested we send it back for a refund which also wasn’t acceptable because it was really expensive to send back. We went back and forth like this and it turns out he actually had like a sister’s cousin’s husband visiting the San Francisco area and he picked up the product from us and took it back to China. That’s actually the only time we’ve had to deal with a return and now we’re just really anal about receiving samples.
Do you have any handy apps, tools, or blogs that you use or read for anything related to importing from China?
We’ve used Import Genius and Panjiva to research our competitors and find out what suppliers they’re using but that’s about it when it comes to importing.