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Using Import Records to Find New Suppliers in China for Private Label Products

This past year, I’ve been using a new method to find new Suppliers – using public import records to find Suppliers. I’ve had extremely good success using this method to find high quality Suppliers with reasonable prices and who don’t actively solicit new clients.

What are public import records and how can you use these records to find new Suppliers? And why should you use this method opposed to other methods to find Suppliers?

Related Reading: How to Import from China

Related Podcast: Episode 26: Sourcing Inventory From China and the US, Part Three

How to Find Suppliers Beyond Alibaba

One of the points I consistently try to make to importers is that if you can find a Supplier not advertising on Alibaba, you’ve established a strong competitive advantage in the sourcing of your products. The vast majority of importers only use Alibaba to import, so if your Supplier isn’t advertising there, the chances are your competition won’t be able to source from your Supplier.

From speaking with Suppliers, the most common reasons they cite for not advertising on Alibaba is that it tends to attract a lot of non-serious buyers, the buyers tend to be ‘cheap’, the buyers tend to order small, and the Supplier prefers to keep a smaller number of clients.

Not all Suppliers advertise on Alibaba, in my experience, about 30% of them do not. From speaking with Suppliers, the most common reasons they cite for not advertising on Alibaba is that it tends to attract a lot of non-serious buyers, the buyers tend to be ‘cheap’, the buyers tend to order small, and the Supplier prefers to keep a smaller number of clients.

Can you find your Supplier on Alibaba? If so, so can 99% of other importers.
Can you find your Supplier on Alibaba? If so, so can 99% of other importers.

These non-Alibaba advertising Suppliers typically get their business through Trade Shows, referrals, and direct marketing. Any of these ways are great ways to get in touch with Suppliers but not all importers can make it to China for trade shows or have a network to leverage for referrals. That’s where using public import records comes in.

What Are Public Import Records?

If you’ve ever imported anything, you’re likely familiar with the “Bill of Lading”. This is the document that lists all of the information about your shipment, including your name, your Supplier’s name, and a brief overview of the shipment’s contents.  Now here’s the big shocker- the United States government and many other countries make this information publicly accessible information. If you’ve ever searched for your name or company name just for fun on Google you may have even come across a record of your import.

The information on the Bill of Lading is public information in the U.S.
The information on the Bill of Lading is public information in the U.S.

You’ve probably put the dots together by now and realized these Bill of Ladings and import records are exactly how you can snoop and find new Suppliers.

What You Can and Cannot Get from Import Records

The data you can receive from Import Records is limited only to shipments arriving via boat (so if you’re trying to research a competitor who is shipping their iPhone cases via air, you’re out of luck). However, for the United States, this consists of about 10 million records per year. In other words, there’s a lot of data out there.

Here’s the full list of information that most tools will give you access to:

Country of Export Est. Tax Port of Lading/Unlading
Country of Origin Exams Related Party Status
Discrepancy Types Export Date Special Program Ind.
Entered Value Filer Ultimate Consignee
Entry Date HTS Number/Desc.
Entry Number Liquidation Date
Entry Type Manuf. Id
Est. Duty/Rate Mode of Transport

So what information do you not get access to? There’s a lot, of course, but the most important thing you’re not going to have revealed to you is company website URLs (both for the Supplier and the Importer) and email addresses. Basically, you have to take the name of the Supplier and start googling, trying to find their contact info. Sometimes it’s easy to find and sometimes it’s next to impossible to find, which I’ll address later.

How to Use Import Records to Find New Suppliers

The technique I have been using recently to find new Suppliers is to find a list of all Suppliers my competitors are using. However, I look only at my largest competitors. In the niches my company operates in, these competitors tend to be publicly traded companies but you can pick any large-ish retailer (re: multiple brick and mortar stores). Try to avoid scraping the Supplier list of smaller companies.

Young woman showing stock level to a worker in warehouse on a laptop computer. Warehouse manager with worker verifying stock level on system.

There’s a few reasons why I target only larger companies:

  1. Larger companies tend to have bloated costs and expenses and tend to sell their products at exaggerated prices. Smaller companies like us who have more efficient Supply chains can import directly from their Suppliers, sell at lower prices and still make a healthy margin. By the same token this is also why I don’t like to use the same Suppliers as smaller companies as they tend to have efficient Supply chains and there’s no real room to reduce costs.
  2. Larger companies tend to only work with very professional Suppliers with excellent quality goods and who often are not advertising on Alibaba.

Tools Available to Access Import Records

While the information contained on import records is technically public information for many countries, getting access to it is not necessarily easy. For the United States you have to pay a fee and wait a few weeks to get access to this information which isn’t necessarily nicely organized. This is where third party tools come in.

There’s a few of these tools out there, some paid and free. The free tools, as of this writing, are quite lacking. They are good for finding sporadic information but the big drawback is that they don’t allow you to aggregate information and export it as a CSV or Excel record. This is where you get the real power. If you’re looking up a large retailer like Walmart or Cabelas you will be going through literally thousands of records. It’s impossible to do without aggregating the information.

Most of the paid tools allow you to export raw data, including Import Genius and Panjiva. The free tools such as Port Examiner do not.

If you’re on an absolute shoestring budget starting your import company (re: a few hundred dollars) then, truth be told, you need every last penny for inventory. But if you’re importing more than $2000 or so, even if you use one of these tools for just a month or two and cancel, the $100-200 for a subscription should return itself many times over.

How to Find a Reliable Supplier from Import Records

Once you download your Supplier list, you’re likely going to get a list of dozens or hundreds of Suppliers. What we want to do is find real Suppliers, with easy to find contact information, who are interested in doing business with us. As mentioned before, you will get the names of Suppliers but not their URLs/emails. So the real grunt work comes from Googling the companies’ names and trying to find websites for these companies.

There’s over 1000 Supplier records for Cabelas.

Unfortunately, finding these websites isn’t always easy and even if you do find their website, they’re not always open to doing business with you. You’re going to find three types of Suppliers:

  • Real deal Suppliers in China eager to work with you
  • Real deal Suppliers in China who don’t want to work with you
  • Suppliers who hide their identity behind trading companies, subsidiaries, and other techniques

Addressing the last two types of companies, many companies and Suppliers try to hide their information from prying eyes like ours. They may use Hong Kong trading companies to hide their identity, holding companies, and so on. You’ll be hard pressed to find any information for these companies. There are also some companies who you’ll find great websites for and that show all sorts of importing treasures but unfortunately they have no interest in doing business with smaller companies.

However, all the rest are Suppliers who would love to do business with us. And as I alluded to previously, these are typically Suppliers not advertising on Alibaba, with excellent quality products, and at excellent prices.

My Results

Over the past year or so I’ve found two solid suppliers via some ‘snooping’ of just one major competitor.

The first Supplier manufactures a certain type of ‘case’ (I’m consciously avoiding specifics here) for my competitor. Our cost is $15 and our competitor sells it for over $50. The margins aren’t necessarily amazing (especially after you factor in shipping) but they are strong. Best yet, there is absolutely no one else selling this case besides this one competitor. And this Supplier advertises almost nowhere on the internet (there’s no way I could have found them without Import Genius).

The other Supplier is an absolute home run. They manufacture about 100 different plastic products in our niche.  In addition, they offer dozens of other products I had never even thought of importing at equally as good of prices. When you try and pull up their company website, half the time it is broken, and when it does work it looks like something developed in 1999. If I found their website randomly, I would never ever do business with them. But by looking at their import records, I could see that they have been working with many large companies in North America for years. When we finally did receive a shipment from them, the quality was superb and they did a lot of ‘extras’ for free, like including our logo on the physical product.


If there is one take away from this article, it’s that you should always try and find Suppliers not advertising on Alibaba (they do exist- I promise). It’s not always possible to find such Suppliers, but when you do, you’re more likely to build a long lasting relationship with them and maintain a much less competitive product line with them. Using public import records through a tool like ImportGenius is a great way to find such Suppliers, but there’s other ways as well.

Do you work with any Suppliers not advertising on Alibaba? If so, how did you find these Suppliers? Through referrals, trade shows, public import record tools, or something else? Please comment below.

Dave Bryant

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.


  1. Hello David,

    I really enjoyed your site.I have been a builder/contractor for 35 years. I have been to China many times, I need a change in business. How can you help me?

    Best regards,
    Paul Perejma

    1. Hi Paul,

      I’m not offering any consulting right now so this blog (and the comments) are how I can help you :) There’s a course being offered later in the Spring but the one on one coaching here is still limited.

  2. Hi David,
    Great article, we try to do business as much as possible off the B2B’s such as Alibaba for all the valid reasons you discuss. We are on the ground in China for almost 20 years and the best suppliers come through introductions, networking and so on. Also I must say at times using import genius as you detailed so well. Our very best suppliers have records over 5 years with zero defects, no interest in B2B, it’s a different world and yes their websites are terrible.

    1. Hi John,

      I’m envious that you’re on the ground – it makes everything that much easier. And lol regarding their websites! I think it’s a fact that the worst the website of a supplier, the bigger the company ;)

  3. Hello David,
    Great article! Do you know of any methods for obtaining air waybill info for imports through US customs?

    1. Hi Dan,
      U.S. customs publishes manifest data at every port of entry. So I would think this information would also be available (at least for formal entries, re: not entries under $800). In your experience, is it not?

  4. Did you reach out to these suppliers with mandarin or standard English is ok? Is there an advantage to have a translator who speaks Mandarin? In general, how much of an advantage would a buyer who prioritizes Mandarin have?

    1. Hi Randy, I typically use English. IMO chinese speakers do not necessarily have any particular advantage aside from perhaps having communication being a little bit clearer.

  5. Hey David, thanks for this insightful article. Are there services that will do a one-time import search on your behalf so you don’t have to pay the hefty monthly fees? As I’m only looking for one specific import of record.

  6. Thanks for the info David. In the example of the “absolute home run” supplier, how did you get a look at all of their products? Was it on their website on the occasion that it was working correctly or did you get a catalog from them upon contact?

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