If you’ve ever been trying to source products from China, you’ve almost certainly used Alibaba. Truth be told, Alibaba is the Amazon of Chinese suppliers. But much like you use Amazon for almost everything but not everything, the same is true for Alibaba. It works most of the time, but not all of the time.
In this post we’ll reveal some of the places to look for products to import from China outside of Alibaba.
The Pros and Cons of Alibaba
I don’t intend for this post to be a dogging of Alibaba as it is going to be a critical tool for almost any importer. However, there are advantages, and disadvantages, to using Alibaba.
- Relatively safe
- Organized and relatively up to date supplier information
- Everyone uses Alibaba (including your competitors)
- Abundance of low value-add trading companies
- Not necessarily great for smaller niches
The biggest advantage of Alibaba is the sheer selection of suppliers. If Chinese suppliers are actively looking for foreign clients then there’s a very good chance they’re on Alibaba. Chinese suppliers themselves even use Alibaba to find other suppliers. Alibaba is also probably the most organized of all platforms, although that isn’t necessarily saying a lot. Their information is also the most up-to-date of all platforms, which isn’t, again, necessarily saying a lot.
The big disadvantage of Alibaba is that everyone uses Alibaba, including your competitors. If you find a home run product on Alibaba and get some sales traction on Amazon or elsewhere, as soon as anyone gets a sniff of this they’ll seek out your exact supplier for your exact product. The goldmine of importing from China is finding a supplier with quality products who doesn’t advertise on Alibaba. I call such suppliers Golden Suppliers (I deliberate play on Alibaba’s Gold Suppliers).
While Alibaba does have depth of all types of suppliers, there’s an abundance of trading companies who don’t add significant value-add. Trading companies are not bad; trading companies who don’t offer any additional value are bad.
Finally, there’s one sad irony when looking for Chinese suppliers–the best ones normally aren’t actively recruiting new clients and thus aren’t on Alibaba. They’re so overwhelmed with their current demand they don’t have time to mess with smaller buyers (which Alibaba attracts a lot of).
Trade shows are by far my favorite way to find new suppliers for a few reasons:
- You can find suppliers not advertising on Alibaba
- You can find higher quality suppliers who don’t necessarily want lower quality Alibaba buyers
- You can build immediate rapport and relationship
- You can brain storm for new products
The biggest advantage to trade shows is that you can find Golden Suppliers–suppliers not advertising on Alibaba. The easiest way to find these suppliers is by visiting trade shows. When you visit trade shows you also get the added benefit that you can immediately build a relationship, rapport, and trust with suppliers. Many suppliers who you meet at trade shows have either small minimum order quantities or no minimum order quantities because they believe that buyers here are more serious and committed.
Most importers know of the Canton Fair that happens twice a year. The Canton Fair is an excellent way to get your feet wet into the world of importing but it has one major drawback: it’s a one size fits all show for every niche. If you’re in a narrow niche, which most importers should be for ultimate success, the Canton Fair will often have a limited selection for your niche. This is why I highly recommend trying to find an industry specific trade show using a website like ChinaExhibition.com.
The big downside to visiting trade shows is that you actually have to visit China. China is an increasingly easier place to visit for Westerners and all serious importers should try to make a regular visit to China (ideally make it an annual visit). Many trade shows in China will actually pay for your hotel when you visit and some will even give you cold hard cash (part of pumping their attendee numbers which helps them sell booths).
Pro Tip: If you can’t visit China, browse the Exhibitor List of a trade show through their website. Email any prospective suppliers and tell them that you found them through XYZ Trade Show. The suppliers will think that you attended the trade show and will be much more open to working with you. You can also find suppliers not advertising on Alibaba this way. Warning, many Chinese suppliers have terrible websites and their websites may not be indicative of their actual product selection or quality.
Using Import Records
You may know that you can see exactly what nearly any company in the United States is importing and from whom. If you don’t already know this, then this will probably blow your mind. If you find a product on Amazon or other sales channel and wonder where that company buys their products from, you can easily find out. You can see our complete guide to using Import Records but here is a brief synopsis.
“The goldmine of importing from China is finding a supplier with quality products who doesn’t advertise on Alibaba.”
In America, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, imports from companies are public information. This information is limited to what’s available on the bills of lading such as product descriptions, importer name, supplier name, etc. but this is an abundance of information to seriously snoop on your competitors. There are a number of free services, with Port Examiner being the most popular, but they have incomplete information and clunky interfaces. To really harness the power of import records you will need to use a paid service like Panjiva or Import Genius.
The best part about using Import Records to find suppliers is than you can often find Golden suppliers this way. The downside to using Import Records is that it is mostly restricted to the United States and sophisticated importers can hide their import records in a variety of ways.
Global Sources is one of the first Chinese supplier directories and has been around since 1970 when China was much more closed. Think of Global Sources as the Western friendly, sweet and sour pork version of Alibaba (Alibaba, through and through, is a very Chinese-centric company). Over the last couple of years we’ve built close relationships with several people at Global Sources including Meghla Bhardwaj and Cameron Walker who have been frequent guests on the podcast (their podcasts offer incredible insight into sourcing from China). You don’t get that closeness and intimacy behind Jack Ma’s Alibaba.
Global Sources is much more focused than Alibaba in a few different categories, most importantly electronics. The selection on Global Sources tends to be much more curated. There is such a wide spectrum of quality when it comes to electronics and Global Sources tends to be much more consistent and predictable in terms of quality of electronics provided by suppliers. If you’re sourcing nichier items like boating products or tactical products you can probably start your online searches on Alibaba. If you’re looking at electronics or electronics accessories though, Global Sources should definitely be part of your search.
Where Global Sources really shines though is their integration of trade shows, conferences, and supplier directory. The Global Sources Electronics show, held twice a year around Canton Fair, is the CES of China and the Global Sources Summit (held concurrently with their trade shows) is now the ecommerce conference in Asia. Whenever I’m visiting the Canton Fair, I now make a visit to the Global Sources trade shows/summit the start of my trip.
Yiwu Wholesale Market
The Yiwu Wholesale market is a giant wholesale market with thousands of shops located in Yiwu, a city a couple hours south of Shanghai by bullet train. I did a complete guide to the Yiwu Market that you can access here.
Yiwu is a fascinating place–it’s literally like a 24/7 Canton Fair. It is catered for foreign buyers and has nearly every single commodity type product imaginable from Christmas supplies to office stationery.
The biggest problem with Yiwu is that it consists largely of very cheap, low quality items and it does not have many products for smaller niches. As limited as the Canton Fair is for smaller niches, Yiwu is even more limited. I jokingly sometimes refer to Yiwu as the largest Dollar Store in the world as that epitomizes the range and quality of products you will find there.
If you are in the Shanghai area I definitely recommend visiting Yiwu for one night to check it out but it does probably not warrant being the basis of a sourcing trip.
Other Places to Find Suppliers
Along with the places listed here, there are a few other places to find suppliers.
The easiest option is often to ask your current suppliers. Suppliers in China are much better connected with other factories than we ever can be and they can often be invaluable in sourcing hard to find products. They’ll take a commission on the products, but normally it’s negligible.
Chinese suppliers often use a website called www.1688.com for buying wholesale items. This website often is focused on smaller parts and accessories (i.e. components of larger parts) and it’s all in Chinese. However, with the help of Google Translate you can often find some suppliers and products you couldn’t find on Alibaba.
Finally, there are countless sourcing agents in America, Canada, and other countries that can help you source products in China. My very first supplier was a Chinese businessman in Vancouver for some boat anchors. There are larger sourcing agents (who normally specialize in particular goods) and smaller ones like the one I dealt with. The big advantage with them is that you reduce all the risk and uncertainty of what happens to your products in between China and the destination as you often pay cash on delivery.
Alibaba is still the place to source products but it is not the only place and often not the best place. The things that make Alibaba so successful, specifically it’s ease of use and convenience, are also it’s biggest downside as it’s nearly impossible to keep competitors from poaching your products very quickly.
Do you have any other places you source products from? Do you have any questions about the places mentioned here? If so, post your questions and comments below.
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.