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Chasing China

A look at directly importing media from overseas.

We all think about it. Some of us know someone who does it. Others have only heard distant, second-hand rumors of someone who has done it. I’m talking, of course, about directly importing material from overseas-China, specifically.

Unless you’re considering distributing the product or you’re a large consumer of vinyl, pressure-sensitive vinyl, or other PVC-based materials, direct importing may not be for you. But as someone who has personally taken up the "China challenge," I can tell you that this can be done and it does have its benefits.

Building a relationship

My first experience was attending the Sign China tradeshow in Guangzhou, China. Let me set the scene for you: Picture very crowded aisles with prints scattered all over the floor. There are hundreds of vendors on three floors, all targeting different sign products-digital printing on the first floor, LED on the second, and CNC and plasma cutters on the top floor. There is no ventilation and solvent levels are high. Venture into the plasma cutting room and be prepared to watch out for the mystery green and blue gases.

Many of the booths are resellers or brokers of vinyl products, so it took my translator and me more than two days to find the vendors I was looking for: the actual manufacturers. Yes, dealing with a broker is an easier option, but going direct to the factory gets you a better discount. Still, you have to keep in mind that working with a Chinese manufacturer is more complicated than simply signing a contract with a US supplier. Because your "relationship" with the manufacturer is very important, it must be built over time via e-mails, phone calls, dinner, or personal visits. A good working relationship will enable you to negotiate better pricing and turnaround times.

Price negotiations themselves also can prove to be a long ordeal, especially if you throw in a customized product. I typically buy three to four different products or roll lengths, but just negotiating that takes many hours. One big difference to be aware of: There is no such thing as credit. You pay usually 30 to 50 percent up front and the remaining balance prior to the container being packaged. If you are lucky, you have found a factory that will assist you with shipping and export taxes for the material; otherwise you have to hire someone in China to take care of those aspects and that comes at an additional cost.

Now you can buy just about any kind of media if you look hard enough, or if you don’t have the time you can find a sign broker who will sell you everything and take care of shipping for you. Some of the most popular items are 3- and 5-meter vinyl and mesh, PSV, inks, poster paper-typically products that you use in out-of-home media. More difficult to find are holographic or reflective vinyls, textured wallpapers and textiles, and the like; you just have to ask the right people, and have a good translator who is on your side and can tell you if the sellers are being honest or not.

Once your price has been finalized, you are typically back to the airport or off for a tour of their facility. I choose the latter and am always impressed with the abundance of equipment and how the entire process works. I find that touring the company’s facility always furthers that relationship. Some customers even choose to fly back into China to watch or QC the production of their vinyl material as it’s being made. Instead, I have the company send me a swatch of the material prior to shipping; it comes FedEx and is much cheaper than a flight.

Searching for a translator

As I stated earlier, sourcing directly from China is not for everyone because you need to buy multiple containers to really make it worth your while (and, of course, the vinyl has a life span of only 6 to 12 months so you can’t just buy it and sit on it for 2 years). For reference, my company is planning on placing a few orders this year alone, each consisting of more than 270 rolls of vinyl.

Some other quick tips I’ve picked up via my experiences:

* Finding the right translator is key. After all, you’re spending more than eight hours a day with the person and trusting him to not only translate but to interpret actions and reactions and relay that information to you. Your translator can also help you avoid mistakes that might seriously embarrass you. I found my translator through the list published on the tradeshow website. The search process is kind of hit-or-miss, but if you don’t like your translator you can contact the company and usually get a new one the next day (ask for their qualifications in advance).

* You do need a visa to visit China, but to obtain one all you need is a plane ticket, passport, and a letter inviting you to the show, or a letter from your company stating your intentions while in China. Send off the paperwork and your passport with a fee, and the visa can be back in your hands in as fast as 48 hours.

* I purchase all my items FOB my loading dock, so my exporter hires someone who takes care of all of this. You should expect an import tax though; this tax depends on how much and what materials you purchase-as well how you categorize it, or how the Chinese categorize it.

* While I attended Sign China (www.signchina.-gz.com) in late February, China hosts other sign and related expositions as well, including a big show in Shanghai. But if you think the solvent levels in the air are bad at the Guangzhou event, the Shanghai event blows it away-there are actually people who use respirators at the show because the Shanghai expo center is crammed with ink, media, and printer manufacturers.

The why of buying direct

Let’s face it, my company-and others like me-only do this to save money, it’s not because I enjoy 17-hour flights and bad airplane food. Buying direct from the manufacturer adds up to savings of 50 percent on some items, 45 percent on others, after tax and freight are taken into consideration. The downside is you have to have the money up front, there are no terms, and it takes 4 to 5 weeks to get to you, if it doesn’t get tied up in customs. Buying direct makes sense for my company-we enjoy working with the Chinese and trust those that we’ve worked with. I’ve heard stories to the contrary, but that hasn’t been my experience.

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