Category Archives: Sourcing

Doing Business in Greater China: What do Foreign Businesspeople Expect?

Earlier this year I taught a seminar to a group of Taiwanese executives. The trainees were an excellent group, full of energy and ideas. During the Q & A session, one of the attendees asked “What do foreign businesspeople expect from their local suppliers and customers?”

Wow, what an excellent question.

My answer? “If they are sourcing, they expect to find what they need at a price lower than they would have to pay at home and at the same or better quality. If they are on a sales trip, they hope to figure out the local distribution system and see if they can make a profit selling locally.

But that wasn’t the most important thing the audience needed to know. I added something.

I told them that they need to educate their clients and customers, to help them understand how business is done locally, because there are such vast differences between West and East. I told them they should do this honestly, without selfish concern for their own position, but with the aim of creating a relationship that is beneficial to both sides (and no, nobody smirked–this was a great group of people who understand long-term partnerships). One example I gave was the current trend in the Taiwan consumer market toward unique and elegant packaging for products priced in the NT$100-200 range (about US$3-6). Many foreign businesspeople cannot understand how a finely packaged product could sell for US$10 in their home market, but must be priced at half of that in Taiwan, Hong Kong or China. They don’t understand that many white collar workers in these countries have only US$100-300 a month in disposable income (after housing, utilities, car, medical, and educational expenses) and so will travel an extra four bus stops to find something priced only US$0.50 cheaper at another store.

As far as sourcing goes, there are some honest suppliers out there who have chosen a long-term, relationship-building strategy over a short-term, screw the customer strategy, but they are still in the minority in China, less so in Hong Kong and Taiwan. That is why a company doing business in Greater China needs to do its research and have a number of checks and balances in place. Sourcing in Greater China can be a huge boon to a business, and can also be a minefield that results in lost limbs and profit. Plan on spending weeks overseas just to get all of the details worked out. Multiple trips, help from consultants, constant quality checks are a necessity for a prudent businessperson, but if you can get a steady supply of finished goods at half the price you’re paying now, it is well worth the effort.

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US Consumer Concerns About Chinese Food Safety

This is too juicy to pass up writing about. Trader Joe’s, a very successful retail food chain based in California, has pulled all Chinese-made food products from its shelves.

Click here for a brief news item from AFP: US store chain cuts sales of food from China

From the article:

US grocery chain Trader Joe’s said Monday it would stop selling food imported from China due to customers’ concerns about the products’ safety.

“Our customers have voiced concerns about products from this region and we have listened,” Trader Joe’s spokeswoman Alison Mochizuki said in a statement.

“All single ingredient food items sourced from mainland China sre scheduled to be out of our stores by April 1,” she said.

What this means is that (1) if an ingredient for a food product is sourced from China, that food product may still be sold in Trader Joe’s and (2) Trader Joe’s may eventually sell foods that are made entirely in China sometime in the future.

This is the very definition of “growing pains,” folks. The same sort of process occurred in Taiwan, thirty or forty years ago. Here’s how it works:

Stage One: A developing country offers competitive advantages in labor costs and manufacturing speed. Many first world countries switch their manufacturing to this country.

Stage Two: The developing country’s factory owners achieve some success, and then through a combination of penny-pinching greed, lack of foresight and vision, and general lack of understanding of what the foreign market demands, start sending product with quality problems. In the case of products like foods, toys, and tires, this is downright dangerous. Consumers in the first world country react, the media plays up the problems, and the flow of orders starts to dry up as buyers look elsewhere, maybe paying a bit more.

Stage Three: The government of the developing country realizes that if something isn’t done to reign in these factory bosses, the country’s export manufacturing business is going to go to hell in a handbasket. They clamp down on dangerous practices, enforcing compliance with safety regulations.

Stage Four: The developing country recovers its export market, and continues to develop its technology and safety measures.

The interesting question here is, with enforcement in China so haphazard and hit-and-miss, will China successfully get through Stage Three to Stage Four? Several efforts have already been made to crack down on abusers, but in China, where the emperor is far away, the subjects often do what they want.

Bottom Line: If you are sourcing your products from China, you’d damned well better be on the ground, or hire someone trustworthy to be on the ground, watching your suppliers like a hawk. There are many fantastic suppliers in China, but many are still learning how to deal with your standards.

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Factories in Taiwan (and China)

I saw this news item about factory closings in Taiwan a few days ago. From the article:

Statistics compiled by the Ministry of Economics Ministry show that in the first 10 months of this year, 2,419 factories closed down — a 60 percent increase over the same period of 2006.

These factories are closing because (1) the businesses they are in are unable to compete with factories in China, Vietnam, Thailand and (2) some of the bosses are closing up shop to move their operations to China.

I don’t know how many of these factories fall into the second category, but I do know that Taiwan’s economy, like the economies of several other developed nations, continues to transform itself from a manufacturing-oriented economy to a high-tech and services oriented economy.

If you’re thinking of sourcing in greater China, my advice is this: Some items are better sourced in Taiwan; some are better sourced in China. You’d do well to check with a consultant before you embark on a sourcing mission to either place. There are several factors to consider, and potential advantages and disadvantages to both places.

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