How to Request a Sample from China Using a Supplier on Alibaba

Alibaba is the largest online commerce company in China. How can global businesses purchase Alibaba samples safely and efficiently?

Alibaba is China’s, and by some measures, the world’s largest online commerce business. It’s three main sites (Taobao, Tmall and Alibaba.com) are the largest C2C, B2C, and B2B retailers in the world. Since 2015, Alibaba’s online sales have surpassed the combined total of every American retailer, including behemoths like Amazon, Walmart, and Ebay.

“Made in China” is no longer synonymous with “low quality.” Chinese manufacturers and suppliers provide high quality products at prices acceptable to small and medium sized businesses (SMBs), allowing them to compete with large multinationals. Alibaba is home to thousands of suppliers offering literally millions of products. “White label” products, or goods that can be easily printed with the purchaser’s logo, are especially popular on Alibaba. White label goods allow international SMBs to market themselves and their brand while still remaining profitable.

Alibaba.com is the B2B site associated with Alibaba Group. For many small businesses, the daunting task of finding a supplier in China has been made significantly easier with Alibaba.

Alibaba is an online marketplace that helps connect Chinese manufacturers with overseas buyers. You can order thousands of products with the click of a button, including everything from finished manufactured products to raw materials and everything in between. Alibaba’s popularity is helping small businesses around the globe source materials and products, and compete with larger and more established manufacturers.

But,as with any online purchases, there are few steps to take to protect yourself and your business while ensuring you’re getting a high quality product when you purchase from Alibaba. Don’t be fooled, websites like eBay, Etsy, and other online retailers suffer from the same issue. But, with diligence and a keen eye, Alibaba can be one of the most powerful tools at a business owner’s disposal.

What to Know Before Purchasing on Alibaba

As anyone familiar with online shopping can tell you, sometimes images on a screen don’t live up to buyer’s expectations. It’s especially important to carefully screen for quality when purchasing supplies for commercial transactions. You don’t want to accidentally distribute fraudulent or knockoff products. Refunds, damage to your reputation with customers, and legal consequences such as lawsuits can ruin companies involved with counterfeit products.

While Alibaba is largely populated by reputable sellers, it also experiences its share of fakes and rip-offs. Like most online marketplaces, Alibaba continually removes sellers of unauthorized or knock-off products, however fraudsters can slip through the cracks. For this reason, it’s essential to have proper due diligence before settling on an Alibaba supplier.

Here are a few red flags to watch out for when evaluating Alibaba sellers:

  • If the price is too good to be true, it probably is. Watch out for steep discounts and suspiciously low prices, as they are more likely to be counterfeit.
  • If a supplier is offering discounts or lower prices for orders paid in full, be careful. Anyone searching to be fully paid upfront (before the products are received) should be met with a healthy dose of suspicion.
  • Ask to see your supplier’s certifications. While Alibaba doesn’t guarantee every seller on their marketplace, some accounts have an additional level of verification. An “Assessed Supplier” offers the most security, as they have been inspected and approved by an independent third party (more about those below). Alibaba also offers two other tiers of protection, which ensure the supplier is a legitimate business with manufacturing facilities in mainland China. Sellers with a Gold Supplier logo beside their name have paid for premium placement, enhanced advertising, and additional inspections, making them an extremely safe choice for overseas buyers.

The Alibaba Gold Supplier logo

Here are a few ‘green lights’ to look for when evaluating Alibaba sellers

Of course, many Alibaba sellers are legitimate businesses who can provide your SMB with quality products and supplies. Here are a few signals that a potential Alibaba seller is a reputable and safe choice:

  • Alibaba itself provides a tiered system of classifications for reputable sellers.
    • A&V Checked is the bottom tier of verification for Alibaba sellers. According to Alibaba protection services, “A&V Checked suppliers are Gold Suppliers who have passed authentication and verification inspection by Alibaba.com as well as a third-party verification company. All legal business licenses and contact persons are verified for those who have been A&V Checked.”

A&V Checked logo from Alibaba

  • The second tier of verification is called Onsite Check. Alibaba states that “Onsite Check is a verification process for China Gold Suppliers. The supplier’s company’s premises are checked by Alibaba.com’s staff to ensure onsite operations exist there. The suppliers’ legal status and other related information are then confirmed by a third-party verification agency.” Onsite Checks are required for all suppliers located in Mainland China.

Onsite Check logo from Alibaba

  • For further protection, look for an Assessed Supplier. Alibaba states that “Assessed Supplier is an Alibaba.com service providing you with fully independent and impartial third-party verification of your prospective suppliers. We commission several agencies based on their international reputation and proven credibility to test the claims made by suppliers. For buyers, this means that instinct and trust are based only on concrete evidence. Assessed Supplier includes Assessment Reports Verified Videos and Verified Main Products.”

The Assessed Supplier logo from Alibaba

  • Beyond a supplier’s official certification, potential buyers should investigate the manufacturer’s reputation. Searching the company name and “reviews” online is a good place to start, however you may want to dive deeper into company reviews and sales history. Ask the supplier if they have any former or current customers willing to chat with you about their experience. Happy, satisfied customers are a good sign that a supplier is committed to quality.
  • Ask the seller to provide their Alibaba minisite address. Then, compare their posted information on Alibaba with information posted elsewhere on the web. Reputable sellers will have consistent contact information posted on Alibaba as well as other websites like company sites, Ebay, or Amazon.
  • Another key factor to look for in a quality Alibaba supplier is their company classification. Not all vendors on Alibaba are created equally or operate in the same way: suppliers can be classified as a manufacturer, a wholesaler, a dropshipper, or an importing agent.
    • A manufacturer is a company that produces items for use or resale. The majority of suppliers on Alibaba are manufacturers, meaning they directly manufacturer or produce their products themselves. Because they are the original creator of the products, manufacturers can offer incredibly low prices on items. However, the downside of this is that manufacturer’s low prices are profitable due to the high number of items they produce. They can make things cheaply, because they make a lot of things. Therefore, their minimum order quantities, or the minimum number of items you can buy in one shipment, is often very high. While not all manufacturers deal directly with retailers, some will, so don’t count them out without first doing your research.
    • A wholesaler is an intermediary agent that purchases items in bulk and resells them to retailers. Wholesalers don’t require retailers to buy in bulk, however they typically can reduce the price per item when dealing with large orders. In other words, the more you buy, the more you save.
    • A dropshipper follows a different business model. With dropshipping, there is no volume purchasing; items are purchased one at a time. This means the per item price is higher than if you purchase in bulk. However, the retailer doesn’t have to worry about holding inventory, shipping, or packing. Some dropshippers even take care of customer service and returns for the retailer. Here’s how dropshipping works:
      • First, the customer purchases an item from your retail store.
      • Next, the order is forwarded to your supplier. You then pay wholesale price for the item.
      • Finally, the supplier ships the item directly to the customer under your company name.
    • An importing agent acts as a middleman between suppliers and buyers to bring customers and clients together and facilitate deals. Importing agents are unique from dropshippers, wholesalers, and manufacturers; they do not ship, produce, or sell any goods themselves. There are two types of importing agents:
      • Traditional import agents are based in the country where the product will be sold, and represent the buyers. Traditional export agents work in the country where the product is produced, and represents the manufacturer or wholesaler.
      • Brokers are independent agents who bring buyers and sellers together. They do not represent either party in the deal, rather they are hired to facilitate non-traditional, one-of-a-kind, or nonrecurring deals.
  • A final key criterion to consider when evaluating suppliers is their product catalog. Do they specialize in a particular type of item, or do they sell a wide variety of products? A supplier with a narrowly focused product catalog is likely to be an expert in that type of product and have experience delivering quality items in that category.

Once you’ve settled on a supplier, it’s time to procure a sample product. When you purchase from Alibaba, a major concern is product quality. A practical way to control this is to request a product sample from your Alibaba supplier in China.

Specifying Details When Asking for a Sample on Alibaba

There are several hundred languages spoken across China. Mandarin, known in China as Putonghua, is the official language of Mainland China. 71% of the Chinese population speaks Mandarin Chinese, but other languages such as Cantonese, Mongolian, and Tibetan also have official status. If you choose to use the services of a translator, be sure to find an individual with experience in the regional dialects of where your supplier is located.

English is also commonly spoken in China, and is taught in primary schools. It’s considered the language of business, and many negotiations are conducted in English. While around 10 million Chinese citizens speak English, in a country of 1.3 billion, that is less than 1 in 10 people. Therefore, you shouldn’t assume your business partners will be fluent in English. In Hong Kong, English is an official language, and is more prevalent. About half of the population speaks English in Hong Kong.

Regardless of the language you choose to speak, communication styles differ around the world, especially in China and the US. Because of these cultural differences, it’s necessary to be extremely specific when requesting a sample from your supplier. For more on these cultural differences and best practices when doing business in China and around the globe, check out our guide.

Details specified on the phone or by email are not always adhered to by the supplier. This is often due to the fact that the chain of command in factories is not always direct. There may be two or more people who pass along your instructions before they get to the person who’s actually making the sample. In between, information can get confused or lost. There is a potential that the person creating the sample may receive different instructions than what you relayed. To prevent this, ask to speak directly to the product manager or line manager of the factory. Whenever possible, avoid unnecessary middlemen, as they can make already difficult cross cultural communication even more needlessly difficult.

After each email or telephone chat, you should follow up with written detail as to how you want the sample produced. Never assume that just because you stated something on the phone that your partner remembers. Your invoice should be as detailed as possible, including all technical specifications, amounts, payment schedules, and any other information that you and your supplier have agreed upon. Having specific details previously discussed in writing will help strengthen your position should you have to build a legal case against your supplier.

When providing instructions for your sample from Alibaba, you should include the following bullet points:

  • The address you want the sample sent to, including country, state, region, and all other location codes. Be sure to include your international mailing address, not just domestic, to ensure products arrive at the right place and on time.
  • Specify that the sample be labeled “sample: of no commercial value.” This will save you from being charged duty for the package when it is imported to your home country.
  • Specifics about the product that contain as much detail as possible. You could even include a diagram. No detail is too small: for example, one small business ordered a sample of a plush snowman toy and it came with carrot eyes. Be aware that what you think of as obvious, may not be. Take the time to be specific.
  • Many of the manufacturers on Alibaba will agree to test the product before sending it to you, so feel free to ask.
  • Ask your supplier in China to include a model number and company name tag so you don’t get their samples confused with other samples you may be ordering.
  • An indication that the sample needs to be a working sample as it will undergo tests once it arrives. (While you may be planning minimal testing, specifying that you need a working sample will help ensure you’re getting a high quality sample).

Some other tips on clear communication with your Alibaba supplier in China:

  • Every reputable manufacturer on Alibaba will be used to working with clear deadlines and should be able to communicate a time frame for samples. Make sure you ask for their process and timeframe, that way you’ll know when you can ask for changes and when it should be on its way to you.
  • Include diagrams and drawings of what you expect the sample to look like.
  • If you’re worried that there may be confusion, ask your supplier to confirm the specs they’re using to create your sample. You should be able to tell quite quickly if they’ve understood what you’re asking for. Remember that imperial measurements (pounds, inches, etc.) are only used in the United States. Convert to global measurements like the metric system (centimetres, litres, and grams) when doing business with international partners.
  • Ask to do a video chat with your supplier once the sample is completed so you can see what it looks like before it is shipped. Perhaps modifications can be made before shipping which would save both you and your supplier in China money.

Before you sign off on the pre-production sample from Alibaba

  • Ask how the product will differ from the sample in mass production. Sometimes the same material is not available in small quantities for a sample. Many of the manufacturers in China produce tens of thousands of each product, so a one-off sample will most likely have at least a few differences. Sometimes the sample is handmade by the supplier, or made on a different machine than will be used for mass production.
  • Remember that the invoice is very important in China, and that any details or variations from the sample you expect the product to have should be specified there. The invoice is not only for your supplier, but also to protect you: it acts as a legal document that proves what precisely you ordered, and how much. Should your order not meet those specifications, a clear invoice will strengthen your legal case.
  • To add another layer of protection to your order, consider using Alibaba.com’s Inspection Service. This service allows buyers to purchase third party inspection services from professional independent inspection companies. They can visit any facility located in mainland China (not Hong Kong) to provide buyers with detailed reports, including pictures. Initial production inspections, during production inspections, final random inspections, container loading checks, factory audits, and other ad hoc services are available as specified by inspectors.

Paying for your Sample from Alibaba:

  • There is usually no way around paying for your sample product from Alibaba. However, here are a few tips that may help reduce the cost of ordering a sample or even getting one for free:
  • Explain that if the sample meets your requirements you will place a large order. Many manufacturers on Alibaba will agree to subtract the sample costs out of your first order.
  • State that you expect to do business exclusively with this supplier in China. This is part of having good guanxi, or relationships, with your supplier. Good guanxi is essential when doing business in China, as their culture highly values respectful business relationships.
  • Ask your supplier from Alibaba to add the sample cost to your official order. This way if you decide to order from another supplier you will save the sample cost.
  • Offer to split the costs with your supplier in China.

Buying from Alibaba

Once you’ve found your supplier, ordered your sample, and verified the quality, it’s time to make the leap and actually buy from Alibaba. After so much build up, it’s surprisingly easy to purchase your order from Alibaba. There are a variety of ways to contact your chosen supplier to place an order:

  • Click the “Contact Supplier” button on a product detail page to send an inquiry directly to the supplier.
  • Click the “Chat Now” button to chat with the supplier in real time.
  • Contact the supplier by phone using the number listed in the “Contact Details” section of the supplier’s minisite on Alibaba.com.
  • Additionally, some ready-to-ship products can be purchased directly from Alibaba.com using the Shopping Cart feature. Simply click “Add to Cart” on eligible products on the product’s detail page to add it to your cart. Then, select “Proceed With This Supplier” to place your order and complete the checkout process.

When buying from Alibaba, keep in mind that all of the suppliers are located in Asia. That means longer than usual shipping times if you are used to ordering from North America or Europe. Plan to wait a little longer, or budget to spend a little more for quicker shipping when buying from Alibaba. Since suppliers on Alibaba offer extremely competitive prices, it can be worth your while to purchase faster shipping when buying from Alibaba. However, no matter how much you pay for shipping, your Alibaba purchases will need to pass through the appropriate customs offices of the supplier’s home country as well as the country in which the goods will be sold. Contact your specific country’s custom office to determine if there are any special considerations you need to make when importing products from Alibaba suppliers located in Asia.

Finalizing your Purchase from Alibaba

Once you’ve settled on a price for the sample from Alibaba, it is (unfortunately) time to pay for it.

Sending funds abroad can be difficult, time consuming, and expensive. Wire transfer fees add up quickly. They can also be lost, misrouted, or mistakenly sent to the wrong account if even a single digit is wrong. If your international wire transfer were to end up in the hands (or account) of criminals or groups engaged in illegal activity, you could be held responsible under anti-money laundering laws.

The easiest, fastest, and completely secure way to make a wire transfer to China (and 100 other countries worldwide) is to use Veem.

Our relationship-based payment network ensures both you and your international business partners are connected and informed throughout the process. We personally onboard and verify your business partners, preventing mistakes before they happen. Since each party is responsible for entering and maintaining the accuracy of their own banking information on the Veem network, there is no need to share sensitive banking details like account numbers with international business partners.

Avoid awkward “where is my money” phone calls with Veem’s end-to-end payment tracker. Bring transparency to your business payments by always knowing where your funds are and when they are expected to arrive. This helps both parties manage cash flow, as well as enhances your business relationships. Remember, open and trusting relationships are essential to being successful with Chinese business partners.

While many wire transfer services offer little flexibility for foreign currency exchange, Veem provides businesses with choice. Either the sender or receiver can convert currency, or choose to keep their funds in the original format. Furthermore, Veem’s Locked Exchange Rates feature removes the risk associated with foreign exchange. Since the value of international currencies is constantly fluctuating, unfavorable exchange rates can severely damage your business’s cash flow. Locked Exchange Rates allow SMBs to plan and forecast with confidence, because they’ll know exactly how much their foreign currency transaction will cost. Veem users can now schedule a payment up to 92 days in advance with a predetermined foreign exchange rate. This helps SMBs manage cash flow, eliminate time spent calculating exchange rates, and accurately predict future expenses.

Veem is the only relationship-based payment network built with the needs of SMBs in mind. Transparency, security, and speed are the hallmarks of paying with Veem.

Your supplier on Alibaba will thank you for making payment quickly and safely.

* This blog provides general information and discussion about global business payments and related subjects. The content provided in this blog ("Content”), should not be construed as and is not intended to constitute financial, legal or tax advice. You should seek the advice of professionals prior to acting upon any information contained in the Content. All Content is provided strictly “as is” and we make no warranty or representation of any kind regarding the Content.