You’re playing with a stacked deck when you go to fairs and trade-shows.  It’s best to do some due diligence work beforehand and keep you cards close to your vest while there.

Part of the problem is that you likely don’t speak Chinese, and English may or may not be good enough to negotiate quality or delivery issues.  Sure, everyone speaks “numbers.”  But quality, packaging and any degree of customization can be next to impossible to confirm without help.

Another issue is who you’re really talking to.  Often times groups of small suppliers (vendors, factories, trading companies) from a specific area (or even a group of classmates) get together and create a single “supplier” for a number of different items/services that they want to offer at the Canton Fair but otherwise couldn’t afford to do on their own.  This means that the person you’re talking to may not even work for the actual factory that you’ll be ordering from.  They likely will commit to just about anything you ask for as they don’t want to disappoint their “boss” from the other company in their group.  Bottom line, it means that you often can’t count on the quality of info that you’ll be getting from many suppliers.

In addition to that, the show may be good place to order stock-items, but it’s not the venue for discussing custom work with a potential supplier.  Not only will you likely lose all your IP to each factory that you share your ideas with, but they don’t have time on the show floor to talk about future opportunities with you while other paying customers are waiting to buy current product.

Here are some practical tips to getting the most out of your week in China.

First, know who will be there and what they offer.  There is nothing worse than getting into GZ and realizing that you’re attending the “wrong” week’s show!  While you can avoid this with a little research, it’s much harder to figure out if the people that will be there will actually have what you’re looking for.  For example, the craft and hobby industry in the US has shows that are specific to their industry.  But in China, craft and hobby is NOT it’s own industry and the suppliers that would be at a craft and hobby shows in the US may be at any one of the three different weeks of the Canton Fair.  If you’ve only scheduled 7-10 days in China, not following this one tip could ruin your trip and waste thousands of dollars.

Second, talk with (via email/Skype) and set up meetings with potential suppliers before the show.  Confirm what they can’t and can’t do, make an appointment to meet that at the show and also see if there will be anyone at the factory to meet you during show week.  Doing all of this BEFORE you fly to China.

Third, don’t walk the floor—the best way to waste time and be sure to miss some hidden gem is to just aimlessly walk up and down each isle to “see what’s new.”  Unless your goal is to rack up miles on your pedometer, going just to go will likely get you few if any tangible results.

Fourth, hire an interpreter and a driver.  Your goal is to get to “PO” within a week.  To do that you need to be asking very specific questions and getting full detailed answers.  Most “sales-person English” will not give you this level of detail.  And most sales-people will not give you all the info that you want.  An interpreter will be able to ask the “other” people in the booth the more important questions and also be able to tell you (since they work for you) what’s really being talked about when you can’t understand.

There will be more than ½ million additional people in GZ for the three weeks of the Canton Fair—it will be next to impossible to get a taxi, subways are packed to the hilt and there is no way that a hotel will have any free shuttles other than back and forth to the airport or Fair venue.  Hire a driver and he can not only get you around town where and when you need to go, but he can also get you out to factories.  Since he’s on your schedule you can leave early and stay late; you can even go out of the way to other cities (likely necessary if you want to see as many suppliers as possible).

Fifth, take copious notes on conversations, who said what and get THEM to write down prices/dates and other important information that you don’t want to be “updated” after you leave.  Also, make sure they have a copy of the same infor that they’ve given to you.  If you have one set of notes, the sales person then leaves (goes back to college since they may not be a full time employee) and someone else has to then negotiate follow up with you, chances are slim to none that you’ll be talking about the same times two weeks later when you and they get back to the office.  And remember, they’re following up with hundreds of buyers all about very similar items (and they may not have ever even met you in the first place).

Included in the notes would be photos of both product and notes/prices written by the sales person—email them back what they gave you so there is less chance of misunderstanding.

If you’re still looking for more info on the Canton Fair specifically, there is a white paper on the history and culture of the fair—While it’s a great resource, I think that it significantly whitewashes (sorry) the problems of the fair and the nightmare that is Guangzhou city for the months the fair is in session.

Shows are shows.  Taking notes, meeting them before and after and also visiting the actual factory are really the only ways to know with whom you’re working and if they can actually do what you want.  My opinion is that you should be spending more time on vendor qualification and follow up before and after the fair than time traveling to China and actually being “at” the fair.  If you’ll do this, you’ll likely have a much more successful experience.

Good luck!

One Response to “Un-Fair!”

  1. […] 13 Apr.: an excellent complement to that white paper is this excellent article, by David […]