Baby Steps for Newbie Importers
If you’ve decided to jump down the rabbit hole that is selling your own brands of physical products then you’ll inevitably be faced with the opportunity to attend a sourcing fair. Most people in the general public are not familiar with what these are, and those that are have really only heard of the Canton Fair. That is because Canton is the biggest, baddest beast of a sourcing fair on the planet.
The problem with such a large, notorious fair is that it is a bit intimidating. Huge fair, in CHINA….seems like a big step. Well, I’m here to tell you about some alternatives. Baby steps into the world of sourcing fairs. See, your first foray into overseas trade shows doesn’t have to be such a large step, nor does it have to really be expensive or difficult.
First, I want to go over a brief pros and cons list specifically for Canton, to give you some perspective:
- Sourcing fairs in general are a good move for an importer. Why? Because it allows you to find and meet face to face with a large number of suppliers all at once. This is just efficient. Rather than send out a boat load of emails and rely on back and forth communications across time zones you can shake the representative’s hand, have a conversation, and most importantly test and demo the product live.
- Sourcing fairs are also convenient. Even if you are like me and already live in Asia (a large percentage of sourcing happens here) it is still a hassle to have to arrange travel to the mainland to visit factories. The fairs take so many steps out of the equation, which saves time and money, both of which are extremely valuable to a business.
- Canton, in specific, is the mother of all fairs. It is so big it spans three entire buildings, all the size of respectable convention centers individually. Because it is so large, you’ll likely find anything and everything you could imagine.
- Canton also has a reputation that precedes itself. Good or bad, this reputation pulls in some of the best and most innovative suppliers from around the globe.
- Canton is big. Maybe TOO big. If you are the type to easily get lost in a crowd, Canton Fair may seem like an anxiety attack waiting to happen.
- Canton Fair is in mainland China. Not that there is anything wrong with China, but visiting isn’t just a walk in the park. It requires a visa, and the right kind too. It isn’t complicated to get one, but it costs money and time (those valuable commodities we were just discussing). You’ll need to provide business information, get an invitation letter from a supplier and a boat load of other stuff if you want a proper business visa. Otherwise you get a tourist visa, which you are technically not allowed to use to do business.
- Canton is…again…in China. I keep harping on this because aside from visa restrictions there’s also the fact that flying there can be more complicated. Mainland China doesn’t have a whole lot of direct flights (if any). More layovers equals more time. Alternatively you can fly to Hong Kong and take a train into China, but again, more money, more time.
So what is an aspiring importer to do? What if you want to enjoy the business boosting conveniences of a sourcing fair without the time and money necessary for a trip to the Red Country?
Fear not young entrepreneur. I am here to tell you about my personal favorite fairs that require less travel time (read less money) and less social anxiety.
For the uninitiated, I introduce to you HONG KONG FAIRS!
That’s right, Hong Kong has its own fairs. And not just one, but a bunch of them.
Wait….Isn’t Hong Kong in China? You might ask.
Yes, but HK operates in a very different, totally Western way. It really is a wonderful blend of the awesomeness of Asian culture and the conveniently familiar Western social norms. But I digress…
First, I’ll ask you to look back at the Pros of Canton. The top two points are about sourcing fairs in general, and they totally apply here. However here’s a list of Pros specifically for Hong Kong fairs:
- Lots of direct flights to Hong Kong. HK is a hub at the center of the world, so flights are going in and out every hour. No problem booking direct or almost direct to HK.
- No visa required. There are very few origin countries that HK requires a visa from. All of North America, Europe and Australia (as well as many others) can visit HK visa-free.
- Fairs are much smaller. There are several fairs that take place in Hong Kong, and all of them are a fraction of the size of Canton, which makes them easier to navigate. While the selection may not be as large, your ability to focus may make you more productive.
- Almost everyone speaks English. As an American, I understand the negative stigma that comes with our seeming imperialism, but regardless of that, English has become a common “bridge” language for most cultures. Having the ability to communicate with people in such a foreign land is darned convenient.
There are, of course, a few Cons too. I would be remiss (not to mention biased) if I didn’t mention them.
- Hong Kong is an expensive city. It’s like New York. Even with a favorable exchange rate with the US dollar (7 to 1) prices are very big city American.
That’s really the only Con I can come up with.
So without further ado, let me walk you through the Hong Kong sourcing fair experience. Armed with this knowledge you can easily take your business to the next level by attended the next line up of fairs.
A Quick List of Hong Kong Fairs
Hong Kong has quite a few fairs but the main three are:
- Global Sources
- Mega Show
These three all occur around the same time as Canton (twice a year in October and April). They all have multiple “phases” too, meaning they split up the dates based on industry. One phase may be for home goods, another for electronics, another for fashion, etc.
I’m going to walk you through the process of attending the Global Sources Home Show. Global Sources is a well established fair in Hong Kong that has several widely known shows ranging from mobile electronics to apparel. I had the pleasure of attending the home and kitchen show as well as mobile accessories and VR.
It is a smaller show but it has a lot to offer. Global Sources is a fantastic host that goes out of their way to help people to source. They are also making an effort to help ecommerce sellers specifically, and if you attend you’ll find they do a great job setting up information centers and networking areas specifically for online vendors. Global Sources even holds a summit during each trade show specifically for ecommerce sellers with a focus on the Amazon.com platform.
Welcome to Global Sources
The first step is getting to Hong Kong. As I mentioned before, there are many direct flights into HK. When I lived in America, I noticed most flights to HK came out of Dallas from where I traveled in lower Alabama. Most major cities will stop at this hub though. This makes plane tickets relatively affordable by comparison to other international flights.
Before going to any fair, make sure you pre-register online for it. Most have check-in counters and you can register there, but the lines will be longer and some fairs charge. However, the fees are typically waived if you pre-register and the line will be much shorter.
Also, get business cards printed. I’ll explain more on that later.
Some travel pro tips:
- If you can afford it, spring for business class. It is a pretty long flight from just about anywhere in the West and it is hard to sleep upright. Biz class seats offer full recline. If you do go economy, get an aisle seat. While leaning against the window sounds more comfortable, waking up the guy next to you to go pee can be really annoying.
- Choose your seats in advance. Just better to have control over where you sit relative to bathrooms or leg room, for example.
- Download the airline app. Most major airlines have phone apps that allow you to track important flight information, check in, and sometimes they allow you to access the in-flight entertainment. For example, United planes rarely have televisions so you are required to use a mobile device with their app to access movies and tv (don’t worry, seats do have charging outlets).
- Don’t forget to fill out your arrival form. They should hand you one on the plane, but if not, they’ll be at kiosks outside the immigration check in.
When you arrive at immigration, you may find the lines are VERY long. Well, apparently HK recently started a relationship with their fair hosts because people attending fairs were given their own line at immigration. During my trip I was given a special sticker after showing my pre-registration to Global Sources and was granted access to a significantly smaller waiting line.
Another important step is money and communication. Places in Hong Kong, like anywhere in the world, don’t accept US dollars (or other foreign currency). Only Hong Kong Dollars.
Also, very few mobile carriers outside of Asia will provide cell phone service in Hong Kong. Communicating and accessing the internet will likely be important to you. Well, you can kill two birds with one stone here:
You’ll see this convenient stop directly outside of the customs area. Here you can trade in your foreign currency for HKD and you can also purchase a Hong Kong temporary sim card. It will typically give you unlimited 4G data as well as call and text for about two weeks. Other plans do exist and you can get upgraded sim card options at most mobile phone stores in the airport (including cards that will work in both HK and mainland China).
Alternatively you can get a mobile wifi and carry it around with you. These are also available at China Mobile or other mobile service stores.
After you arrive, you’ll likely want to check into your hotel. Now we will discuss lodging.
Where to Stay in Hong Kong
Where you stay may largely depend on which fair you are attending. My recent trip was for Global Sources’ trade show, which is held at the AsiaWorld Expo Center. This venue is located right next to the airport. Mega Show and HKTDC are normally held at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai.
If you attend Global Sources, the most convenient place to stay would be near the airport. There is even an airport hotel which would mean very little travel at all. The airport hotel, however, is around $150 USD per night. If you are making this trip on a budget, you may wish to stay at a less expensive hotel, or even an Airbnb.
I chose to stay in an Airbnb for only $35 a night. If you stay elsewhere, it is advised to stay somewhere directly near an MTR station. Hong Kong has a very efficient and extensive subway system, and if you stick close to it, you can see and experience much of HK without risking getting lost. Typically I’ll choose my Airbnb location based on the map, choosing one closest to the subway.
Here is a helpful map of the MTR subway routes so you can see what stations you may frequent and for what reasons:
Protip regarding MTR:
MTR works much like any other subway system in the world. Trains travel along routes that are typically color coordinated on a map and marked by their destination station.
In Hong Kong, you can go to machines or kiosks and purchase one time travel token for the MTR, however this will get tedious. The reason is because, you are likely to network, go out to dinner, see some sites, or just have to go back to your hotel at some point. Every time you want to go through a turnstile, you’ll have to purchase a token.
You can get what’s called an “Octopus Card.”
This handy thing is essentially your “bus card.” It stores money on it that you can use to scan at turnstiles and get on the train.
It “costs” $50 HKD (about $7 USD) which is a refundable deposit if you decide to turn it in at a customer support desk when you leave HK (they are all over the airport). They are super convenient, not just for getting on and off the subway, but also because most convenience stores accept it as a form of payment. Near-Field Card Readers are everywhere, and all you have to do is touch your Octopus card to it and it will deduct from your balance whatever the price of your purchase.
To be clear, MTR is the most convenient and inexpensive form of travel in HK. However, do not think it is the only way. Uber exists in HK (although there aren’t nearly enough drivers). And taxis are still the most common way people get around.
You’ll see taxis EVERYWHERE and all you have to do is stick your hand out to hail one. They won’t stop if the light on top isn’t lit up (that means they have an occupant).
If your taxi driver doesn’t speak English, use Google or Microsoft translator apps to translate things to Chinese. Sometimes this can be a challenge, which is why I personally prefer Uber (since you input the destination into the app).
Once you get settled in and are comfortable with your transportation methods, it is time to hit up the fair.
Navigating a Global Sources Fair
When you arrive, the first stop you’ll make is the registration desk. This is where you get your badge and a map of the show floors. Your badge has a QR code that is scanned when you enter any “hall” of the expo floor, so you need it. There are two lines, one for pre-registration and one for regular registration.
After you get your badge, walk over to a place next to the registration booth and get a free bag (you’ll need it for all the brochures) and a lanyard to put your badge in.
Armed with your badge and bag (AND BUSINESS CARDS….DON’T FORGET THOSE), you are ready to enter a hall.
But first….fair prep.
I like to prepare a bit for the fair before going in. That way I am super efficient. I used to actually look up suppliers and their booths and plan out who to visit specifically, but this takes too much time and kind of messes with the flow. Instead, now I just get an idea of what I am wanting to see first, based on the fair options available.
For example, during this phase of Global Sources, there were four halls; home goods, gifts, mobile accessories and mobile electronics.
I knew I wanted to look for home goods mostly. I also knew I didn’t care for anything in gifts. I knew I wanted to look in mobile accessories and electronics for other colleagues. So I planned to hit up each of the three halls I wanted to see within two days. First half of day one in the home show, and then call it an early day to do some networking. Day two would be first half in mobile accessories, second half quickly scan gifts just in case. Day three would be mobile electronics for as long as I wanted.
After figuring out what shows to go to and when, I identified specific products or product types I was interested in. I made a list. Things like living room goods, bathroom sink accessories, wooden kitchen items, etc. That way I knew what things I was NOT interested in so I wouldn’t waste any time.
With a list for each show, I would make my way into the halls.
My method of navigation is to go to the far end of the hall and then walk up and down every aisle, scanning left and right side. I scan for the product types I already decided I am interested in OR anything that particularly catches my eye. I figure, if it stands out that much it may deserve my attention.
I bring my business cards and a pen with me. I move through the aisles with a purpose. Not too fast so as to miss anything, but not so slow that I end up in a conversation with every booth representative at the fair.
Aisles are marked by letter and number. Like this:
As you are moving through the aisles, you will notice around every bend, through every turn there will be booth representatives that try to stop you and show you their wares. If you let this happen too much, you will lose so much time. As it is, even with the fast pace I move through a showroom, it still takes me 3 hours or more to get through one showroom floor (except for gifts…since I wasn’t really looking for anything in there I made it through in 50 minutes).
Don’t avoid eye contact or anything rude. Just look them in the eye, smile and nod, and when they offer you something say “no thanks” and keep walking. Pretty much everyone at these shows speaks English, so no worries there.
The goal is to only give your time to the booths that carry what you are interested in. There will still be plenty. So move through the floor and stay focused on what interests you (or your clients or colleagues).
When you DO find things you are interested in, the way you communicate with a fair booth is by supplying your business card. That is standard. They will ALL ask for it, but you should only give it to those you want to receive an email/wechat/skype/whatsapp message from.
(Protip: Most Asian suppliers communicate via Wechat since many other apps are blocked in China, including Google which makes gmail difficult too).
When you stop to communicate with a booth, this is a great opportunity for you to cut out a lot of steps in traditional sourcing and get some real work done. First, you can examine a sample. This gives you an idea of the quality level you are dealing with. Next, you can demo the sample. Meaning, if it has any functionality, you can see it in action. This is also a great time to ask important questions like:
- Do you offer OEM (private label)?
- Are you the manufacturer?
- Where is your factory located?
- Do you provide custom packaging?
- What material is this made from?
- Do you have appropriate testing/certifications?
- What is your MOQ?
- What is production time?
- Can I order a custom sample?
- What is your current listed FOB price?
This is important information that often you’d only get after several emails back and forth with a supplier on Alibaba. That is what the pen is for, so you can write these answers down in a notebook or on the back of their business card or brochure.
This exchange also offers a great opportunity to build rapport and begin a relationship with a new supplier. It doesn’t guarantee you’ll work with them, but showing up is a big step in showing a factory that you are serious. This is often a major factor in price negotiations.
You’ll likely be asked a lot of questions about your business. I suggest being honest and professional. Let the supplier know your plans and draw them into your vision for growth. Usually after a good conversation the representative will ask to take a picture with you. That way they can reference it when you speak after the fair so you both will remember each other.
Do this a few times and you’ll have a nice pool of resources to narrow down the highest quality selections for the best prices. Then you can move forward with custom samples and choose the factory that wins your business.
After the Show
While in a place like Hong Kong, for a sourcing fair, you’re likely to meet plenty of awesome people in similar industries. For this reason, it is good to give yourself some flexibility with your schedule. Likely you’ll be invited to visit Canton or do something else fun in mainland China. If you aren’t against adventure, here’s a great opportunity to seize the day.
You may also be invited to visit factories of your potential suppliers. If it seems feasible (cheap plane ticket, or close enough to visit by train), why not? Visiting a factory will only help bolster your relationship and there is no better way to assess quality than in person. (Protip: If you decide to visit the mainland last minute, you’ll have to get a last minute visa if you don’t already have one. Either at the border or in the airport you can do this, but don’t tell them you are going to China on business. They will require you to get a business visa which requires your business license and a number of other documents you likely won’t have on you. Just get a tourist visa and don’t mention anything about business).
When you get back to the place you call home, just remember to follow up with your potential suppliers and move forward with growing your business.