Controlling Quality Issues When Importing From China

One of the massive issues you'll run into when importing from China is undoubtedly the quality. In fact, it's one of the things that can put first time importers off. However, sourcing your products from China doesn't have to be like navigating a minefield - we can help you!

The Relationship Between China and Product Quality

For many people, the words “Made in China” and quality don’t exactly go hand in hand – however, this assumption that China produces only low quality products is completely wrong. Chinese suppliers do produce high-quality products . . . if you know how to find them.

Unfortunately, with the large influx of uninformed importers looking for the cheapest deal they can find and getting low-quality items in return, there is somewhat of a stigma following around Chinese-made products; that being that they’re low-quality and poorly manufactured.

Common queries on Google include:

“Why are Chinese products so poorly made?”

“Are Chinese products good quality?”

“Are things made in China bad?”

“Are all products made in China bad?”

“Are Chinese products good quality?”

For a start-up or small business, China can seem like the best option for sourcing goods at an affordable price. So are products made in China low quality? Are you sacrificing well-made goods for cheap labour costs? The answer isn’t as clear cut as some may like – in fact, there is no clear cut answer. It all depends on you and how vigilant you are in finding a high-quality supplier.

Products made in China can be incredibly high-quality, or they can be made completely unusable. However, we’ve dedicated this post to explaining why there can be a startling quality lack when you import from China – and how you can monitor and minimise any potential quality issues.

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  • What Are Quality Issues?

    Quality issues are when you run into problems with the standard to which your goods are manufactured to. This can be dangerous – and it can be expensive. It affects how your consumers receive your goods; your business’s reputation and (if you sell using a platform that supports reviews especially) can lead to people not buying your goods. Sometimes, the goods can be so flawed that there is no way of reselling them – which means that you end up losing a lot of money,

    Quality issues do not just have to be dangerous or overt; although there are obvious issues such as broken products or low quality materials, here are a few subtle real life examples from ChinaLawBlog’s How to Avoid China Manufacturing Problems, Part 2: Focus on These Five Things:

    • Staples for an automatic nail gun. The staples were beautiful, except they did not fit into the nail gun.
    • Hand blown Christmas tree ornaments. A whole container arrived, delivered on time. The objects were beautiful. The only problem was that the small ring required to hang the ornament from a tree was missing, making the entire shipment useless.
    • Etched glass fixture installed between two sheets of glass in an argon filled custom window. Everything about the window was perfect, except when installed, a very prominent footprint was obvious on the etched glass, rendering the window worthless.
    • Custom door handles. The handles were well made and worked perfectly. However, the surface coating on 30% of the handles was flawed. This required the buyer to open every custom package to individually inspect each item.

    Quality issues can be subtle little things you could easily overlook – which is what makes them so dangerous to your business.

  • Common Examples Of Quality Issues To Look Out For

    When you import stock from your business from China, just saying “look out for quality issues” is not enough – as a first-time importer, you might not have a clue what it is you’re meant to be looking out for! There are multiple common quality issues that people importing from China tend to run into and find in their products.

    Although there are case by case defects and issues that can arise within manufacturing, there are also common quality issues that you can run into. It’s helpful to know these so that you can be vigilant when inspecting your goods – and you can specifically ask your supplier about them.

    Common quality issues are:

    • Damaged items
    • Functional defective items
    • Wrong items
    • Wrong colour
    • Cosmetic defects
    • Substandard materials
    • Substandard components
    • Transportation damages
    • Substandard product packing
    • Sub Standard export packing

    Hopefully you can use these things to look out for when importing from China as a frame of reference to examine your goods against.

  • What Causes Quality Issues?

    There are many causes of quality issues, but they all sit under the same umbrella – the supplier. A majority of the time, the cause of quality issues in Chinese manufacturing can be pin-pointed to one of two reasons.

    1. There is a genuine misunderstanding between your supplier and yourself
    2. Your supplier is cheating you

    We’ve gone into further detail about the causes of quality issues and how they can be avoided.

    1. Misunderstandings between you and your supplier

    Culturally, there is a large difference between China and the Western world. (We’ve written a post about the culture difference between China and the West to help you understand your supplier better) Often, things that we would consider sneaky and bad business are common practice in China; this is very strongly reflected in the manufacturing process.

    • A large issue is the term “good quality”. Many importers assume that our idea of “good quality” would align with the Chinese. Unfortunately, they’re wrong – but this isn’t entirely the supplier’s fault. Quality is not a veritable form of measure; there is no definitive “good” quality or “bad” quality. What one country, company or even person categorizes as good quality could be completely different to another.
    • Expanding on that point, “chabuduo”. Chabaduo roughly translates to “almost” – and is a large culture barrier you need to be aware of. Although a mere word, chabuduo refers to a mindset the Chinese adopt which often translates to “almost is good enough”.
    • Here are a few examples of chabaduo: “You don’t have a proper cold-storage chain to send vaccines? Well, stick some ice in the parcels and put them in the post. Chabuduo, and children cough to death. Why take the sludge to a disposal site? Just pile it up here, where everyone else has been putting it. Chabuduo, and 91 people are crushed by a landslide in Guangdong. Separate out the dangerous materials? What does it matter, just stick that nitrate over there. Chabuduo, and a fireball goes up in Tianjin, north China’s chief port, incinerating 173 people.” – Aeon, Chabuduo! Close Enough . . . 
    • As evidenced above, this can be dangerous, but it’s also an intrinsic part of Chinese culture. This means that a lot of the time, unless you clearly specify what you’re looking for, your suppliers will fill in the blanks – and they’ll cut a lot of corners while doing it. This isn’t necessarily to shortchange you; it’s just how things are done. An example of this would be:
      You’re sourcing watches to resell. You want high quality metal watches that you can sell at a premium price – so you ask your supplier for high quality watches. Without specification, your supplier would use a zinc alloy metal for the case and a PU leather strap. Is this what we would typically consider to be high quality? No. If you were to specify that you wanted a stainless steel metal case and an Italian leather strap, then your supplier would do this for you. The devil’s in the detail.

    On the other hand, sometimes your supplier will cheat you.

    2. Suppliers cheating importers

    • Often, your supplier may try to cut some corners to save themselves some money. This is by exchanging more expensive materials for cheaper ones. Not only does this mean you’re paying more than you need to, it also means that your goods are of a lesser quality.
    • To ensure this doesn’t happen, you need to regularly quality check your shipments – and make sure that your supplier knows that you’re going to regularly check them too.
  • "Chabuduo"

    What is “chabuduo”?

    Chabuduo can be roughly translated to almost or good enough. It’s more than a word; it’s an attitude that pervades China and its people. In some cases, this results in quick, pragmatic thinking and excellent problem solving skills. However, the flip side of chabuduo is that it excuses laziness and cutting corners.

    Essentially, chabuduo is the belief that almost is good enough. It’s the dismissal of working harder to achieve perfection or fulfill something to 100% when finishing 70% of the work would work just fine.

    Chabuduo is also the casual dismissal of problems. Oh, your door doesn’t fit the frame? Chabuduo, you’ll get used to kicking it open. We sent you a shirt two sizes too big? Chabuduo, what are you complaining about?” – What Chinese Corner Cutting Reveals About Modernity, Aeon

    More importantly, chabuduo is a widespread attitude in China – it is reflected in many facets of life and throughout their culture. It’s not something you’ll only encounter in one place; it’s everywhere from not replacing old furniture to not using correct safety procedures to filling out paperwork incorrectly.

    How does “chabuduo” affect importers?

    It’s important to be aware of chabuduo as it’s a mindset that will strongly affect your supplier and how they conduct business. Often, if a supplier wants to cut costs or doesn’t want to wait for a delivery, they may substitute the material for a cheaper version. This is merely one example of ways in which your supplier may apply chabaduo to their production – it’s not the same material . . . but it’s close enough. Although naturally not a concept you want applied to your products, it’s important to be aware that this attitude is not necessarily disrespectful.

    The best way to explain this is with paperwork. In the West, we expect paperwork to be 100% complete; often (especially in the case of legal documents) to get even one thing wrong renders it obsolete. An example of this would be filling out documents for your bank – you’d be extremely careful and precise, right? In China, however, the expectation is much lower – think around 70%. The formatting for the paperwork may be inconsistent; if you said “fill it in black ballpoint pen”, they may use red. If there was a specific information needed (such as a number or name) that the supplier didn’t have on-hand they may leave the box blank. Sometimes people will even sign important documents on other people’s behalf.

    In the West, signing documents is something we take very seriously – for legal reasons, if nothing else. In China, there’s a much more relaxed view. Sometimes, people will even sign important papers on behalf of someone else!

    This much more relaxed approach means that a Western importer’s expectations may not be what the Chinese abide by. Unfortunately, this isn’t your supplier screwing you over – it’s the way that their culture works. The Chinese take this approach with each other and within themselves; their standard of quality just differs to the Western.

    However, importers need to be aware of chabuduo for more than just inconveniences like incorrect paperwork. This mindset can often be dangerous. Switching out materials and compromising on safety procedures can lead to extreme situations.

    You don’t have a proper cold-storage chain to send vaccines? Well, stick some ice in the parcels and put them in the post. Chabuduo, and children cough to death. Why take the sludge to a disposal site? Just pile it up here, where everyone else has been putting it. Chabuduo, and 91 people are crushed by a landslide in Guangdong. Separate out the dangerous materials? What does it matter, just stick that nitrate over there. Chabuduo, and a fireball goes up in Tianjin, north China’s chief port, incinerating 173 people.” – What Chinese Corner Cutting Reveals About Modernity, Aeon

    Staying on top of your suppliers and regularly checking that your products are safe to use is essential – especially considering that once you resell a product, you’re liable for any injury claims.

    Can importers avoid issues with “chabuduo”?

    Yes. As long as you’re aware of the issues, there are ways to avoid running into factories with the dreaded chabuduo mindset.

    Reflecting on this, I noted our clients do not seem to have this problem.  Why is shoddy quality not a concern for them?  As it turns out, it is not that complicated.  I found out that they and their China sourcing team simply leave nothing to chance.  They vet the factories in advance, they specify every painstaking detail, they check everything, and they do it every time.” – Sourcing in China, the Land of Cutting Corners, ChinaPerformanceGroup

    As with all quality issues when sourcing products from outside of the country, it comes down to research and dedication. You need to find a high-quality, trust-worthy supplier, be extremely clear what you want and then follow up with them. Here are a few simple things importers can to to avoid becoming victim to chabuduo work:

    • Factory Inspections. Understandably, not all importers will have the time or the money to fly to China and inspect a factory first-hand. Factory Inspections can act as your eyes and ears for you, though. These services will go to your supplier’s workplace, look around and tell you the results. This helps you to weed out scams, poor working environments and low quality factories.
    • Quality Inspections. How do you know if you’ll get poor quality goods before they arrive? With quality inspections. Quality inspectors will look at your final goods before they’re shipped and ensure that they’re of a certain standard. If they’re not, you don’t have to pay and you can request that your supplier do a better job, or try a new one. Either way, you haven’t wasted a lot of money on shoddy work.
    • Specific Product Requirements. The devil’s in the details. The more specific your requirements, the less room there is for error – and the less the supplier can essentially just make up. Although you may want to trust your supplier knows what they’re doing, don’t. Specify what materials you want, specify what colours, specify sizes and dimensions – specify everything so that your supplier has no wiggle room to cut corners with.
    • Check Delivered Goods. After your goods have been delivered to you, check them again – and provide your supplier with feedback. This will let them know that you inspect their work, which makes them less likely to provide poor quality.

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  • Quality Fade

    Another large problem that you’ll run into when importing from China is the quality fade. Quality fade is especially tricky, however, as it’s not an initial, upfront problem – and that makes it harder to spot. Usually, quality fade happens once you’re comfortably settled in with your supplier and you think you’ve built a good relationship with them . . . it happens when you start to become a little more complacent.

    But what is quality fade?

    Quality fade is when the quality of a product decreases over a period of time. What may start as a high-quality product that you’re immensely happy with may slowly start to become less impressive.

    Suppliers wilfully do this to increase their profit margins over time. They’ll start off with a high quality product and every time they create a new batch they’ll slowly start swapping out components to make the goods cheaper and cheaper . . . and the quality will get lower and lower. Leather may turn to PU leather; glass may turn to plastic.

    This may just sound like a slight annoyance – but imagine this:

    You’re importing plastic Tupperware. At first, your supplier produces amazing quality products and you have no problems. Did you know, however, that customs are pretty hot on Tupperware? A lot of people don’t – including you, because your supplier’s Tupperware has always been cleared through so easily. As business booms, you start to import in larger volumes – but your supplier has started to quality fade and, one day, Customs refuse to let your goods in. You’ve now got to pay to have them sent back to China or destroyed; not only are you out of pocket, but you also don’t have anything to sell.

    Unfortunately, quality fade can be hard to notice until it’s too late – especially if you’ve developed a relationship with your supplier in which you feel you can trust them and so aren’t vigilantly inspecting your goods after every shipment. This is a problem because, while you may not notice your product’s quality starting to degrade, your customers will. Slowly, the quality fade will start to affect your brand and your business’s reputation may be effected.

    Not only is quality fade bad for your goods cosmetic appearance and visible quality – but quality fade can also lead to your goods becoming non-compliant and at worse unsafe. Especially if you’re importing goods that customs are especially concerned with (such as electronics), this could lead to a lot of potential problems when trying to get your goods into the country – as well as opening yourself up for potential lawsuits.

    Unfortunately, often importers will fall into the trap of comfort and will trust their supplier after a few shipments, which causes them to relax. This less vigilant approach can make quality fade an easy tactic. Remember to stay vigilant and inspect your shipments on their quality.

  • How Can I Avoid Chinese Quality Issues?

    Fortunately, avoiding these quality issues when manufacturing and importing goods from China is easy. What do you have to do? Check. Quality inspections are essential. Not only do they allow you to ensure that your goods are up to standard, quality checks actually act as an incentive for your supplier to tighten their ship.

    However, there are preventative measures that you can take before you even get the goods out of the factory.

    • Choose a good supplier. Naturally, choosing a good supplier means that the standard of work will be better. Do some in depth research and find a trustworthy, reliable factory as far as you’re able.
    • Make purchases under a contract. A lot of importers skip this, but it’s great insurance policy to have. If your suppliers do produce goods that aren’t acceptable (bad quality, broken, etc) your contracts protects you – and having a contract encourages them not to start behaving badly.
    • Use a quality inspecting agent.  There are a lot of QA companies in China and if you are spending a lot of money on a large number of products then using one is certainly a good idea if it doesn’t wipe out your profit margins.  We’d suggest ensuring that the agent you choose knows about your products as quality can be subjective.
    • Tell your supplier that you use quality inspecting agents. As with a contract, this will help to ensure that your suppliers are on their best behavior – because they know that it’s likely they’ll get caught if they’re not.

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