In order to start an online business you need two things: a product idea and supply. If you already have a trending product in mind and your business plan in place, the next step is finding the perfect supplier. In our global village, it has never been easier to find a manufacturing or wholesaling partner halfway around the world.
However, sourcing your products from overseas can still seem like a daunting task for new online entrepreneurs.
In this post, we’re going to look at how to effectively and safely source a supplier for your product idea using the popular business directory Alibaba. We’ll introduce you to the pros and cons of going overseas and show you how to navigate this new terrain so you can lock onto the perfect supplier for your product idea and get started selling online.
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Disclaimer: Before making any purchases from Alibaba, be sure you read its most up-to-date information and safeguards to protect your purchase.
What is Alibaba?
If you’ve decided and are determined to source your supplier from overseas, there’s a good chance you’ll be buying from Alibaba or AliExpress dropshipping. By the numbers, Alibaba is the largest ecommerce company in the world, earning $78.6 billion in revenue in 2020. It's also the most comprehensive directory that connects suppliers (mostly from Asia) with buyers from all over the globe.
The Alibaba group owns three Chinese marketplaces—Taobao, Tmall, and Alibaba.com—has hundreds of millions of users, and hosts hundreds of millions of retailers and products. There’s not much you won’t find in its directory, which is how it became one of the most popular destinations for online shopping.
Is Alibaba safe?
Since its launch in 1999, Alibaba has become one of the largest marketplaces in the world. Like many ecommerce marketplaces, a majority of merchants on Alibaba are reputable and trustworthy. The company also offers Trade Assurance, a verification program for select suppliers, to protect your payments through the Alibaba.com payment platform.
The benefits of Trade Assurance include:
- Convenient payment options. Alibaba offers multiple payment methods, including credit card, PayPal, and financing options for qualified US buyers.
- Payment security. Track and reconcile funds with suppliers and know when they receive your payment.
- Better support. When working with Trade Assurance suppliers, refunds are available if you’re not satisfied with the product’s quality.
Trade Assurance protects you from getting scammed or receiving low-quality products from Alibaba. Even though there will be some back and forth between the seller and Alibaba during mediation, you’ll be protected from bad suppliers.
This isn’t to say that working with dropshipping suppliers not in the Trade Assurance program is bad. It just means you’ll have to do more research.
Let’s take a look at several things you can do to protect your money when sourcing from Alibaba:
1. Verify suppliers. Alibaba has its own verification program in place that includes several levels of verification. Below is a chart that summarizes the three different levels of verification Alibaba offers. These verification badges will appear on product listing and supplier profiles, if they have them. Looking for these verifications is a good first step.
Here’s more information on Alibaba’s Gold membership for suppliers.
In addition to Alibaba’s verifications, there are also independent third-party services located in Asia that will visit factories on your behalf to verify the supplier and product quality. Depending on the size of your order, a few hundred dollars extra for added piece of mind may be well worth it.
2. Ask questions and follow up. As you begin narrowing down suppliers, make sure to ask a lot of questions about their business and their products. Ask for a copy of their business license Ask for a phone number—and actually call it. Have a Skype meeting with your contact. Ask for photos of the factory and sample products.
Feel free to ask for whatever makes you feel more comfortable doing business with someone a world away. It wouldn’t be crazy for you to even ask your factory contact to take a photo of themselves on the factory floor holding up the current day’s newspaper and one of their products.
3. Get samples. It should go without saying that before you invest any significant amount of money into inventory you need to get samples to check and verify quality. Feel free even to contact them through another (fictitious) name and email and get an additional sample so you can compare.
4. Be prepared to walk away. Finally, if something is too good to be true, it usually is. Be wary of pricing or promises that don’t seem right or that are way off from other suppliers you’ve contacted. Always be willing to walk away from a deal if something doesn’t feel right.
If you’re looking for new suppliers on Alibaba, make sure to download WeChat. You can then talk with potential suppliers in real time and get a better sense of what the working relationship will be like for your dropshipping store.
What’s the difference between Alibaba and AliExpress?
Alibaba and AliExpress are both Chinese-based online marketplaces made up of third-party sellers. The big difference between Alibaba and AliExpress is:
- Alibaba is for business-to-business transactions.
- AliExpress is open to consumers.
Alibaba is for businesses looking to purchase large quantities of products from wholesalers at the lowest price. It’s also the better choice for purchasing private label products because you buy directly from the manufacturer. You can easily get a product with custom designs or logos because that’s something that’s added during the manufacturing process.
AliExpress provides dropshipping products at retail prices to anyone, with no minimum order requirements. Items are usually pre-made, so there are limited customization options, and typically are more expensive. Sellers on AliExpress also tend to offer ePacket shipping, which can help your ecommerce store deliver high-quality products to customers, faster.
If you’re running an ecommerce business and want to quickly source AliExpress products rather than work with wholesalers, connect a Shopify store with Oberlo. It’ll help automate your dropshipping service to free up time (so you can promote more) and increase profit margins.
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Pros and cons of Alibaba dropshipping
The most common reason many entrepreneurs look to Asia, and in particular China, for product suppliers is to take advantage of the low manufacturing costs. Costs of manufacturing in Asia can be significantly lower than in North America and other parts of the world. So much so that it would be quite hard to start a dropshipping business if it wasn’t for overseas manufacturing.
Cheaper product costs are great, but they aren’t the only reason Asia is an attractive place to find a supplier—there are some additional benefits as well:
- Lower manufacturing costs
- Suppliers are (generally) much more open to working with smaller businesses and providing smaller quantities
- High number of suppliers to choose from
- For many products, Asia might be the only place that produces the item
- One-stop services like Alibaba have made it very easy to navigate and purchase from suppliers
Along with the advantages of sourcing from overseas suppliers also comes several disadvantages that store owners should be equally aware of. Some of the biggest disadvantages include:
- Perceived lower quality from customers
- (Usually) lower manufacturing and labor standards
- Almost no intellectual property protection
- Language and communication barrier can be difficult to overcome
- Difficult/costly to verify manufacturer and visit on site
- Longer shipping time
- Cultural differences in business practices
- Product importing and customs clearance
- Lower level of payment security and recourse
Read more: The Ultimate Guide to Dropshipping
Tips for buying from Alibaba
Here are a few dropshipping tips and recommendations to safely source products from Alibaba.
Begin your search
Buying on Alibaba and using the directory is fairly straightforward and similar to other marketplaces like eBay. Browse the product categories or do a search for the particular product you’re looking for.
There are two common approaches to doing a search on Alibaba. You can search for items based on product descriptions, for example, “dog collars,” which will give you thousands of results. Alternatively, from the drop-down menu, you can select Suppliers instead of Products and search for manufacturers that specialize in a particular type of item.
What to look for on product pages
When starting your search for a supplier on Alibaba, there are a few things you want to look at and pay attention to on the product listing page. Let’s take a look at a product description example and listing for a dog collar we found on Alibaba.
One of the first things you’ll likely want to look at is the price. For this listing we can see an FOB price of $2–$3. FOB stands for “free on board” and means that the seller will pay all costs associated with getting the product to the marine port (the cheapest way to ship products from Asia) and the buyer will pay the cost of actually transporting the goods across the ocean to their final destination.
Minimum order quantity (MOQ)
Next, you’ll likely want to look at the minimum order quantity. The minimum order quantity (MOQ) is the smallest order a manufacturer is willing to accept. However, it’s important to note that this is almost always negotiable.
In our example, the minimum order is 200 units.Multiplying that by the higher-end price of $3 per unit, we quickly can see we would be looking at a minimum order of approximately $600 + shipping from this particular supplier for this particular product. This is good to know for later when it comes to negotiating, because it gives you a good start point.
After understanding price and MOQ, you will likely want to know how you can pay the supplier. There are several common methods of payment and each has its pros and cons for both the buyer and the seller.
Let’s take a look at the most common payment options below and the associated risk level to you as the buyer:
1. Upfront TT (Bank Transfer)
Risk level: High
With a bank transfer, the supplier will receive full payment before production starts. This payment method bears a high level of risk to the buyer and generally is not recommended when dealing with an unknown supplier. There is little if any recourse to get your money back if something goes wrong.
2. Letter of credit
Risk level: Medium
A letter of credit is fairly safe for both parties, however it carries some complex procedures and is generally recommended only for larger purchases ($20,000 and above).
3. Western Union
Risk level: High
This is a risky payment method for the buyer that’s not recommended when it comes to paying suppliers if the payment is not protected by escrow. Western Union generally should be used only when dealing with people you know very well. There is no recourse if something goes wrong.
Risk Level: Low
PayPal is a popular payment method for buyers, as it presents much less risk, ease of use, and generally good buyer protection. Although it’s a popular option with buyers, it’s less popular with suppliers due to difficulties in withdrawing money, high tax rates, and potential charge backs from less than honest buyers.
Risk Level: Low
When using an escrow service, the buyer’s money is held by a third party and is only paid to the supplier after the buyer confirms satisfactory delivery of their order. Escrow is a fairly safe payment method for buying and selling online because it protects both the buyer and supplier.
Generally, when you are just starting, you’ll probably want to look for or negotiate with suppliers to either accept PayPal or some type of escrow service to give you the highest level of protection.
Now that you understand how to better protect yourself when performing a transaction on the other side of the globe, it’s time to contact some suppliers. When contacting suppliers overseas, email or WeChat likely will be your main method of communication.
In many cases, suppliers will use a program like Google Translate to translate your email as well as their reply back to you. Remember, computer translation is still an imperfect art, so expect some errors and possible misunderstandings.
To make sure communication is as clear as possible, keep your emails short, concise, well formatted, and free of spelling errors. This not only will help the manufacturer, but ultimately will provide you with more useful replies.
Tip: When asking your questions and formatting your emails to suppliers, it’s best to number your questions so they can easily reply to each one. This keeps the questions and communication clean and organized.
Requesting a quote
Requesting a quote (often referred to as an RFQ or request for quote) is a relatively simple process. However, taking a few extra minutes to plan your email can make a significant difference in the number and quality of replies you receive.
Here are a few important questions to consider for your email:
- Minimum order quantities (MOQs). Even if a listing provides its MOQ, you should double check with the supplier to ensure accuracy. If the MOQs are much higher than what you know you can afford, you’ll want to ask if they are willing to negotiate their minimums. Make sure to give them an idea of what you can afford. Keep in mind, minimum order quantity is almost always negotiable with overseas suppliers.
- Pricing for samples. Samples are important to inspect for quality. You’re going to want to ask what their pricing is for samples right away. Some suppliers that receive a lot of sample requests may change full retail pricing for them, others will offer samples at a discounted rate, and some may even provide samples for free if they feel you’re a serious buyer.
- Production pricing. One of the most important questions is how much your products cost per unit. Many times on Alibaba a supplier will give a range ($2–$3 per unit, for example), but you’ll want to know exactly how much each unit will cost you.
- Production time. Knowing how long it will take to produce your order is an important consideration, and depending your exact business, time can be critical.
- Payment terms. Many suppliers will require new businesses to pay for the full order upfront. This is important to know, since inventory is a major cost for ecommerce startups. You may also want to also ask if they provide payment terms on future orders.
Here’s an example of an email template you may want to consider as a guideline when contacting overseas suppliers from Alibaba:
My name is John, and I am with XYZ Company.
I am interested in placing an order for Widget A. Before I do, however, I just have a few questions:
- What is your minimum order quantity?
- What is your cost per unit, and at what quantity levels do you offer quantity discounts?
- What are your payment terms for new customers?
I would also like to order a sample of Widget A before placing a full order. Can you please send me the cost for the sample, including shipping charges, to:
80 Spadina Ave., Floor 4
Toronto, ON M5V 2J4
As you can see, the sample above is short, concise, and its goal is to make sure at a high level that there is a fit between both parties.
Once you have begun conversations with several suppliers and have a good idea of each of their prices, MOQs, and payment terms, you can begin negotiating with them. As mentioned previously, minimum order quantities are almost always negotiable, it’s simply a matter of asking. Remember, a good negotiation leaves both parties happy with the outcome, so push a little but not too hard.
Weighing your options
Once you’ve narrowed it down to a select few suppliers, you’ll want to weigh all your options. Keep in mind that when doing so, you’ll want to consider more than just price, MOQ, and payment terms. Make sure you factor in how well and how quickly each supplier replied to you. Communication with your supplier can be a critical element of your business going forward, so you’ll want to make sure you start off on the right foot.
Become an Alibaba dropshipper and safely source products for your Shopify store today
Sourcing a reliable supplier for your product from Alibaba might be a new experience but also can be a rewarding one. With some basic knowledge and common safeguards, it can be a safe and profitable business model for your online store. Always do your due diligence, and if a deal feels too good to be true, be ready and willing to walk away. There are a hundred other suppliers you can find in just a few clicks.
Illustration by Pete Ryan
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Alibaba Dropshipping FAQ
Does Alibaba do dropshipping?
Alibaba helps you source products from manufacturers, but you can’t automatically fulfill orders through Alibaba. You can work out a deal with a chosen supplier you find in the marketplace, or you’ll want to hire an order fulfillment service in China or Hong Kong to dropship products from Alibaba.
Can anyone order through Alibaba?
Yes, anyone can order through Alibaba, whether they’re an individual or a company. Alibaba lets you order bulk products from manufacturers in China.
Can you get scammed on Alibaba?
There is a possibility you may get scammed from a supplier on Alibaba, similar to other marketplaces like eBay and Amazon. You’ll want to take precautions when vetting suppliers to avoid getting scammed on Alibaba.
Which is better for dropshipping: Alibaba or AliExpress?
The products you decide to sell dictates which marketplace is better for dropshipping. If you want wholesale or custom white-label goods, Alibaba is a better option. If you want to dropship ready-made products without a minimum order, AliExpress dropshipping may be better for you.
Why is shipping from Alibaba so expensive?
Shipping from Alibaba is so expensive because of how far the United States is from China. Since each supplier has its own shipping costs and delivery times, you can lower potential costs by negotiating with a potential supplier.