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Buying Product Samples from Alibaba – The Ultimate Guide

Product Samples from Alibaba

This post is basically for people that orders from Alibaba. As you are aware, Alibaba is quite different not as straight and direct as Aliexpress and other retail sites.There are so many criteria involved in buying goods from Alibaba, one of which is to understand how to go about product sampling. Getting product samples is essential to your success, If you want to have a stress and scam free transaction on Alibaba, You need to learn the art of Product sampling.

What is a product sample and why do you need one? A product sample is a specimen from a previous batch, used to showcase the suppliers’ products and quality standard. Since Alibaba manufacturers rarely keep products in stock, a product sample is the only quality reference you’ll get. However, getting it right requires a bit more than asking a supplier for a sample and then place the order based on whatever dropped into your post box. Let’s begin with having a look at the 3 types of product samples:

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Factory samples

A factory sample is a standard product specimen from a previous batch. It was manufactured according to the customer’s product specifications. These product specifications may or may not match yours. This can be rather troublesome for many inexperienced importers who orders a sample, approves it and tells the supplier that they want to have “the same thing”.

The problem here is that the supplier might not even be aware according to which materials, components and certification standard the sample was made. Result? You’ll end up getting a product that differs from the product sample to a small or large degree.

A factory sample is a good indication of a supplier’s quality standard and expertise. However, it’s not a replacement for a product specification and a sales agreement.

Factory samples tend to be quite cheap, but for natural reasons the price depends on the product. Sometimes suppliers even hand them out for free, but you are expected to pay for delivery. I also suggest that you order samples from multiple suppliers. In my experience up to 70% of the samples I receive tend to be substandard or not matching the client’s quality requirements. If you have samples coming in from several suppliers you can save yourself a lot of precious time.

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Customized samples (ODM or OEM)

First I begin by explaining the difference between OEM and ODM. OEM stands for Original Equipment Manufacturing and is generally referred to a product that is customized in various ways. This includes, but is not limited to products with a customized design, colors, features, or functions.

ODM, Original Design Manufacturing is basically a “light version” of OEM where a buyer orders a product based on the suppliers design (i.e. product specifications) and brands it with their own logo. Basically it’s factory design combined with the branding.

So, why do you need an OEM or ODM sample? Because you can’t be sure whether a supplier is actually capable of manufacturing your customized product until you’ve seen it with your own eyes. A few months ago I managed the outsourcing process for a lady. She wanted to buy Ladies Shoes, so I found a bunch of Chinese suppliers for her. To each one of these suppliers I sent out a number of reference samples and asked them to replicate these, but with the the lady’s logo and customized design elements.

It turned out that 3 out of 5 suppliers didn’t get anywhere near what the client had in mind. For the other two it took them several weeks, and a bunch of sample revisions, before they got it right. So, what’s the moral of this story? If I would’ve made a supplier selection without ordering any OEM samples I would’ve been in a world of shit. The lady would’ve received a batch of shoes so substandard that I would’ve been surprised if even the junkyard would accept them.

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While an OEM or ODM sample shall represent the design and quality standard of the final product to the largest degree possible, it’s not always that easy. There are certain limitations tied to manufacturing that makes it impossible to the supplier to make an ODM or OEM sample that is complete representation of what the final product will look like. Colors are one of those things. Dyeing a fabric or other material is quite expensive and requires a certain quantity in order to be viable.

If you’re planning to import customized products from China – order customized samples before you place any order. While it might cost a bit of money (could be anything from ten dollars to several thousand dollars) it’s the only way to really find out if a supplier is qualified to take your orders. Actions speak louder than words, especially on Alibaba

What if a supplier can’t get your product sample right? Dump them, and go to the next one. A supplier is either qualified or not qualified. It’s not your job to train them and if they can’t get it right even though you’ve provided them with clear and consist product specifications, you’re better off somewhere else.

Batch samples

This is serious business. A batch sample comes straight from your production. It’s your product and it’s suppose to represent the overall quality of your batch. If this one doesn’t look right you’re in deep water.

Collecting a batch sample is easier said than done. If you ask your supplier to send a batch sample I can assure that they’ll send a batch sample that doesn’t represent the overall quality of the production. They’ll send you the best sample. Meanwhile on Alibaba, the production might be a complete disaster. You either collect the batch samples yourself, or you send a trusted agent to do it for you. Never, I really mean never, trust your supplier to do this for you.

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What should you do if something is wrong with the batch sample? These things happen, and you are much better off discovering any non-compliance before you’ve paid the balance payment. While you should expect 0.5 – 2% of the batch to be defective, the rest shall be in full compliance with your product specifications. Withhold the balance payment until the supplier has repaired or remade the entire lot. Never, and again I really mean never, give in to a suppliers demand to pay up in full before they’ve manufactured the complete batch and in full compliance with your product specifications.

Do I need to pay for product samples?

Yes, in general you do. Factory samples tend to be cheap and sometimes free. However, you are pretty much always expected to pay for the delivery fee. Customized samples can cost anything from ten dollars to several thousand, depending on the product and the complexity. Customized samples require a lot of work and it might take several revisions before the supplier get’s it right. I’ve found this to be especially true for fashion and computer products, while plastic and other molded products tend to be a bit more straight forward.

What if a supplier refuse to provide you with a sample?

That means the supplier got something to hide. A well established manufacturer in China is certain to keep samples and ordering product samples is an integral part of any self respecting importers procurement routine.

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When is the right time to order a sample?

Don’t start off with buying a lot of samples before you’ve made a bit of price research and confirmed whether or not a supplier is compliant with the required product certification standards. The sample costs add up quite quickly if you order them from several suppliers and it’s a waste of time and money to buy them from suppliers that are not qualified to begin with.

Let your suppliers compete!

Receiving a factory sample can take weeks. The supplier might need to wait for a batch to finish in order to acquire them and the delivery can take anything from 3 days to 2 weeks. By the time you receive them a month might have passed by. Considering the high reject rate (assuming you’re quite picky and want to import a product that people will actually buy) you don’t want to end up in a situation where you’ve wasted time waiting for bad samples. Order factory samples from every supplier you consider to be qualified and you are quite likely to receive samples from at least 2 or 3 that are of further interest.

Supplier competition is even more important when it comes to the customized samples. I’ve dealt with countless of situations where the importer gets caught up with a bad supplier who simply cannot get it right. This is really dangerous. The end game is usually that importer accepts a substandard product and perhaps even a price increase. Sounds strange? Not really. At this time the importer has already spent weeks, and quite a bit of money, working with a supplier.

MUST READ:How Importation from China Works; First Hand Experience from an Importer.

Backing down at this stage and go looking for a new supplier is off the charts since the importer needs to get their product on the market. They simply can’t wait any longer and the supplier knows this. In other words it’s a golden opportunity for the supplier to lower the quality AND jack up the prices at the same time. Voila!

Thus you shall not rely on one supplier to make your customized sample, and certainly not make a final supplier selection until you’ve received one. Send your product specification (and reference samples if you got any) to a minimum of 3 suppliers and let them do their best. This approach is a bit more costly but can save your business from a lot of trouble, and perhaps more importantly – get your products on the market much faster.

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Since I was a 22-year-old undergraduate in University, I've run a home-based business importing products from China and generating millions of Naira on a yearly basis. Since then, I've made China and its culture not only a key part of my business but also of my personal life.


  1. 1,Do you travel to China?
    2,How do you order samples or supplies without losing your money?
    3,How do you recognize a genuine company?

  2. pls Wole i am just intending to start the importation business and i need guide because i am confused

  3. interesting post about samples.. i was doubting about it


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