Entrepreneur’s Guide to Finding Suppliers at the Canton Fair

Comprehensive guide to maximize your time and find great suppliers at the Canton Fair to supercharge your business.

Luis Gan, VP Business Dev

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November 11, 2018

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The Canton Fair is China’s the oldest, largest, and most representative trade fair held in the autumn and spring seasons in Canton (Guangzhou).

Canton Fair History
Since the first Canton Fair 1975, the event has grown host 60,000 exhibitor booths of China’s top enterprises, bringing in more than 200,000 buyers from all over the world, with an estimated business turnover value of 30 billion USD. Source

I’ve been attending the fair for a few years now and every time, it proves a great opportunity to catch the latest trends, find new products to sell, catch up with my current suppliers, source for alternative suppliers, and network with other entrepreneurs.

Photo taken at my latest trip to the fair.

It is a melting pot of China’s largest and most established manufacturers, traders, and research & development firms, together with business owners, purchasers, and entrepreneurs from every country imaginable.

Remember that suppliers pay a lot of money to be there and they mean to do big business. Small businesses or those just starting out will find it difficult to transact with these suppliers. Nevertheless, it is still an experience I would recommend to anyone.

As an entrepreneur or business owner, surely you will find great product ideas, meet fellow entrepreneurs, and be amazed at what the world’s largest economy has to offer.

The Canton Fair is split into 3 phases, each going on for 5 days.

Here are the dates for the 125th Canton Fair Happening in Spring of 2019 with the product categories per phase.

Phase 1: 15th-19th April 2019 - Electronics & Household Electrical Appliances; Hardware & Tools; Machinery; Vehicles & Spare Parts; Building Materials; Lighting Equipment; Chemical Products; Energy Resources; International Pavilion

Phase 2: 23rd-27th April 2019 - Consumer Goods; Gifts; Home Decorations

Phase 3: 1st-5th May 2019 – Textiles & Garments; Shoes; Office Supplies, Cases & Bags, Recreation Products; Medicines, Medical Devices, Health Products; and Food; International Pavilion

For a more detailed list of the exhibitors and products, click here.

This article is a simple and thorough guide for entrepreneurs and business owners to maximize your time and find suppliers at the Canton Fair to supercharge your business.

For non-Chinese speakers, attending the Canton Fair for the first time may be daunting, but rest assured that following these steps will make your trip worthwhile and worry-free.

We will be tackling everything from transportation and accommodation, registration, things to bring, gadgets, hacks, tips on how to interact with Chinese suppliers, and how to bring orders into the country.

Warning - a lengthy article is to follow, but this is an accumulation of everything I’ve done and researched over the years about the fair, and the objective is to be the only guide you’ll ever need to read.



Hotel & Flight Booking
Where to Fly
It is best to book your flight and hotel early, around 2-3 months in advance. Plane tickets can get very expensive and the best accommodations tend to get fully booked during the fair.

Flying to Baiyun Airport in Guangzhou is the most convenient place to land, but you can also land in Hong Kong and take a bullet train into Guangzhou which takes only 48 minutes.

Where to Stay
If your intention is solely to visit the Canton Fair, there are a few hotels conveniently situated a few minutes walk away from the complex. This erases the need to take public transportation which can get crowded during closing time. (around 5:00 - 6:00 pm)


However, Guangzhou is a wonderful city with much to do, places to see, and delicious food to eat. So for those planning to roam around at night, it would be best to stay in places near the Metro stations or areas not far from the Pearl River which are easy to get to and from using taxis.

How Long to Stay
The length of your stay is dependent on how many items you’re looking to source or suppliers you intend to meet. Staying for the entire phase may be a bit lengthy, but you will surely need more than a day to cover a significant part of the fair which spans a total area of 1,185,000 M2.

TIP: On the last day of the fair, some suppliers sell their display items or overrun stocks to the visitors of the fair. This would be a good opportunity to purchase samples to bring home, or items for personal use. We snagged samples, clothes, luggage, and food items for unbelievably low prices. It could be worthwhile to extend your trip to for that last day.



Things to prepare
Chinese Visa
A Chinese Visa is required to enter the country, save for a few countries. Find out if you need a Chinese Visa here. It takes about a week to process and is simple to apply for. You can find the link to the application form and all necessary information here.  

Registration
You may pre-register for the Canton Fair online to speed up the registration process. You’ll need to secure a Buyer’s Invitation Letter and Buyer’s Badge for every member of your company attending. Here is a great video that walks you through the application process because the Canton Fair website is very tricky to navigate.

WeChat
Since most messenger apps are blocked in China, using WeChat is the best method for communicating with companions and with people back home. This is also the easiest way to chat and connect with suppliers.

Virtual Private Network (VPN)
Google Search, Google Apps, Facebook, and a number of other websites and apps are banned in China. However, you can access them through a VPN (Virtual Private Network).

Two great examples are SuperVPN and TurboVPN but you can find a number of others on the App Store or Google Play Store. Download more than one VPN before entering China incase any of them fails because you won’t be able to download them from there.

Translator
For non-Chinese speakers, Guangzhou can be a challenging city as majority of the locals do not speak English.

Suppliers inside the fair would have an English speaking salesperson which is enough to discuss item specifications, but would be better to have a translator for more complex discussions, in the form of a hired translator or a mobile app.

I recommend using Pleco, a chinese dictionary mobile app that translates words and phrases, and works offline. YouDao is a translator app that lets you input via keyboard, voice, and taking photos. It worked very well, but requires you to be connected to the internet. Both can be downloaded in the App Store or Google Play Store.

Attire
Navigating the fair is physically taxing, so make sure to wear comfortable clothes, keeping it smart-casual which is what most attendees wear. A comfortable pair of shoes is essential.

Tools
Bring a pen and notebook to jot down notes when meeting suppliers, and a stapler for attaching calling cards to pages. This was a very effective method of keeping track of the booths and suppliers we visited, and allowed us to review them easily.

Bring business cards – a good number of them. Suppliers will give you a card and ask for yours in return.

TIP: Create a separate email address specifically for the Canton Fair. A number of people experienced receiving a lot of spam mail from suppliers, even years after the fair had finished. Avoid getting these in your personal email and use the separate email address on your card.

Aside from a backpack or handbag, its advised to bring a wheeled luggage to hold catalogues and samples. As you accumulate more handouts from suppliers, they tend to get very heavy. It may seem like a hassle to bring around, but your body will thank you later.

Map
The fair complex has 3 major areas (A, B, and C) 16 halls, with some reaching 3-4 floors. Best to take a map with you, because knowing where to enter, where to register, and where to find your suppliers will save you a lot of time.



Navigating the Canton Fair

Getting to the Fair
The best way to get there is via taxi for convenience plus you can ask the driver to drop you off at entrances closer to your desired area for the day. Taxis cost anywhere between 12-35 RMB (1RMB = ~8PHP) depending on your distance from the fair. Most drivers would know the Canton Fair as 广交会 GuǎngJiāoHuì.

Taking the subway is more economical and you can get down at two stations on Line 8 at either end of the fair complex - Xingang East Station for the area A, or Pazhou Station for area B. However, it does tend to get crowded in the morning and at closing time.

Getting your Buyer’s Badge
At the fair, first time goers must pick up their Buyer’s Badges at the designated locations. Signs and directions are written in English and will be easy to find. There will be a lot of people registering, but the lines move pretty quickly due to the numerous counters open for registration.

Strategize and Plan Ahead
You need to plan ahead on which areas to prioritize, how long to dedicate to those areas, and which areas are not priorities to visit. With the sheer size of the fair grounds, failing to plan ahead will get you lost and can waste a lot of time.  

I recommend using the first 1-2 days of your stay to scout for promising suppliers, get their cards and catalogues, and learn general information about the companies. However, use any method that fits your schedule and objective best.

TIP: Just like taking a time pressured exam, don’t spend so much time at any one supplier’s booth right away because of the sheer number of suppliers to meet. Sometimes, you may miss meeting a good supplier due to lack of time.

Building a supplier’s catalogue
With the number of suppliers you will encounter, it is easy to lose track of which companies made which products, and where to find them again.

I recommend making your own catalogue using a notebook and stapler.
When you visit a stall you find interesting, ask for an English speaker to exchange calling cards with and ask for a catalogue. They only usually give a card if you give one in return.


Staple the card in your notebook a
nd use the space to write down notes. Important things to ask for are:

Request to view samples, photos, or catalogues while in their booth. Go over the sample material and build quality carefully because it would be difficult to get another chance to see them.

TIP: Not all suppliers allow you to take lots of photos. But when allowed to, take photos of samples and place the supplier’s calling card beside the item to identify them easily. You can also take photos of the booth and the sellers to help remember what you’ve seen.

This will give you just enough information to decide if the seller is worth pursuing or transacting with.

The last thing to note is the booth address which is written on their signage (for example, 5.2 H-10 which means hall 5, 2nd floor, row H, booth 10) In the vast expanse of the Canton Fair, this is how you can find the exact location of the booth.

With this basic information, you can move along to maximize your time at the fair and see as many suppliers as you can. Gather information, take note of the good ones, and move on.

IMPORTANT: You will surely find a worthwhile supplier but not if you run out of time. Not all suppliers at the fair are on websites Alibaba.com or JD.com, so you may not find them any other way.

Once the fair is over, go over the suppliers you met for the day and make a plan when to visit again. Your next visit is where you make negotiations, place orders, exchange shipping information, and discuss terms.  

IMPORTANT: Do not wait until the last day of the fair to return. A large number of suppliers start packing up in the morning of the last day and you may miss your chance to return to them.



Dealing with suppliers

Negotiating with suppliers
Suppliers pay a lot of money to be at the Canton Fair, and must recoup this cost by getting new customers and growing their business.

If you find exactly the product you need, you can negotiate prices, terms, and can place the order right there. Some suppliers will even offer to bring you to visit their production facilities.

For smaller businesses that cannot right away meet the MOQ, you must convince the suppliers of the benefits of working with you and fulfilling your small order. It is not in their best interest to deal with small businesses, but you can argue that expanding to new countries and testing the market is always a good move for them.

Some suppliers that are used to large volumes may be willing to ship small orders, but you must sell the idea that doing business with you is going to be worth their time and effort.

Needless to say, relationship-building at the Canton Fair is seriously important. Being polite and likeable can go a long way and open a lot of doors for small businesses.





Shipping

Most of the suppliers will deliver Free On Board (FOB) - which means they will handle shipping costs from their factory to the port of lading (the port where the items go onboard a ship). Different suppliers will have their preferred ports from where you will need to arrange shipment from the port to your destination country with the help of a freight forwarder.

Another alternative is to have your goods shipped via air freight for small and lightweight items that need to arrive immediately.

Freight forwarders are companies that organize shipments for customers and handles the entire delivery process from trucking, shipping, customs brokerage, and delivery.

Taikuun is a marketplace that connects you with trusted freight forwarders and helps you receive quotations for your shipments.

Always take into account shipping cost when buying from suppliers in China as this can dramatically increase your costs when not carefully dealt with. Taikuun lets you compare quotations from different freight forwarders and helps you select the best one for your business.

You may also find Chinese freight forwarders in their booths commonly located in the bridgeway connecting Areas A & B to Area C. Different forwarders specialize in shipping to specific regions and countries. However, they will have to work with a local customs broker to successfully import your items.

For businesses that regularly import items for commercial use, it is recommended to secure an import license as soon as possible. You may find Taikuun’s guide for securing an import license here.

Conclusion
There are other ways to search for suppliers in China that can save a lot of time, effort, and money. Attending the Canton Fair is costly and time-consuming. But if you come prepared to maximize your time and resources,  you can unlock amazing opportunities, source for quality products, and provide an invaluable learning experience for you and your business.

Luis Gan

Taikuun VP for Business Development

Former Procter & Gamble Sales and Key Account Manager
University of PH Business Admin Magna Cum Laude 2017

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