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When East Meets West

Tips to make getting to know your Chinese supplier a little easier

The Internet is rapidly closing the distance between the East and the West, and making commerce between two cultures very simple. Just think: Without ever leaving your home, you can now find inventory thousands of miles away in Asia, order items in a matter of minutes and have that merchandise selling in your store or eBay listings in mere weeks!

It’s an exciting time filled with possibilities. But while locating and purchasing products on the other side of the world is easier than ever, when it comes to interacting with overseas suppliers, many Western sellers may feel somewhat intimidated. After all, these vendors not only speak a different language, they also have very different cultural values and customs, which influence their business practices. It’s understandable to feel anxious: When you’re sourcing internationally, you already have plenty to think about, including prices, shipping options, inventory selection and so on.

But a little knowledge can go a long way, so we’ve compiled a few of the most important things to be aware of when you do business overseas. We focused on Chinese suppliers, since China is becoming “the worlds manufacturing plant,” according to experts. Here’s what you should know about our neighbors to the east to make your transactions easier.

A celebratory culture

If you visited AliExpress at the end of January, you likely saw a note near the top of any given listing, letting shoppers know that the seller was away and unable to ship products until Feb. 8.

Essentially, the vendor was on vacation, enjoying one of the 115 holidays (aka days off) some Chinese take off work every year. Some of these are single-day festivities; others last several days. The aforementioned vacation notice was due to China’s Spring Festival, what we know as Chinese New Year. The 15-day festival is filled with food, gatherings of family and friends, gifts, etc.—much like the Christmas holidays in the Americas and Europe.

Don’t worry if you mispronounce Chinese phrases. They’ll be thrilled that you put forth the effort

During the Spring Festival, many people travel from their current cities of residence to the homes of relatives, leaving behind their businesses for several days. Sellers continue to take orders, but shipments won’t go out until after the festivities have concluded. They’ll do the same during the Qingming Festival (April 3 to April 5), the Dragon Boat Festival (June 4 to June 6), the Mid-Autumn Day (Sept. 10 to Sept. 12), and several other celebrations.

This means that if you order an item during one of these holidays, you’ll likely be waiting a few days longer than you typically would for your order. There are a number of holidays in the Chinese calendar you’ll want to be aware of, so check out this holiday list to ensure you’ll know what to expect throughout the year.

Business phrases

Of course, the biggest difference you’ll notice between yourself and your vendor is language. Most of the vendors you’ll work with will either speak good English or use translator programs, so—apart from occasionally deciphering mildly broken English—communication should be relatively uncomplicated. But there’s no such thing as being too prepared when it comes to your business.

Below are a few phrases you should keep on hand as you conduct your sourcing activities. Take a moment to write these down, and store them somewhere you’ll remember for the future. These phrases will definitely come in handy when you’re communicating via instant messenger or e-mail:

Can that number go down? Zhege shuzi keyi zou liao ma?
Can I get a discount? Wo neng dedao de zhekou?
How much does shipping cost? Yunfei duoshao qian?
Is there a minimum order requirement? Shifou you zuidi dinggou liang de yaoqiu?
How long will it take to arrive? Xuyao duo chang shijian daoda?

You might even want to use Google Translate to work out a few other phrases you think you’ll need.

Don’t forget about everyday courtesy, either. You want to be polite in your business dealings to foster a good working relationship, so take a moment to jot down:

Hello! Ni hao
Goodbye. Zaijian
Thank you. Xiexie
I’ll be in touch. Wo hue lianxi

And, though you’ll probably find the answer to this question at the top of most listings, it can’t hurt to know how to ask:

“How much is this?” Zhege duoshao qian?

It’s a basic question in any transaction that one should always be prepared to ask.

Now, if you happen to be on a Skype call with a supplier, it’s helpful to know a bit about pronouncing certain letter combinations that we don’t typically see in the English language. This article explains the most common ones. But don’t worry if you mispronounce these phrases. They’ll be thrilled that you put forth the effort.

Social business

Chinese business people take time to chat, and often let this take precedence over business

As you negotiate prices and inventory, you’ll also notice that your vendor is very interested in casual conversation, and getting to know you. As we researched cultural differences, we learned that the Chinese business people are much more social than Westerners tend to be. They take time to chat, and often let this take precedence over business.

This means you should allow yourself extra time when talking or meeting in person with your vendor. But you should also take full advantage of this social aspect, as Auctiva Product Analyst Rebecca Miller discovered when she was looking to source from AliExpress.

Having never purchased from a seller abroad, Miller wanted to be thorough, to ensure both she and her vendor would have a good experience. That meant asking a lot of questions. As a seller, herself, Miller worried this might annoy the supplier, but she found the sellers very accommodating.

“They never seem bothered to answer my many, many, many questions,” she says. “It was reassuring.”

So, take note. Ask as many questions as you have. And take your time in dealing with your vendor, whether it’s via instant messenger, over the phone or in person. The whole point is to build relationships with your vendors. If your talks veer away from business, let them. Use this time to get to know a seller on a more personal level, so you two will be more likely to do business together again later.

Go with the flow

Now, if you find that you need to visit China to meet face to face with a supplier, you’ll definitely notice other cultural differences as you’re out and about. Here are a couple of important considerations.

No lines: If you visit an eatery in China, you’ll notice right away that people do not queue up for anything. While the Chinese culture emphasizes the group over the individual, it’s every person for him or herself when it comes to buying something or getting service. People don’t wait in line to be served; they simply make their way through the crowd to get service. If you want to eat, you’ll need to do the same, so don’t be bashful.

Restaurant etiquette: And while you’re out enjoying the cuisine, resist the temptation to clear your table after you’ve finished eating. On this side of the pond, we’re used to gathering our wrappers, napkins, etc., when we eat at certain restaurants. You don’t want to do this in China. Someone will do it for you. In fact, it’s their job; it keeps them employed. But don’t leave a tip for this service. The person tidying the table is just doing his or her job and leaving a tip is considered rude.

There you have it: a crash course in Chinese culture, and how it can impact your business dealings. Now, get busy sourcing and enjoy the profits—and the interesting people you’ll meet along the way!

About the author

Olga Munoz
Olga Munoz is editor of In addition to writing news and feature articles about e-commerce, selling trends, online marketing and other topics of interest to online sellers, Olga manages the site's social media efforts. A journalism graduate of Chico State, Olga says her favorite part of being a journalist is learning interesting facts that help put stories into perspective, attending industry events and meeting interesting people "that leave you smiling, even in tough situations." Opinions expressed here may not be shared by The Online Seller and/or its principals.

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