How to import products from China for your online store

In many ways, if you’re looking for a particular product, there’s a high likelihood that you’ll find it in China. From extremely low-priced goods (with matching quality), to high-quality, higher-end goods, Chinese manufacturers have enormous product catalogues. The question is, how do you select the best supplier for your needs and import the correct goods to South Africa?

Marne Groenewald, product owner at Airpool, a shipment consolidation service that helps business owners cost-effectively bring packages from China to South Africa, unpacks the import journey from sourcing a supplier to receiving your goods.

1. Source the best supplier for your needs

Identifying a new supplier is difficult and it is important to not only focus on the best price but on sourcing the correct quality. Look out for the following characteristics when sourcing a new supplier:
  • Check certifications, including ISO and QS. These certifications may be difficult to obtain, and certain suppliers are not compliant. If a supplier is compliant, they are adhering to certain quality and manufacturing standards.
  • Make sure suppliers are reputable by looking at contact references. These references include reviews, comments, surveys, and feedback from previous clients. Alternatively make sure they are listed on a reputable supplier list, such as 
  • Review product information. Ensure that the suppliers have the correct products for your business.
  • Understand the supplier’s scalability. This refers to the supplier’s ability to adapt to changing requirements, particularly if your volumes will increase quickly.
  • Check the supplier’s inventory information. This includes the supplier’s manufacturing lead times and inventory on hand. These checks help you gain confidence that your supplier can supply products within your required timeframe. 
  • Ensure that you look over the payment terms. These terms should align with your expectations. For example, should payments be made upfront or long-term?
If this process seems daunting and you do not have confidence in your suppliers, use a reliable sourcing service provider who facilitates the sourcing and vetting of reputable suppliers.

If you are planning to buy from Alibaba and Aliexpress, it is also important to know your supplier. Make sure that you have enough information from your supplier to ensure that you are comfortable with the quality of the products you will receive from them. If you do not feel comfortable with the information you are given, make use of a sourcing agent. Do not expect Alibaba and Aliexpress to vet suppliers on your behalf.

2. Determine if you need a shipping agent

The need for a shipping agent in China depends on your supplier. To act as the exporter of record from China, your supplier requires various certificates and licenses. That means that if your imported goods exceed a determined value, a shipping agent is required to handle the shipping and clearing.

3. Understand the shipping journey from China to South Africa

First, products must go through Chinese customs and clearance before they are shipped. Upon arrival in South Africa, all goods must go through clearance of customs and duties. These are calculated and payment of duties and taxes must be made before goods are released and local delivery takes place.

Working with a shipment consolidation service ensures that once your packages arrive in China, they are scanned in and checked to ensure that the correct packages arrived with the correct documentation and content. A proforma invoice is sent to you and after payment, the packages are consolidated and shipped to South Africa. Once your package has arrived in South Africa, the packages are cleared at customs and delivered to your door.

4. Ensure your packages clear customers in China

Different products have different customs requirements. Some products are straight forward and easy to import, where others require import licenses, certificates, or approvals from regulatory authorities. 

To clear customs, a whole list of documents is required. This includes (but is not limited to):
  • A commercial invoice
  • A packaging list
  • HS (Harmonized System) codes
  • Certificate f origin
  • Permits.
The clearance process includes accepting and checking the shipped goods against the available documents, examination of the goods if necessary and the assessment and collection of duties and VAT. Customs may require additional information and may also request samples.

It’s also important to note that different products have different customs requirements. Some products require an import license and others do not. Unnecessary delays in importing are often caused by missing information and customs requirements not fulfilled.

5. Ensure your packages clear customs in South Africa

Leaving China is only one part of the import journey. Your packages need to clear customs on South Africa’s side as well. It’s worthwhile seeking professional advice to assist you.

For example, if you don’t have the necessary documents upfront, your goods could be delayed and result in storage costs, holding costs or demurrage costs. The cost of not knowing what is required for customs clearance could be detrimental to your import costs and could easily outweigh the value of your imported goods.

6. Calculate your import duties

Different import duties apply to different products, such as general import duties, ad valorem import duties, excise duties and so forth. SARS’s website is useful in providing a more detailed guide. 

The import duties are calculated based on the Harmonized System (HS) Codes assigned to each product that is shipped. However, it’s important to note that Tax and VAT implications vary from product to product. 

7. Understand (and plan) for your timeframes

Cost and speed generally go hand-in-hand when shipping goods internationally. The mode of shipping also impacts the timeframe. When using a direct freight-forwarding service with airfreight it can be as quick as five days and using sea freight can take up to two months. The key is in finding the right balance between speed and cost for your business.
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