May 07, 2018

Time flies. This year marks my 20th consecutive year traveling to China regularly to design, develop, source, and manufacture product. It is a country of very industrious and hard-working people who simply have the will to succeed, sometimes at any cost. Capitalism has become an accepted economic aspect of a once strictly communist China, but without many of the consumer protection policies that exist in the USA. Many factories marketing product online and at trade shows aren’t necessarily who they say they are and buying based on sight can be a dangerous gamble. The lure to cut out the middleman and increase your ROI is very tempting but not without risk.

I have learnt, sometimes the hard way, that honest factories making good quality product are busy enough and need not market product for sale on the likes of Alibaba or Made in China online. In fact, the large majority of what you see on these websites are not what you perceive them to be! Are you surprised?

Routinely, I have tried to visit these businesses only to find that the photos of the product, factories and uniformed employees are not real. Today, I found one of our custom products on an Alibaba feed. Curious to see who was copying our MEF designed products, I started to go through the different pictures and sections on this supplier’s site. I used Google reverse image look-up with the photo of their factory building, branded with their logo, and found the exact same image (with the same truck driving in front of the building) on a medical equipment supplier’s website also from China, this time with a different corporate logo on it!

In my 25-years in business I have always made a point to represent what I do, and what I sell, in an honest and forthcoming way. Even if on occasion we have had similar product to another vendor somewhere in the world, our photos are of our products. Every event picture we use, has been taken by us, or one of our customers using our product. We have been involved in the development of the items in our rental furniture collection from concept, to prototype, to sample and then bulk production. I have to wonder, when I see my picture on a website from a “supposed factory” in China online, do buyers believe that what they are seeing was made by “that factory” in “that building”? Who are these people who are pretending to be established businesses online? I know of one in the event furniture market for example, that has and continues to market online under four different aliases, one of which has been cited publicly for child labor practices but still continues to be one of the most present companies online! Myself and my team attempted to visit one of these factories last year, not knowing that it was the same as the other one until we arrived. We were outside their address (and it didn’t look as big and clean as the picture online), but they would not let us enter…you tell me why.

Last week I visited a local established party rental company who has imported product directly from China with mixed experiences. They had a sample of a chair similar to our Garbo chair that was shipped to them from a company they found online. Based on the photos from the factory they placed their order. The shape of the chair was odd, the back waist tiny and the front 21” wide and resembled the photo in no way! The removable seat cushion rested on Velcro attached to a cardboard like material that was screwed to the metal frame of the chair. Would you feel safe renting these out to a wedding or corporate event?  There are many factors to consider when importing, cost-saving being only one of many. As we all well know, event rental furniture differs from residential furniture in many ways; it must be durable, easily moveable, well constructed and designed and functional.  When I first started developing the MEF prototypes, the factories were often confused about the needs specific to the furniture for the event industry; why did it need to be modular? Why did it have to fit through a doorway? Why did it need to be strong but lightweight, isn’t heavier better? We literally designed MEF from the ground up.  We know our products inside and out.  How can you trust a factory found online to understand and meet your specific needs?

In the fall we replaced 500 chairs at a venue that had bought chairs a year earlier from China at what seemed like a good deal. Without fail, 3-4 chairs had legs snapping off per event! Not that the chair wasn’t OK as a residential kitchen chair, but it wasn’t made of the correct gauge of metal or reinforced for the pressure and weight of being stacked and moved around for events. Who are you sending your money to when you find these companies, or with their aggressive nature, they find you? How do you know what is real and what isn’t? How do you know that the sample that you finally convince them to send you is made by them and what their production will look like? I stress that if you decide to source your product independently and not through an experienced, quality importer and company like MEF, that has a presence in the west and in China, that you do your due diligence. When buying from companies like MEF, you’re not only paying for the product itself but for the years of expertise, reliable customer service and time put into the development of every product, from the quality of the materials to the functionality of the design. 

Written by: Charles Kay, MEF President & Creative Director.