If you’re importing products from China, you should be using 1688.com

1688 was launched by Alibaba in 1999 to be the ‘inside of China’ version of Alibaba.

So it’s literally ‘Alibaba for China’. When Chinese retailers & resellers need to find a supplier, they go to 1688.com

So how can you use it from outside of China?

1688.com Pros & Cons

Even from outside of China, anyone can log onto 1688.com and start chatting with suppliers.

Advantages to Using 1688.com

  • Access to great suppliers who are not on Alibaba & don’t have a Western presence
  • Generally cheaper prices (you get to see the ‘non-Westerner’ inside China prices)
  • Fewer outright scams & fraud (as scammers usually target platforms with mainly Western users)

However, there are some big challenges to sourcing on 1688 too…

Disadvantages to Using 1688.com

  • Difficult to search & navigate the site (everything is in Chinese language)
  • Huge language barriers (suppliers often don’t have English-speaking reps)
  • Lack of Alibaba Trade Assurance (think payment terms & return/disputes)

These are tough challenges to overcome, but nothing we weren’t already doing before Alibaba existed. And for those who do overcome the challenges, these disadvantages actually serve as a filter preventing new competitors from finding their best suppliers.

How You Should Use 1688.com

Any Experience Level:

Every person importing products from China should be using 1688 to gather product research & negotiation intel.

Seeing the local prices suppliers quote to each other internally (within China) can be a game-changes when trying to figure out the true costs of manufacturing your products. And can help you know exactly how far to push during price negotiations.

Intermediate Experience Level:

There’s usually a catch when you find suppliers offering significantly lower pricing than you see on Alibaba…

Sourcing products on 1688 is like going back in time and sourcing products on Alibaba pre-2010. This means suppliers often have near-zero knowledge of doing business with non-Chinese, non-local buyers.

What this means is everything is more difficult. For complicated products like electronics, this can spiral out of control quickly…

Did you need a power cable attached to that? Oh, it needed to have a North American plug attached? Ok, here you go. Oh, it needed to actually run on 110v North American outlets? Oh, it doesn’t work? Sorry, we don’t know how to do it.

But for simple products that really can’t be screwed up much, 1688.com can be a great way to squeeze out a little extra profit margin. Maybe you’re tossing in a free deep-clean brush or pack of metal straws with your product. Maybe you want a pallet full of bracelet beads for a local charity event.

If it’s a dead simple product, then you might actually consider sourcing it direct via 1688 and skipping all the middlemen.

You’ll also be forced to learn new importing & international business mechanics along the way, too.

Advanced Experience Level:

If you’re comfortable doing business overseas and confident in your ability to import products from anywhere, then you may find the supplier of your dreams on 1688.com…

These are all suppliers that haven’t been built up solely to make money off the Western e-commerce craze. They aren’t being bombarded by new sellers and startups with VC funding every day.

You can find suppliers who are great at what they do, and are open to partnering in ways that more developed suppliers never could. Just be ready to hold their hands and teach them how to better serve Western markets along the way.

How to Use 1688.com

Step 1: Translate 1688.com Into English

1688.com does not have any native translation feature. So we need to use a browser extension to translate all the text on their website for us.

NOTE: There’s no way to translate the mobile app, so it’s best to do this on a laptop/desktop computer.

If you’re using Google Chrome, I’d recommend the Google Translate Chrome Extension for this.

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After installing, you should see a confirmation message in the top right corner of your screen.

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Now you can go back to 1688.com and refresh the screen. A message should automatically appear asking if you want to translate the website. If not, you can click on the Google Translate Chrome Extension icon in your Toolbar > Extensions menu.

Select your language of choice (probably English), and the website should be automatically translated.

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Now you should be able to roughly understand most things on 1688.com

PROTIP: You can also copy & paste text back and forth in ChatGPT to get translations, or even take screenshots and ask ChatGPT to translate from those. This can be especially useful when talking to suppliers.

Step 2: Find Your Product on 1688.com

There’s 3 ways to search for products on 1688.com, and I’d recommend always trying all 3. There are many products that only show up using 1 of the 3 methods.

NOTE: 1688.com has started requiring you create an account to access some of these features. Use Google Translate to navigate the (somewhat complicated) account creation process if necessary. If needed, you can use a US Passport number to verify your identity.

1) Search by Product Image / Photo

Click on the camera icon inside the search bar to upload a product image/photo. Similar to how a Google Reverse Image Search works, you’ll see all products that visually look similar.

1688 search by image photo

Sometimes the reverse Product Image Search works perfectly, and you see exactly what you were expecting. But don’t be surprised if you see a bunch of irrelevant products either, as that sometimes happens with this search.

You can also reverse-engineer the listings you find with the Product Image Search to find keywords to search for using the methods below…

2) Search by Keywords (Using English Keyboard)

Type your keywords into the search bar using your normal English keyboard, just like you would for any other website.

1688 keyword search english

For example, searching for ‘metal straws’ gives us 4 pages of results. That’s about 200 results, which is a good start.

But there’s more suppliers on 1688.com than that!

3) Search by Keywords (Using Chinese Characters)

The best way to search 1688.com is using Chinese characters. And it’s usually easy to find these Chinese characters using Google Translate.

If I just Google ‘translate metal straw to Chinese’, it will give me the Chinese characters I need to copy & paste back into 1688.com

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Searching 1688.com for 金属吸管 gives me an extra 2,500 results to look at.

So searching via Chinese characters is by far the most productive way to find products. Which makes sense, given this is a marketplace for Chinese sellers.

Step 3: Evaluate Product Listings

1688.com is much less ‘regulated’ than marketplaces like Amazon or Alibaba. So you will need to use more scrutiny when analyzing product listings.

1) Prices Are Often Higher Than Listed

Prices on 1688.com product listings are completely unreliable…

Suppliers often list the best pricing possible, based on massive order sizes. Others price out the cheapest possible version they could make (rather than a high quality version you’d actually want to buy). Others outright lie to generate leads.

Whatever the reason, you can never trust pricing on 1688.com product listings. Assume it’s wrong and always ask.

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NOTE: Prices on 1688.com will always be listed in Chinese Yuan. You can use Google to find the current conversion rate.

2) Minimum Order Quantity (MOQ) Is Usually Accurate

You’ll see the minimum order quantity (MOQ) listed right under the price, either under Lots or Start(ing) Batch. This tells you the minimum order size the supplier is willing to take.

While MOQ is not quite as useful without reliable pricing, it can be useful for qualifying suppliers to make sure they’re the right fit for how many units you’re looking to order.

For instance, our example Metal Straw listing has an MOQ of 100 units…

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That’s pretty low, so I’d be surprised if we could get them for 1.5 Yuan per unit. But it does at least show that this supplier is willing to work with buyers on orders as low as 100 units.

For suppliers that offer both Wholesale and Consumer options, there should be an option above the price/MOQ to toggle between Wholesale & Consumer purchases (it usually says ‘Send’).

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Seeing the supplier’s consumer pricing can be particularly useful in making sure you’re getting the best possible price.

3) Product Photos Are Completely Unreliable

Do not rely on product photos, at all…

Many of the product photos you see on 1688.com are simply good looking photos that the supplier swiped off the internet.

And not for any dishonest reason. Many suppliers are just trying to show off what they’re capable of making (not necessarily anything they’ve actually made).

So always assume the photos you’re seeing are conceptual at best. Ask the supplier for recent product photos, and then verify those with your own 3rd-party inspectors.

Step 4: Evaluate the Suppliers

Before you start sending messages to suppliers, do a quick check for red flags to avoid the obviously bad ones.

1) Check the Supplier’s 1688.com Membership Level

There are 2 paid membership levels that suppliers can sign up for on 1688.com, and you’ll see them all over when searching for products…

Chenxintong (诚)

This is the basic membership for 1688.com, just like the Gold Supplier level in Alibaba. All it means is the supplier submitted a valid business license and pays an annual fee of 6,688 yuan per year (~$1k USD per year).

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This Chenxintong has been selling on 1688.com for 4-years

You’ll also see how long suppliers have been members, which is an even bigger indicator than the membership itself. Scammers and extremely poor performing suppliers usually get kicked off the platform within their first year.

So seeing a supplier with 3-5+ years of this membership level tells you they’re at least not getting kicked off the platform.

Powerful Merchants (Bull Head)

The next level up for suppliers is the Powerful Merchants membership, which is indicated by the Bull Head while searching.

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This Power Merchant has been selling on 1688.com for 4-years

This level is much more expensive, ranging anywhere from ~$4k USD to ~$8k USD per year (I’ve heard different amounts depending on the industry). Suppliers must also meet certain registered capital requirements.

So this membership level does a great job of filtering out bad suppliers, as not many suppliers want to pay so much for a membership unless they’re serious.

Source Factory (厂)

Suppliers at this membership level are the best 1688.com has to offer. These factories are almost definitely experienced, well-run operations.

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This Source Factory has been selling on 1688.com for 7-years

Suppliers pay a staggering ~$120k USD per year for this membership level. They must also have a factory with over 1000 square meters of production space, have annual sales over $1.5mm USD per year, and meet several other 3rd-party verified requirements.

While Source Factory suppliers are often the easiest to work with, they can also have extremely high MOQs. So pick a Source Factory when you can, but don’t completely avoid Powerful Merchants & Chenxintong.

2) Check Basic Company Information

Start by dragging your mouse over the supplier name towards the top of the screen (above the product listing itself). This should open an overview screen where you can see some basic information, as well as reviews & how long they have been a 1688.com member.

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Click into this screen to access the full company information page. You can also access this by clicking on the ‘Company’ tab (sometimes translated to ‘Factory File’).

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The company information page has all the information you need to do a basic safety check on the supplier.

Suppliers who have passed SGS or Intertek certification will have a link to access the full report (along with a VR Factory tour).

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The SGS/Intertek Report provides all the information you could possibly want (and it’s all 3rd-party verified by SGS or Intertek). These can save a lot of time & money on initial factory screening visits.

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But whether or not the SGS report exists, there’s still some basic supplier safety checks you should do. All this can be found on either the Factory File / Company page on 1688.com or the SGS report (if it exists).

  • Establishment Date: Only work with suppliers who have been in business at least 3-years (preferably 5+ years)
  • Number of Employees: You want your supplier to be established (no less than 25-50 employees), but not so established that they won’t do business with small companies like yours (generally less than 1,000 employees, depending on your order volume).
  • Factory / Plant / Office Size: Your supplier should have at least 200 square meters of space, which is about the size of a tennis court. Anything less would likely be a trading company.

3) Check Service & Delivery Guarantees

1688.com allows sellers to offer various guarantees to buyers (similar to Alibaba Trade Assurance, but with generally less coverage.

You can view the guarantees offered by any supplier on their Factory File / Company page.

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You can click on that area to get more information about what exactly is covered, how much coverage is provided, and when it actually kicks in.

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When suppliers offer this, they’re basically putting 3,000 RMB/Yuan (~$400) into an escrow account and only getting it back after you confirm you’re happy with your order.

Keep in mind – these guarantees only apply to orders placed through the 1688.com platform itself. But even if you end up doing business with these suppliers outside the actual 1688.com website, the fact that a supplier offers these guarantees at all is an indicator of a great supplier.

4) Supplier Performance Scores

On the top right of the Factory File / Company page, you’ll see the Suppler Performance Indicators.

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Since these scores are automatically calculated by 1688.com, they’re among the most reliable performance data you’ll have before you actually start working with a supplier.

Here’s what all the different performance indicators actually mean:

  • Factory Brand Level: Comprehensive supplier performance score for the past 30-days, based on all other performance indicators mentioned below. Higher is better.
  • Customized Contract Transactions: Actual transaction value the supplier has done on 1688.com in the past 30-days.
  • On-Time Performance Rate: Percentage of orders that were successfully delivered within the agreed upon delivery timeframe (in the past 30-days).
  • Service Response Rate: Percentage of incoming messages supplier responds to within a reasonable amount of time (in the past 30-days).
  • Intent Customer: Number of potential customers who have conducted in-depth negotiations with the supplier (in the past 30-days).
  • Turnaround / Rate of Second Order: Percentage of customers who have generated two separate orders from the supplier in the past 90-days.

Out of all of these, I think the ‘Turnaround Rate’ (which is really the re-order rate) and the on-time performance are the two best performance indicators to use when vetting new suppliers.

5) Check Certifications, Patents & Awards Later

There’s lots of other useful information on the Factory File / Company pages & 3rd-party inspection reports. Some of my favorites are number of patents the company has, in-house brands the supplier runs, and any awards & certifications they’ve been granted.

But most of the time, you won’t need to dive this deep before actually reaching out and talking with suppliers. At this stage, we’re just trying to quickly filter out and find the top ~20% of suppliers. Once you have them, you can start messaging them.

NOTE: You may still need to send your own 3rd-party inspectors (from a company like Qima) to verify the information on 1688.com for any particular supplier, particularly if the info on 1688.com is not verified by SGS/Intertek. But this would be much later in the process, when actually placing a large order.

Step 5: Contact Suppliers via WeChat

1688.com has a built-in chat system called Alitalk, which you’ll see all over the website.

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However, this is not usually the best way to contact suppliers. Since 1688.com is a domestic Chinese website, not many speak English. And for the supplier, messages on 1688.com are a potential waste of time.

If you want to (help) eliminate the language barrier, and also get into the ‘right inbox’ where suppliers will take you more seriously; then you want to talk to them on WeChat…

WeChat is THE messaging app used throughout China. It’s used for everything you can think of, from paying your bills to renting a bike to public transit to hotels, etc.

So having a WeChat account will automatically make you look more legitimate in the eyes of Chinese suppliers. And being in their main inbox will automatically give you better response times.

On top of that, WeChat also has an incredible translation engine that’s built directly into the messaging platform. So it makes it WAY easier to communicate effectively.

You can download the WeChat app for free on any platform. Then go through the process to create an account.

Once you’re inside your WeChat account, you’ll need to add the supplier you want to talk to as a contact before you can message them.

To add a contact in WeChat, first click on the Contacts Tab.

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In the top right, you’ll see a button to add a new contact.

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Go back to 1688.com and find the supplier’s Contact Information page, which should be next to the Factory File page in the navigation menu. You may need to go back to the supplier’s product page to see/click this link.

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Here you will see the supplier’s contact information, including their phone number.

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Take that phone number, and simply type it into the WeChat Add Contact screen.

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You’ll almost always be able to find at least one phone number that will work in WeChat (although you may need to try them all).

In this example, searching for the supplier’s 1st phone number gave no results. But when I tried searching for their 2nd listed phone number, a WeChat account was found.

Once you find a contact, click the Add button on the bottom of their contact card to actually add them to your contact list.

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This will allow you to send a friend request. You can type in whatever message you’d like, or go with the default.

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Whatever message you choose to send doesn’t matter much, because you’re able to send a message to the supplier immediately using the Send Greeting button that appears on the next screen.

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Now you can type whatever message you’d like, and start a conversation with the supplier.

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That’s it, you’re connected on WeChat! Now you’ll get priority over everybody messaging them on 1688.com, and everything will be automatically translated without any extra action.


Avatar for Will Mitchell
Will Mitchell

Will Mitchell is a serial entrepreneur and Founder of StartupBros. You can learn more about him at the Startupbros about page. If you have any questions or comments for him, just send an email or leave a comment!

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