Sourcing from China: Manufacturers vs Trading Companies

Sourcing from China with RubyCoded

Sourcing from China has become an integral strategy for businesses looking to leverage cost advantages and diverse manufacturing capabilities. However, one crucial decision that can significantly impact your sourcing success is choosing between manufacturers and trading companies.

This article will explore the differences, benefits, and potential pitfalls of working with each option to help you make an informed choice, and offer you alternatives to these two choices.

Understanding Manufacturers and Trading Companies

When sourcing from China, businesses often face the dilemma of choosing between working directly with manufacturers or through trading companies. Many newcomers to the sourcing scene may not fully understand the differences between these options, often mistakenly thinking that all suppliers are the same.

Each option comes with its own set of advantages and disadvantages. These can significantly impact the efficiency, cost, and quality of your supply chain. Understanding these differences is crucial for making an informed decision that aligns with your business needs.

Even seasoned sourcing professionals recognize that dealing with suppliers from China presents unique challenges and peculiarities. Whether you are new to sourcing or have years of experience, grasping the nuances between manufacturers and trading companies is essential for optimizing your sourcing strategy and achieving business success.

Let’s look at what each of them offer before we start our comparison on the different options for sourcing from China.

What is a Manufacturer?

A manufacturer is a company that produces good that produce goods and sell them directly to you without intermediaries. They have their own factories, equipment, and workforce. Manufacturers are directly involved in the creation process, from sourcing raw materials to the final product assembly.

Pros of working with manufacturers:

  1. Cost savings: Direct dealings with manufacturers often result in lower costs as there are no middlemen involved.
  2. Customisation: Manufacturers can offer more flexibility and customisation options for your products.
  3. Quality control: Direct oversight of the production process allows for better quality control.

Cons of working with manufacturers:

  1. Communication barriers: Language differences and cultural nuances can lead to misunderstandings.
  2. Minimum order quantities (MOQs): Manufacturers often have high MOQs, which might not be suitable for smaller businesses.
  3. Limited variety: Manufacturers typically specialise in certain products, which might limit the variety of products you can source from one supplier.
  4. Complex negotiations: Direct negotiations can be time-consuming and require a deep understanding of the local market.
  5. Complex logistics: Managing logistics and coordination directly with multiple manufacturers can be complicated and time-consuming.

What is a Trading Company?

A trading company acts as an intermediary between the buyer and the manufacturer. They source products from various manufacturers and supply them to buyers, adding a markup for their efforts. Note that we are talking about international trading companies in this article and not local ones that deal with trading within China.

Pros of working with trading companies:

  1. Convenience: Trading companies can simplify the sourcing process by handling negotiations, logistics, and quality control.
  2. Lower MOQs: They can often aggregate orders from multiple buyers to meet manufacturers’ MOQs.
  3. Market knowledge: Trading companies usually have extensive market knowledge and networks, so they can help you find the right manufacturer for your needs.
  4. Streamlined logistics: They handle the logistics and coordination, reducing the burden on your business.
  5. Simplified communication: Trading companies that usually have an international sales team with better language skills and cultural understanding for the target market.

Cons of working with trading companies:

  1. Higher costs: The convenience comes at a price, as trading companies add their margin on top of the manufacturer’s price.
  2. Limited transparency: You might not have direct visibility into the production process, which can impact quality control.
  3. Potential miscommunication: Adding another layer to the communication process can sometimes lead to delays and misunderstandings.

Key Considerations

1. Pricing

Going direct to the source means getting the best prices when sourcing from China. However, while factories tend to be experts at production, they often lack international trading expertise, especially smaller factories.

Larger factories would have a sales and marketing team or department, but guess where their salaries and sales commissions come from? Of course, with enough scale of economics, they could lower their costs and direct those savings to the sales and marketing team instead of passing on the costs to the clients.

2. Product Complexity and Customisation Needs

When your product requires significant customisation or has complex specifications, working directly with a manufacturer can be highly beneficial. Direct communication allows for better alignment on intricate product details and modifications. You can explain nuanced design elements or functionality requirements without information being lost through intermediaries, and tap into the manufacturer’s specialised knowledge about materials and production processes.

However, it’s important to note that working directly with manufacturers requires more time, effort, and potentially language skills on your part. You’ll need to be prepared to manage the relationship closely and possibly visit the factory in person. It can be challenging if you lack experience in working with factories on customisation, or if you’re unfamiliar with dealing with Chinese companies. In such cases, seeking guidance from experienced professionals can help navigate these complexities more effectively.

3. Order Size and Frequency

For businesses placing large and frequent orders, working directly with manufacturers often proves more cost-effective. These factories are typically equipped to handle high-volume production and can offer better pricing for bulk orders. Direct relationships with manufacturers can also lead to streamlined processes, potentially resulting in faster turnaround times and more consistent quality for regular, large-scale production runs.

On the other hand, if your business deals with smaller or irregular orders, trading companies can be invaluable partners. They often have the ability to consolidate orders from multiple clients, helping you meet MOQs that might otherwise be out of reach.

Trading companies also provide more flexibility in terms of order sizes and frequency, making them a suitable option for businesses with fluctuating demand or those still testing the market. Their diverse supplier networks can offer you a wider range of options and the agility to adapt to changing needs.

4. Hidden Costs and Challenges

Dealing Directly with Manufacturers

While manufacturers may offer lower upfront costs, there are hidden expenses to consider:

  • Quality control: Ensuring product quality requires frequent inspections and potentially hiring third-party inspection services.
  • Logistics: Managing shipping, customs, and import duties can be complex and costly without the right expertise.
  • Cultural barriers: Misunderstandings due to cultural and language differences can lead to costly errors and delays.

Challenges with Trading Companies

  • Higher Product Costs: Trading companies add their margin, which increases the overall cost of the product.
  • Transparency Issues: Limited visibility into the manufacturing process can lead to quality issues and difficulties in addressing production problems.

Sourcing Agents and Companies

Sourcing agent

Besides purchasing manufacturers and trading companies, there’s a third option when sourcing from China. Sourcing agents and companies are similar to trading companies in that they act as intermediaries between you and the manufacturers. However, there are key differences to consider.


  1. Intermediary Role: Both sourcing agents and trading companies act as intermediaries, handling communication, logistics, and negotiations.
  2. Access to multiple suppliers: They provide access to a network of suppliers, offering a variety of products and solutions.
  3. Simplified process: Both simplify the sourcing process by managing the complexities of dealing with multiple manufacturers.


  1. Fee structure: Sourcing agents typically charge a service fee or commission, while trading companies add a markup to the product cost. You know how much you’re paying for the services and products.
  2. Transparency: Sourcing agents often provide more transparency about the manufacturers they work with, giving you better visibility into the supply chain, on top of the transparent pricing.
  3. Customisation and control: Sourcing agents might offer more control over customisation and quality control compared to trading companies, since they are in effect dealing with the factories on your behalf.
  4. Focus and expertise: Sourcing agents often specialise in certain industries or products, providing deeper expertise and tailored solutions.

Summary of Pros and Cons


  • Pros: Direct pricing, customisation, production control, long-term relationships.
  • Cons: Higher MOQs, communication barriers, limited variety, complex logistics.

Trading companies:

  • Pros: Lower MOQs, product variety, simplified communication, streamlined logistics.
  • Cons: Higher costs, less control, transparency issues, potential quality issues.

Sourcing agents and companies:

  • Pros: Access to multiple suppliers, simplified process, transparency, tailored solutions.
  • Cons: Service fees, varying levels of control and customisation.

Choosing between the different options is a decision that hinges on your specific needs, resources, and market understanding. By carefully evaluating your business requirements and leveraging the expertise of sourcing partners, you can navigate the complexities of international trade and find success sourcing from China.

Sourcing from China with RubyCoded

Navigating the complexities of sourcing from China can be challenging, but it doesn’t have to be. Our bilingual team has cultivated deep insights and knowledge through over a decade of industry experience and living in China. We’ve gained first-hand how to bridge cultural gaps, communicate effectively with suppliers, and overcome common pitfalls in the sourcing process.

Our unique perspective combines local expertise with an international outlook, allowing us to support both Chinese companies expanding globally and international startups bringing their ideas to life in China. We’ve experienced the intricacies of quality control, IP protection, and logistics in this dynamic market.

We’re passionate about sharing our experience to help others succeed in their sourcing journey. We’re so passionate about this for a reason. Our journey has connected us with a network of reliable manufacturers and organisations like the Shenzhen Maker Supply Chain Alliance, insights we’re eager to pass on to others.

If you’re interested in learning more about sourcing from China, sign up for our newsletter. We regularly share articles filled with practical tips, industry trends, and lessons learned from our years of experience. It’s our way of offering valuable knowledge to help you navigate your own sourcing journey with confidence.