The minefield of buying stainless steel online.

Buying blind out of china
The minefield of buying in China!


Today’s internet has, without doubt, opened up the world with just a click of a button!

We can now sit in our living room and find out anything from anywhere on the planet without lifting more than one finger. Want to know how many teeth, on average, a monitor lizard has? Two clicks and you have it in front of you!  (Before you start looking… its 101! – 78 premaxillary teeth, 10 maxillary and 13 dentary teeth). Nothing is beyond our reach

It has also revolutionised the way we buy! You can literally buy anything on line. From a button to a Bentley! In our industry the effect has been just as dramatic!

So can you buy stainless steel online?

In the past we would have had a list of suppliers based in our own domestic market and, possibly, a few good International suppliers recognised throughout the industry. Not anymore! Now with the help of the Worldwide Web we can buy from a global supply base.

There are, clearly, some great advantages to this new found freedom of buying (and selling) but there are also many dangers! How do you really know who you’re buying from? Web sites can be very misleading! Big glossy “Buy our wonderful quality goods!” pages promising the best quality and service. Not to mention the very best prices!

But what do you know about these companies?

In the past you knew the company. Probably on first name terms with the boss (and his wife and kids). Now we talk to a company 6000 miles away via email. How can we possibly know how good or bad they are? We can buy from a supplier based on track record, reputation or recommendation.

But what about buying ‘off piste’? – WOW! THIS MUST BE A GREAT COMPANY!

Trawling the web looking for a supplier that will give you that slight price edge can result in some very hard and costly lessons! I speak from experience having once bought from a Chinese mill on the strength of their web site and a few samples before committing. The samples were very good, as were the documents…Pity about the actual pipes!

Badly damaged steel piping
Is this what I ordered?

Most pipes were bent. Many were rusty, and a large amount had no visible identification markings on them at all! The accompanying test certificates were from a different mill than the provided samples. It seemed the samples were just that! Samples NOT actuals! What can you do? Having paid on shipment my only recourse was via a very expensive and protracted law suit. I decided not to throw good money after bad and I took the hit, vowing never to buy without having first-hand knowledge of the supplier.This has resulted in a twice yearly (or more) pilgrimage out to China to visit existing suppliers and vet any potential new mills. An expense that has proven on more than one occasion to be fully justified! These trips are also a very big eye opener to the vast difference between what companies say on their web site and what they actually do (or don’t do)!

On another occasion I placed an order for some end caps based again on a glittering web site and an amazingly competitive price and delivery. It wasn’t a problem as I was visiting China before delivery and could carry out my own QA audit of the mill and inspect my order prior to shipment and payment!

A brief list of some of the non-conformities will tell you all you need to know.

1 – No goods in inspection

2 – No material segregation

3 – No production cards with orders

4 – No thermocouples on furnace

5 – No documented heat treatment hold times

6 – No regular checking of pickling solution

7 – No final inspection procedures!

I could list another 30 or 40 points of rejection but I’m guessing you’ve got the picture by now.

If you then add to this the fact that when I complained to the ISO 9001 certifying authority they were happy to tell me that this particular company were not on their records and that the ISO document I had forwarded to them was a fake! Needless to say the end caps stayed in China!!

Great web site though!

Don’t get me wrong! There are many extremely good producers in China and 9 times out of 10 you will get what you order. If you’re happy in the risk business please carry on. I’m a firm believer in the old adage “once bitten twice shy”!

So that’s a yes then?

There is also the cultural difference to contend with. I have learnt over many years that a Chinese yes may not necessarily be the yes we understand. Chinese people are very polite and don’t want to offend so it is better to say yes than no and risk upsetting you. Very annoying when you place an order only for it to come back with some very different previously agreed (“yes”) conditions!

They may be polite face to face but they can be very hardnosed when back in their comfort zone offices.  So trying to get them to back track on what you thought was previously agreed can be difficult!

Everything now has to be I dotted and T crossed before I place any business!

I’m glad we understand each other!

Language can also a very big problem. That person you thought could speak fluent English (very clear emails) turns out to be someone whose email English comes from Google translator! Chenglish is alive and kicking!

This again is where the Chinese “yes” comes in.  Better to nod your head than admit you don’t understand what this English person is talking on about.

I once had a car ride with a representative from a production company. He spent the whole time speaking to me in English…Well he was using English words but didn’t make one coherent sentence. It was just a flow of random English words. It was very funny but a completely pointless trip.

We now work with a very intelligent, Chinese girl who speaks better English than me (am prepared for the onslaught of witty comments here).  She comes with me to all of my meetings in China and has become our minesweeper! We now have no confusion, or at least manageable ‘grey areas’.

Having said that…

We have just avoided another Anti-Dumping duty, this time on Stainless Steel fittings from China. This had us all scrambling across the globe searching out new and competitive suppliers to deal with. Every country was considered (more potential cultural mine fields to address) One day another heavy duty may hit us and we may finally come full circle and buy our fittings from Italy! I look forward to that day so I can; again, enjoy the delights of Italian cuisine and a culture that clearly understands the words yes and NO!

Gangster image
“I’d like to make you an offer you can’t refuse!”