China lawyers
Do not fall for manufacturing contract illusions

A good China manufacturing agreement must address many issues, including, most importantly, the basic business terms for purchase of the manufactured product. The key business terms are price, quantity and date of delivery. When our China lawyers draft a manufacturing agreement for a China factory, we have to determine at the outset how to address these essential terms in the agreement.

There are two options.

Option One. With respect to the purchase of goods, we make the manufacturing agreement a binding agreement for a specific quantity of product to be delivered within a specific timeframe at a specific price. The foreign buyer is obligated to purchase and the manufacturer is obligated to sell and failure to perform is a breach of contract. This type of agreement is often supported by a letter of credit.

Option Two. The agreement provides the terms and conditions for a purchase of goods contract formed only after a purchase order is submitted by the foreign buyer and only after that purchase order is accepted by the Chinese manufacturer. If the foreign buyer never submits a purchase order to its Chinese manufacturer or if the Chinese manufacturer rejects the purchase order submitted by the foreign buyer, no purchase of goods contract is ever formed. The failure to submit a purchase order is not a breach. In the same way, the rejection of a purchase order is a also not a breach. Since there is no binding contract, this type of agreement is not supported by a letter of credit.

Multinationals that purchase large quantities of product from Chinese manufacturers generally follow Option One. This provides two major benefits. First, the product price is locked for a specific period. The risk of cost changes for materials or exchange rate or anything else is borne by the two parties equally. Second, the delivery date for the product is mostly fixed, allowing the buyer to plan for seasonal variations in demand. The major risk the buyer takes is that its product will not sell and then the buyer will be “stuck” with a substantial quantity of unsold product.

Buyers not willing to take this risk follow Option Two. Option Two is typical for startups and for entities introducing a new product with an uncertain sales market. This arrangement provides the foreign buyer with substantial flexibility. It allows the foreign buyer to test the market for its product and if its product fails, the buyer is not locked into purchase obligations and being stuck with unsold product.

But this flexibility comes at a cost. Many foreign buyers will do not realize that with this sort of agreement, there really is not agreement on business terms. If the Chinese factory decides it does not want to accept the foreign buyers’ terms it can and will simply reject the foreign buyer’s purchase order. If the Chinese factory wants to raise its price, it rejects. If the Chinese factory is unable to meet the required quantity, it rejects. If the Chinese factory is unable to meet the required delivery date, it rejects. Such a rejection is not a contract breach and the buyer has really no choice other than to accept the rejection.

At its simplest level, this situation means it is impossible for the foreign buyer to negotiate best terms with the Chinese factory. Since the foreign buyer has no real leverage, it cannot negotiate effectively on price. The foreign buyer may think it forced its Chinese counterpart to agree to a rock bottom “China price,” but the China manufacturer can easily turn the table by waiting until the foreign buyer has fully committed to the factory and is hard against a time deadline. The Chinese manufacturer then rejects an important purchase order and negotiates a price increase.

Consider what this means for a startup company with a single new product. The company has worked hard on marketing its product for the holiday sales season. After substantial effort, the startup receives enough orders. Those orders require delivery of the new product on a specific date, in specific amounts and at a specific price. The U.S. or EU buyers insist on a binding contract. The startup is obligated to perform.

Only after receipt of these orders does the startup then submit a purchase order to the Chinese manufacturer and then the Chinese manufacturer rejects the purchase order. The Chinese manufacturer may demand a higher price or it may say: “Sorry folks but you waited too long to place your order. We are all booked up and we don’t have the manufacturing capacity to handle your order.”

Consider what this means for the startup. It has fully binding sales obligations to its U.S. or EU retail customers and its failure to deliver on those obligations is a breach of contract that will subject it to a lawsuit in its home country. Its inability to fulfill its contracted for orders is both a financial liability and it also destroys the credibility of the startup as a real player in the retail field. If the startup does not have deep financial backing, it is usually impossible for it to recover from this blow. Usually, this all comes as a complete surprise to the startup, since it was operating under the illusion that it had a binding contract with its Chinese product supplier on all relevant business terms.

Our China attorneys get desperate calls and emails from U.S. and EU retailers who have unknowingly put themselves in this “no business terms” trap, but our phones ring off the hook with these from October to December. And usually all we can tell them is to do it right the next time (all while wondering if they will have a next time).

This business terms issue must be resolved for every manufacturing contract. It extends to other issues too. For example, say your contract provides for your Chinese manufacturer to provide a certain type of packaging which is included in the price of the product. The manufacturer decides to make a change. Under Option Two, the Chinese manufacturer simply rejects the purchase order and negotiates for a change. The original provision was an illusion since the manufacturer was not obligated to perform.

Warren Buffet once sad that “only when the tide goes out do you discover who has been swimming naked. The holiday season is when so many U.S. and EU companies learn that their failure to have a good manufacutring contract with their Chinese manufacturers has left them with no clothes. If you are looking to have your products made in China, the first thing you must decide is which option will apply to your purchases and you then need a contract that reflects and legalizes your decision. An illusion about your real situation with your Chinese manufacturer can and usually will lead to unpleasant consequences.

For more on what you should do to protect yourself when manufacturing in China, check out Having Your Product Made In China: The Basics on Protecting It and You.