Back in 1956, when China was not open to the West and years before the invention of the internet, the newly established Canton Fair (Formerly called "Chinese Export Commodity Fair") was basically the only way to connect with Chinese Manufacturers. For decades, the fair played an important role in promoting the rapidly growing manufacturing sector and thus helped transform China into a two-digit-growth factory of the world.
Today the biannually held Canton Fair is regarded as the largest and most representative import and export fair in all of China and is still visited by more than 100,000 business people each time. This being said, there are two factors that counter this development and make the Canton Fair less relevant for global sourcing and trade in the future: The Internet and rapidly falling logistics costs.
With the development of internet sourcing platforms like alibaba.com and the cost of communicating via text, voice and image reaching near zero, Chinese Manufacturers found new ways of getting found by potential clients in all parts of the world. Nowadays, trust and reputation can be built online and make the need to meet in person less important. Diminishing transportation costs and times make it possible to send product samples around the globe within a few days time, further lowering the need to travel in person.
Depending on what kind of business you are looking for, you might consider these 5 reasons why going to the Canton Fair could be a waste of time:
1. Too General: Set up as China's first import export fair it was only natural to NOT limit what kind of suppliers would be allowed to exhibit, as long as they meet certain minimum requirements. Today this is still the case and during the three consecutive phases you will be able to find a manufacturer for literally every product under the sun. While for some, variety can be a good thing, if you are working in a specific industry, lets say textiles, you are better off going to a textile fair that is relevant to your industry. In fact, many reputable manufacturers will not even attend the canton fair at all and exclusively exhibit at the many industry specific ones in and outside of China.
2. Little or no Innovation: The canton fair is not the place to showcase the newest inventions. Most sellers will have switched to the newest design, function or other relevant feature of the industry, which had been already released a while ago. Game-changing innovations will usually be held in secrecy until protective measures are taken to ensure not being copied or worse. The few companies that do showcase their prototypes are usually only looking for foreign distributors and do not offer private label manufacturing, OEM etc.
3. Many firms not attending: As mentioned above, probably the majority of each industry wont be attending the canton fair. While every industry has its own 'must-go-to-fair' and several others, the canton fair is often not one of them. Industry specific fairs like the 'Shanghai boat show' or intertextile Shanghai will only host relevant vendors and make much more sense to be visited by businesses who operate in this industry.
4. Exorbitant travel cost: During the days of the fair, business people travel like pilgrims to the pearl river delta and therefore increase demand for hotels, flights and other travel expenses. compared to the normal season, the price of a night's stay in a Guangzhou hotel can quadruple during the fair times. Additionally, flights and local transportation will be expensive and overcrowded as well. Most of this can be avoided by visiting China in a less busy period or minimising trip frequency in the first place.
5. Inefficiency: The sheer size of this fair makes getting around inside the complex a very cumbersome affair. This is aggravated if the vendors or areas you are planning to visit are spread across the different halls or even phases. Many visitors underestimate the physical stress they are undergoing and are not able to fulfil even half of their planned schedule. The best way to minimise the time loss is to contact vendors you are planning to visit in advance and make appointments with a realistic schedule.
Who should go then or why is the fair still operating? We still encourage you to visit this fair at least for the first time to from your own opinion about it. The event is still highly relevant for certain industries, for example general importers or amazon sellers that are not limited to a narrow field. Also goods that are too heavy, large or expensive to be shipped as samples can be found showcased by several manufacturers in one spot. In the future, however, we are certain that this decades old institution will slowly loose some of its relevancy as online communication and cheap shipping will decrease the need for visiting.