Sample Hell

By Amy Chavez
For The Bali Times

If you’ve ever looked at something in the shop window in Bali and thought to yourself, “I could sell that in my country,” then welcome to Exporting 101!

When I first came to Bali, in 2000, I met a couple guys from Germany who exported furniture from here, an American girl who exported sandals and dozens of people who exported jewelry all around the globe. It seemed that everyone was exporting something and while they were not making big bucks at it, it gave them a good lifestyle, spending part of the year in Bali. I decided myself to give textiles a try.

But of course, none of these people told me about Sample Hell.

Sample Hell is the time it takes to relate your idea of a product to a supplier who is from an entirely different background and culture, and have him make up a sample for you while: 1. transposing the numbers in your measurements; 2. choosing opposite colors to what you requested; and 3. habitually burping while attempting to sew a straight line too fast on a sewing machine.

Add to that your supplier’s own preconceptions about your needs, and you’ve pretty much got Sample Hell in a handbasket. Sample Hell can take one week to several years, and only ends when you get the product to the point where you feel it’s good enough to manufacture and sell. Then Sample Hell starts all over with your next new product.

If you’re selling something like leather sandals that the locals know so well they can make them in their sleep (and they do), you’ll have fewer adjustments to your samples than if you’re trying to make something like winter bedding, like I did, which the locals have only heard about. Or not.

Here are some tips for getting through Sample Hell for those of you considering a lifestyle in exporting.

1. Consider your product

The Balinese are great artisans and craftsman, and they excel at cottage industries such as handmade clothing, jewelry, sandals or anything that can be made from raw materials. Although things are slowly changing, it’s still the domain of the big cities such as Jakarta and Surabaya to make factory-made mass produced goods such as plastics or anything made from synthetic materials.

2. Always have a sample of a sample

The Balinese are great at copying things, not designing things, which means you must have a sample to give them something to copy to make you a sample.

But even this is not foolproof. When I took a duvet to a manufacturer and told her I wanted the exact same duvet made, she assured me she could do it. When I got the sample back, she said, “We tried to stitch it across the middle so the filling wouldn’t shift around inside, but it was too thick for the sewing machine.”

Too thick, indeed – the sample duvet was 12 inches thick. Every time I moved the duvet, it morphed into a different shape. Right now, with most the “kapok” gathered in the middle, it was looking very much like a turtle. Maybe I could sell turtle duvets if I included some aquarium accessories.

3. Always have a sample color

Next, I decided to export something easier: sandals. I chose a design straight off the shelf and ordered 200 with turquoise beads and 200 with pink. When I went to pick up the order, however, half the order was in pink beads, the other in, um, blue.

“I thought I ordered turquoise,” I said.

“Yes,” said the man. “This is turquoise.”

Taking a sample color with you will help. But even this is not foolproof. When it came to ordering handbags, I decided to play it safe and order colors off the shelf. I chose a handbag in a store, got the “business price” and ordered maroon ones and brown ones, both of which were on display in the store. What could be easier?

But when the bags came back, they were maroon and, um, lime green.

“I thought I ordered brown,” I said.

“Oh, sorry, no have brown,” said the woman, smiling.

I paid the bill and wondered what was the cheapest way to send bags and sandals to needy people in Bangladesh.

4. Never tell your true departure date

Always give a date a week earlier than your departure date because samples (and orders) are never finished on time, usually because of the numerous holidays and religious ceremonies in Bali. With a week’s leeway, you’ll have more of a chance of your samples being finished before you are.

Furthermore, if you know the national holidays that are marked red on the calendar, this will help you help them plan.

But even this is not foolproof.

“I’m sorry, but your samples will not be finished until Friday,” the woman said.

But my plane leaves on Thursday,” I said.

“I have ceremony this week — my little boy will be circumcised.”

I changed my flight and departure date and in the end, I did get my samples on Friday. The duvet, however, eight years later, is still in Sample Hell.

Filed under: The Island

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