Yes, Christmas is upon us soon. And I am expecting my grown children and their friends to spend time at home with us in the USA at the end of December. So guess what I did to entertain myself this weekend?
I assembled a knocked-down foosball table I just bought. Yes, I know: groan. Assembling furniture is usually a painful process, hindered by poor instructions (often in unintelligible English) and aggravated by missing or ill-fitting parts: it is a job that can be very frustrating. Fertile ground, in other words, for the development of creative imprecations, and usually leading to foul moods and buyer’s regret.
But the old, "Made in China" foosball table we had was falling apart. Mahogany/plastic body, shiny printed plastic field, electronic scoreboard. It worked well enough for years, and kept the kids busy with lively games, but it was not very good quality. Not by a long shot. It had to be replaced.
So when I saw this wooden foosball table at Costco I had to buy it. It was an impulse buy at its best: the timing was right; the product looked great, the design was classic (it looked like a nice piece of furniture, a heirloom, not a kids game at all); the construction looked sturdy, attention had been paid to details: the field was not painted, but it was made of inlaid wood, the goals were solid metal with brass finish. It weighed over 200 pounds. Done deal and now all I needed was help to load it into the truck.
I decided to assemble it over the weekend. I have assembled many pieces of furniture in my time and I was curious how it would come out. I braced myself, got some good music going and dug in. My first concern was damage: such a heavy box is prone to mishandling and I expected pieces on the inside to be damaged. But no, everything was impeccable, excellent packing design and good materials. Inside the big box, there were lots of smaller sealed boxes tightly wedged in with PE foam blocks. Inside the small boxes, everything was carefully packed, the wood pieces wrapped in shock-absorbing wrap.
The instructions were clear, written in three languages (English, Spanish and French) and very helpful. The hardware was not to be found in scattered little plastic bags, but was grouped in one large card, blister packed, complete with lubricant and touch up paint; with each fastener and tool compartmentalized and clearly marked with each item number. Wow.
The assembly proceeded rapidly and got me thinking. I thought: what a brilliant process. This foosball table was a prime example of the great exchange of ideas and processes on an international scale; an example of how to make China sourcing actually work for you.
The process started when someone at Costco thought this item would be great for Christmas. That person must have been in the USA, and was very much attuned to the US market. After all, such an expensive, luxury wood toy is a bit counter-intuitive in this tough economy. (Not the kind of thing a China factory owner would have thought of.) The product would have to sell at an attractive price point (It was below $400 – a full $200 less than other quality tables), so quality had to be high and costs had to be kept low. The designer recognized that, since it was going to be the buyer who would be assembling the product, the assembly process should be clear, simple and as pleasant as possible. Again, American thinking: a Chinese buyer would probably hire a crew of workers to assemble the product.
When all these ideas were in place, they had to execute. They had to find someone who could get all the materials together and manufacture the product according to their exacting standards. Someone proven and reliable. And they probably had to move fast.
The solution was on the other side of the world, in China. According to a label on the bottom of the table, Dongwha Fibreboard was the factory who did such a good job manufacturing it. I also noted that production was completed in August 2011. It took less than 3 months to make it from the factory floor in Southern China to my basement in New Jersey.
That was gutsy and clever at many levels:
- Thinking of the idea in all its details, researching the market and developing its cost structure
- Engineering the product so that it would fit in a box but could be assembled by any Five-thumbs Joe like me.
- Designing it so that it could be shipped competitively – and appeal to customers despite its size and weight.
- Demanding quality and the best materials in having the product manufactured – no compromise.
- Making it in China with confidence that it will be produced to spec and in time.
- Putting Costco’s name on the box.
So kudos to Costco, and kudos to the individuals who made it happen.
They deserve it because they took and idea and executed it well; because it was teamwork: no one single person had the knowledge it took to make this project happen; they did it despite the thousands of miles of distance, despite the cultural and language challenge. The Foosball table project, benign as it may seem, was a complex and difficult challenge, and it is a model for others to follow.
What is extraordinary is not that such things can be done. After all, phenomenal products are made in China every day, think of Apple’s computers and iPhones, not to mention Audi’s motor cars. No: what is extraordinary is that this process is now ordinary, taken for granted, even – and at the same time, that so many people still don’t know how to execute such projects well.
Many companies have vision and great imagination, they understand the market and have great ideas and products which they conceive of down to minute details. They too want to produce in China. They dream of gaining the kind of advantage Costco got with this kind of initiative. But they fail in the execution. They cannot seem to find the right combination of suppliers, relationships, raw materials and talent to make it happen. And often, they give up before they really try.
Many, to this day, still walk away from China bitterly disappointed because quality is not quite there, because their competitors got the product first, at a lower cost, or because their goods were produced with so much delay they missed the season or the opportunity. I hear them say that they don’t have the resources, they don’t have the time, or the people to make things happen in China. They say only companies like Costco can afford such resources, but this is no longer true. We have come a long way.
There was a time when this type of project was unthinkable in China, but now, in this interconnected world of ours, anyone with a good product and a clear plan can get things done. Sure, they need on site support from people who understand them, from people who can help put things together on the other side of the world, but that too is available, and it can be found by typing a few keystrokes on one’s computer.
I went back to Costco a week later, and I noted there was only one box left. It seems that other people are getting ready for Christmas too…
Michael De Clercq- CPG Founder and President