When you’re manufacturing in China, it’s easy to turn your attention away from suppliers and settle into complacency. But the eventual consequence is often product returns, due to what’s called quality fade. From critical issues to small and innocuous ones, quality fade can lead to problems in any importer’s supply chain.

What is “quality fade”?

Quality fade is a gradual decline in product quality over time. In most cases, for any given product, customers aren’t likely to notice a small decline in quality from one shipment to the next. But when comparing units over a longer stretch of time, like from one year to the next, the drop in quality is more obvious.

Many experienced importers have their own horror stories about frustrating instances of quality fade. Maybe you’re a long-time dress shoe importer who starts receiving more and more reports of your shoes creasing or showing other signs of wear after minimal use. Or maybe you import jewelry and find the purity of silver in your charm bracelets has diminished over time.

Typically, quality fade starts when an immediate supplier or sub-supplier deliberately uses a lower quality material or component than initially agreed upon. The overall product might look generally the same, but suddenly you start noticing issues with a particular aspect of the product.

Why does quality fade happen to importers?

As in any business, suppliers are always looking for ways to grow margins. Many suppliers would rather cut internal costs than raise their prices and risk losing customers. Using lower-cost components and materials in production is a common way they can cut costs. Not surprisingly, trading premium components and materials for cheaper ones often comes with an equal tradeoff in quality.

What you can do to minimize quality fade in your products

Quality fade can seem like an ironic cruel twist of fate. Setting quality standards for your products can be hard enough when first vetting suppliers.

1. Maintain a current QC checklist for your product

A well maintained and up-to-date QC checklist for your product is one of the key documents for any importer in preventing quality fade. A QC checklist serves two primary purposes, including: outlining the quality standards and product requirements that the supplier needs to meet during production; and providing an objective standard for QC staff to check your product during inspection.

2. Routinely inspect goods before shipment

Routine inspections are one of the best ways to catch defects ahead of shipment and verify product quality. Whether you’re using a third-party QC company, full time inspection personnel or you’re traveling to inspect personally, pre-shipment inspections safeguard you and your customers against receiving substandard products.

3. Check raw materials with incoming quality control

If you’ve had issues with raw materials or components in prior shipments, you might want to consider incoming quality control (IQC). During incoming quality control, inspectors check raw materials or components prior to mass production through pre-production inspection or lab testing.

4. Lab testing to check composition, performance and safety of product

Lab testing is sometimes the only definite way to verify the composition, safety and performance of materials and parts used in your product. Product inspectors can check materials by sight and feel on-site at your factory.

5. Establish accountability for failure to meet quality expectations

Lastly, the link that holds together all of the systems set up to catch potential quality fade is accountability. It’s vital to establish accountability for quality issues to encourage factories to meet your standards, as well as protect your business if issues arise.


No importer is safe from quality issues in their product, nor disagreements with their supplier. No matter how long you’ve been importing, you should always provide clear and objective specifications for your product and continually compare your supplier’s production to that standard.

Always remember that you usually receive the quality you pay for. It’s very difficult to get high product quality at a dirt-cheap price. So, it could be worthwhile to pay a slightly higher price if it will safeguard your relationship with a supplier and dissuade them from taking quality short cuts.

When quality fade hits you, it can catch your business and your customers off guard and cause mass product returns and recalls. However, with continual attention to detail, you can stay ahead of your supplier and catch quality issues before they reach your customers. And with clear communication on accountability, hopefully, you can incentivize your supplier against cutting corners again without your consent.


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