Blog for Building Materials Companies

The Problem with Building Materials From China

  |  Posted in Building Materials

The Problem with Building Materials From China

Every year I go to the builder’s show and see a surprising number of Chinese companies exhibiting. They are grouped together in rows of ten-foot booths under big banners that simply say, “China.”

They usually don’t have any customers so the representatives just sit behind a table with nothing to do.  Occasionally I’ll even see someone who is so bored they are asleep in their booth.

the problem with chinese building materials companies

When I see a company who has spent a lot of money and time to exhibit at a trade show and seemingly get no results, it makes me wonder if it’s really a boondoggle masquerading as a business trip.  Is it a chance to visit Las Vegas on someone else’s dime?

Are the companies who own the big China banners like Beijing Holine Exhibition Co., Ltd and Beijing Heliview actually just tourist companies that have figured out a way to get the government to pay for trips to places like Las Vegas?

I don’t see how most of these companies get a return on their investment. And if the Chinese government is underwriting the costs, I don’t see how they are getting a return.

What’s Wrong With Chinese Companies Trying to Market in North America?

1. Those big banners that wrap around the top of each group of Chinese exhibits simply scream, “We’re From China.” They might as well replace the word, “China” with the words like:



Poor Quality

Long Lead Times

No Customer Service

No Warranty

You May Get Sued

Copy of Someone Else’s Idea

Nothing New Here

May be Made With Child Labor

May Contain Harmful Ingredients

Unfortunately, the word “China” does not have a favorable image in the North American building materials industry.

I believe the only customers they are attracting are the ones who probably intend to buy from China anyway. There are so many more potential customers for Chinese companies.

2. The exhibits look cheap and either have no message or the wrong message. North American companies don’t care or want to see a photo of your plant and are skeptical that it is actually your plant.

Too many Chinese exhibits are simply a bunch of products on display with no signage. Customers need to know what it is and why it is a good product.

Few companies spend the money to produce a brochure in English, and they are usually so poorly done that they would be better left undone.  

3. Many of the senior people cannot speak English.  There will frequently be a cute girl who speaks very good English but has to translate everything back and forth to the boss. When this occurs, the customer may wonder what they are really saying, or consider this rude.

4. China and North America are both very different cultures. Many Chinese companies don’t take the time to learn about the North American customers. It’s easier just to assume that if the price is low enough, that someone will buy their product.

5. Building materials from China are found to have problems on a regular basis, and the news media covers these stories in a big way.  This makes every architect, builder, contractor, dealer, or homeowner not want to use any building products from China. (You can read some examples of this at the end of this post.)

Homeowners are primarily concerned about health issues while architects, builders, and contractors are concerned about being taken to court because they used a product from China that has lead to subsequent problems.

What Chinese Companies Can Do To Grow Their Sales in North America?

Tell Your Story

A big banner that simply says “CHINA” doesn’t tell a story, so the customer writes the story themselves.  The story they write probably goes like this, “If I want to save money, I can buy products of questionable quality, in large quantities, from people I do not trust.”

Without a story, only a few potential customers will stop to talk to a manufacturer.  For example, if only one person out of every 100 that walk past a booth, stops to talk, if two or three people stopped, that would double or triple the potential business. A better story will increase the number of customers.

Rather than a large banner over all the booths that just says “CHINA”,  a better idea would be:

“Learn How Successful Companies Buy From China.”


“How to Buy High-Quality Products With No Risk from China.”


“It’s Time to Take a Fresh Look at Products From China.”

These are just examples, and the actual idea would have to be developed based on some research.  As you can see, anything is better than the simple title, “CHINA.”

2. Invest in your exhibit.  A simple but professionally designed backdrop that clearly states what you are selling would be a big improvement. The next message would be to have a few benefits statements that can be read as I walk by. Why is your product better or what is the reason I should consider it? 

3. Have people in the booth who can speak English fluently and can present your product and answer most questions.  The non-English speaking boss shouldn’t get involved until the customer is ready.

4. Representatives from Chinese companies should spend time in North America meeting with customers to learn more about their business practices, their problems, and sources of supply.

5.  Product quality and trust are big hurdles for Chinese building materials manufacturers. In North America, customers deal with companies they know and trust.  They also have laws about product quality or can take manufacturers to court.  These are all things that need to be overcome for Chinese companies to grow their sales in North America.

I believe that there are some Chinese companies who make quality products, and could sell more in North America.  The challenge for these companies is that each time there is a problem with a Chinese product, it negatively effects all Chinese manufacturers.

Either the Chinese government or a group of manufacturers should get together and create a program to insure the quality of their products. In the US, we have some independent organizations that insure the quality of products. Something similar could help Chinese manufacturers.

An individual company from China could establish this trust on their own, it will just be more difficult.

I admire Chinese companies for trying to sell their products in North America. I just don’t understand why they continue to take such an ineffective approach.

Chinese companies haven’t been willing to invest in help, independent sales reps, or marketing consultants, like myself. Any number of these things will help Chinese manufacturers be more successful.

Examples of the negative publicity that unfortunately effects all Chinese manufacturers

Lumber Liquidators Chinese Flooring News

A recent 60 Minutes report revealed a continued problem with Chinese building materials companies and the health effects of their products. In particular, laminate flooring sold by such companies like Lumber Liquidators Inc. are one type of building material made by Chinese manufacturers that have been found to contain toxic substances.

This report is on the heels of a series of lawsuits claiming that drywall imported from China causes various health conditions and corrosion of copper wire and other metals in people’s homes. In the last few years, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has been inundated with similar complaints about Chinese building materials.

In the 60 Minutes report, testing showed that these Chinese important laminate wood products contain high levels of formaldehyde. Because of the low cost of these materials, many homes constructed or repaired after hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, and other recent natural disasters, might be affected. As a result, a number of elected officials are calling for a comprehensive investigation into Chinese building materials manufacturers and their use of toxic substances.

This recent report is only more evidence of this problematic manufacturing trend and increased use of Chinese building materials in renovations and new construction. Prior to the wood laminate findings, drywall imported from China were found to have toxic levels of sulfurous gasses.

The more recent report involving flooring was spurred by a lawsuit filed in California last year against Lumber Liquidators, which is the biggest retailer of flooring in the United States. In the class action suit, there was a claim that there were harmful levels of formaldehyde in these products and there were not any warning labels.

Plaintiffs presented evidence of testing that showed these Chinese-made floorings released a level of formaldehyde that was higher than with European or North American manufactured materials. In fact, they emitted more of the chemical by 350%.

According to the non-profit organization Global Community Monitor, these types of products from Chinese manufacturers “emit toxic gas in excess of 100 times California standards.” Traditionally used in many types of laminate flooring glue, high levels of it can “cause burning eyes, nose and throat irritation, coughing, headaches, dizziness, joint pain and nausea.” Formaldehyde is also a known carcinogen.

With the prior drywall investigations, the Associated Press estimated that over 500 millions pounds of Chinese building materials are imported into the US every year. Drywall from China is reportedly used in more than 100,000 homes, including those rebuilt after hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.

With the contaminated drywall, a chemical reaction caused sulfur fumes that emitted the smell of rotten eggs that only got worse with heat and damp conditions. This chemical reaction corroded lead pipes as well. Those affected by these sulfurous fumes reported burning eyes, sinus headaches, and respiratory problems. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “Prolonged exposure to the compounds found in the drywall, especially high levels of carbon disulfide, can cause breathing problems, chest pains, and can affect the nervous system.” 

Consumers in many different states have filed complaints citing the negative health effects of Chinese building materials. Experts believe the problem with such materials are caused by the same lack of quality control that lead to safety problems with such exports from China as pet food and toys. Further, lack of testing of these imported materials and the difficulty of inspecting materials that have harmful levels of chemicals only compounds the problems.

Homeowners should be alerted to possible harmful building materials used in their own homes, especially if they have any symptoms of exposure to toxic materials. In addition, people who are considering new construction or remodeling need to be aware of the problematic use of Chinese building materials. Luckily, there are many affordable American-made options.

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Thanks for the following comments. I’d like to hear your feedback and suggestions.

“The problems are mostly cultural. After five years of working with bamboo materials, they don’t understand a consumer driven market. They need US representation. To guide them into our market. Unfortunately establishing trust takes years and they have a tendency not to be patient.”
Brett Kelly
Moso North America

“Good article! I’m actually taking a group of Chinese manufacturers on a tour of Japanese housing and materials…”
Eric Boycott
Vice President Marketing & Strategy
Canadian Building Technologies Ltd.

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About The Author

I am the leading sales growth consultant in the building materials industry, I identify the blind spots that enable building materials companies to grow their sales and retain more customers.  As I am not an ad agency, my recommendations are focused on your sales growth and not my future income.

My mission is to help building materials companies be the preferred supplier of their customers and to turn those customers into their best salespeople. Contact me to discuss your situation.