Importing and Manufacturing Shoes

shoe manufacturing process

Manufacturing and Importing Shoes

With your designs in hand, it is now time to start manufacturing shoes…right?  Wrong. With your new shoe designs in hand, take some time to show them around. Let your friends and family have a look, show them to your neighbors. This can give you some new insight and confidence to move forward. Most of all, when you show your designs, you will be practicing your sales pitch. This is a great time to have some industry people take a look. Try a local shoe store manager. If you have any contacts in the shoe business, go ahead and talk to them, and collect some feedback.

Once you have your sales pitch polished, you will need working capital to get started. Shoe factories, agents, tooling shops, airlines, material suppliers, and shipping companies all require payment, in some cases in advance of services. Make sure you have capital available. We will review capital requirements a bit later, but you need to be prepared to raise it. You will need to pull together a detailed business plan to show that you are ready to build and operate a business before you worry about manufacturing shoes.

Are you ready to look for a shoe factory?

The shoe factory salespeople will be working hard to “qualify” you. They want to make sure you are serious and that there is potential in your project and potential in YOU! Make sure your sales pitch and business plans are complete before you start meeting with the factories.

Shoe factory meeting checklist

Going into a meeting with confidence in yourself and a polished business plan will help you to present the professional image you want to project for your company. Manufacturing shoes is complicated you need to prepare. Make sure to have the following information:
1. Project Brief: A list of exactly what you want to accomplish. How many styles and colors etc.
2. Designs: Complete detailed drawings with all colors, materials, and constructions.
3. Outsole designs: Must be complete in 2D drawing form.
4. Pricing: You need to calculate Target FOB, wholesale and retail prices.
5. Schedule: Dates for your retail release schedule.
6. Capital: Estimated capital requirements and a plan for raising it.

Finding a factory to manufacture shoes?

The real truth is that finding a factory for a new shoe project may be very difficult. If you are new to the shoe trade and don’t have any personal connections, it will be hard to find a factory that will accept your project. But don’t worry, there are a few strategies you can follow to get your project placed in the right factory.

Designer contacts

If you selected an experienced shoe designer or footwear developer to work with, then he or she should have many contacts. In just a few years working in the shoe trade, a footwear designer may have worked for several different brands and a dozen different shoe factories.

Shoe designers and developers with some overseas experience will know footwear agents, trading companies, or people that know people. The shoe business is built on relationships and personal contacts. Shoe factories and material suppliers are always working together, and one contact can lead you to other contacts.

Internet searches

Google is not a bad place to start your search for a shoe factory. However, your average shoe factory in China or Italy may not have an easy-to-find website. If you are looking for a factory in China, you should head directly to Alibaba.com™. Alibaba has listings for thousands of factories. You can search by product, county, and province.

You will find dozens of listings, but beware, many are not actually factories. They are trading companies or agents. These firms are not necessarily bad, but you should dig deep into the listing to make sure you know what you are dealing with.

Business network and social media sites

Websites such as LinkedIn.com™, Coroflot.com™, Malakye.com™, or even Facebook.com™ can provide you with leads for footwear factories or footwear sourcing agents.

The shoemaking world is a huge network of friends, co-workers, associates, and acquaintances. One contact in the trade can lead you to another. Keep looking!

Footwear agents and shoe trading companies

Another way to find a factory is to NOT look for a factory, but instead look for a footwear agent or trading company that will present your project and help you find the right shoe factory.

Search engine research is not a bad place to start looking for an agent. Again, Alibaba.com™ is a great place to start your search. You will find there are many firms that list themselves as “trading” or “sourcing.” These firms will have many contacts. They may also offer quality control help or provide a review for a factory you may have found online. Most importantly, you need to make sure they have footwear experience. It pays to get references when shopping for an agent.

Working with a footwear agent

There are some basic terms you need to expect when working with agents.
You will need to sign confidentiality agreements. Your agent will protect your project from the eyes of competitors. A busy agent may be working with several shoe brands, and may even be working with your competitors.

Sample delivery charges will be your responsibility. FedEx and UPS bills are not cheap for shoes shipping from Asia to the USA or Europe. Plan accordingly.

Costs for shoe outsoles or upper molds are expensive and must be paid for in advance.
The cost of your shoe samples must be paid before shipping from the factory.

Monthly product management or product development fees may be required, depending on the agent. Development costs may vary wildly, you should shop around.

The production minimum order quantity will vary from 500 to 6000 per style, and 500 to 1000 pairs per colorway. You can expect production lead times of 90 to 120 days. Then add time for shipping. For any new customer, the production shoes must be paid for in full before shipping.

Finding the right style factory to manufacture your shoes

You will need to find the right factory for your project. Most shoe factories have a particular expertise. The skills and equipment required to make sports shoes are very different from the skills and equipment required to produce women’s high heels or leather work boots.

A factory’s assembly line and equipment may be set up for cold cement or vulcanizing process but seldom both. A hiking boot factory will have equipment suited for cutting heavy leather and waterproof sealing, while a factory for snowboard boots will have oversized assembly line equipment suitable for tall boots.

There are factories that specialize in women’s fashion shoes, sandals, and men’s dress shoes. Each factory will have relationships with material suppliers and mold factories appropriate to their specific expertise.

Where will you find the factory for your shoes? The style of shoe you plan to make will help determine where in the world your shoes will be made. Athletic shoes are almost always made in Asia. The shoe factories in China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand have easy access to the labor and high tech materials required for modern athletic shoes. This type of shoe is generally not made in Europe.

High fashion leather shoes can be made in Asia but high end, high style, high-quality shoes are made in Europe.

Shoe factories in South America are very capable of making leather casual and fashion shoes. South American leather hides are exported to Asia and Europe for manufacturing shoes.

Shoe factories come in all sizes, from just one or two lines squeezed into a single story building, to huge 20 or 30 line factories that look more like a small town or college campus. In China, there are shoe factories with over 20,000 workers in one facility.

What factory size is best for your shoes?

Small factories may be hungry for orders but may lack the internal product development expertise to make complicated shoes. These factories may not have all the expensive machines that a monster factory will have, but the small factory will have an owner that you can meet. If you can build a personal relationship with the owner, you can get your project placed.

You might think that large shoe factories would ignore small brands but this is not always the case. While you may never meet the owners, and you may not get the most experienced technicians working on your project, large factories do support some small brands. The small brands may be served by junior staff members and may have to accept “fill in” or off-season production times, but you may find yourself sharing production space with Nike™ or another super brand.

Shopping for quality

The quality of product coming out of a shoe factory does not usually vary. If you are in a big factory with Nike™ shoes, great! You will be able to enjoy the same high-quality standards. Are you in a factory with “No Name” cut-price brands? Watch out!

When selecting a factory, one of your first questions to ask should be, “who else do you make shoes for?” If you don’t have a chance to visit the factory in person or cannot send a representative to walk the line, then your next bet is to look at what they make for other companies.

If they cannot send you a photo or won’t tell you any other brand names, you may need to look for a different factory.

Do factories help start-up brands?

Shoe factories need volume to make money. Small orders just can’t cover the time and expense of development. The development process for a 500 pair order is the same as a 25,000 pair order.

However, every new customer has a chance to be the next Nike™ or the next flop. The factory sales manager has to decide if your new company is a winner or a loser. Is your company new? Is your company an existing company that is already selling shoes or an existing clothing brand looking to expand into the shoe trade?

Shoe factories prefer to do business with established companies but new companies can get service if they approach a factory correctly. Factories are always looking for orders. With a successful funding platform campaign, like Kickstarter™,  you may have orders in-hand when you approach a new factory. 1000 or 2000 pairs is not a big order but it will put you ahead of most other footwear start-ups.

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