Monocolumn

A daily bulletin of news & opinion

31 May 2013

I received an email this morning from a lady called May.

Her email address was Bestidea5@188.com. It read like this: “Best greetings from China. My name is May and I am currently working for a professional printing company located in (sic) the southeast coast of China. I see from your company website you need to print catalogues. Just wondering if you are interested in reducing the printing cost. Competitive printing quote will be provided. Look forward to working with you, Sincerely, May.”

I remember five years ago when I first got an email of this sort, offering low cost T-shirt manufacturing, sprinkled with emoticons, exclamation marks and misspellings. I was fascinated – here was Made in China knocking on my very own inbox. I might even have spoken about it that night to friends.

Today’s note from May is notable because, five years on from that T-shirt email, I’m now receiving one a day from Chinese producers offering their cut-price services and this raises many questions. Firstly – is my email on a list somewhere, circulating southeast Chinese factories as a potential customer to hit? Am I one of a select few receiving these emails or are they blanket spam – like insurance claims and Viagra bulk buys? Is the person at the other end – May – a real person sitting in a factory with an adopted anglicised name for purposes of doing business with the likes of me? Have these emails ramped up in volume because the market is getting more crowded and it’s a new tactic? Or is the notion of reshoring that we’ve all been talking about finally happening to the extent that Chinese producers are now needing to tout for business?

So many questions for May. Sadly, no phone number – there never is. So for the first time in five years of these emails, I replied to May. “Hello May, thank you for getting in touch – I’m not quite ready to do business with you but have a few queries. Where exactly are you based? How many people does your publishing business employ? Do you have a website where I can see pictures of your factory and facilities? Do you work with other western companies and if so, who? Looking forward to hearing back – kind regards, Hugo”

My curiosity is genuine. I wonder if this email or any of its numerous predecessors have actually been a lifeline for a small, desperate business. Would you ever be able to take the giant step of outsourcing your production based on a rather curt email from a faceless factory on the other side of the world? What you might reap in terms of competitive prices you lose in control and soul.

I have not heard back from May yet but consider this monocolumn Part One – I’ll certainly keep you posted if I do.

Hugo Macdonald is design editor for Monocle.

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