Abstract Fuzzy set theory has been used as an approach to deal with uncertainty in the supplier selection decision process. However, most studies limit applications of fuzzy set theory to outranking potential suppliers, not including a qualification stage in the decision process, in which non-compensatory types of decision rules can be used to reduce the set of potential suppliers. This paper presents a supplier selection decision method based on fuzzy inference that integrates both types of approaches: a non-compensatory rule for sorting in qualification stages and a compensatory rule for ranking in the final selection. Fuzzy inference rules model human reasoning and are embedded in the system, which is an advantage when compared to approaches that combine fuzzy set theory with multicriteria decision making methods. Fuzzy inference combined with a fuzzy rule-based classification method is used to categorize suppliers in qualification stages. Classes of supplier performance can be represented by linguistic terms, which allow decision makers to deal with subjectivity and to express qualification requirements in linguistic formats. Implementation of the proposed method and techniques were analyzed and discussed using an illustrative case. Three defuzzification operators were used in the final selection, yielding the same ranking. Factorial design was applied to test consistency and sensitivity of the inference rules. The findings reinforce the argument that including stages of qualification based on fuzzy inference and categorization makes this method especially useful for selecting from a large set of potential suppliers and also for first time purchase.