Q: I would like to start a gift-catalog business. How can I find wholesale sources without hopping on a plane to Portugal or France to find what I have in mind?
A: Andrea Lawson Gray, president of Aesthetics Marketing in San Francisco, frequently speaks and writes on topics related to catalog marketing. Her advice:
Entrepreneurs should be aware that as direct importers selling their products through a catalog, they're starting two businesses at once: an import business and a catalog business.
According to Lawson Gray, craftspeople throughout the United States can supply interesting items for a start-up catalog and may be easier to deal with than their foreign counterparts. A case in point: Local craftspeople were a prime source for the successful Sundance catalog when it started.
Another strategy: Compare different catalogs and their merchandise strategies, then define what you want to sell and to whom. If you still want to import, she says, here are five places to start:
1. Domestic trade shows often have foreign contingencies. The New York Gift Show, for example, has British handicraft and manufacturer sections as well as products grouped by country of origin.
2. Network with other catalog buyers to determine the most important trade shows for your niche. An excellent source of information is the Annual Catalog Conference; call the Direct Marketing Association at (212) 768-7277 for more information. Or try the Northern California Catalog Club, at (415) 479-8554, which holds seminars and can provide information.
3. Shop your competition--both catalogs and traditional retail stores--and look at product labels to find out where they're from.
4. Read trade publications in the merchandise arena you plan to enter.
5. Retail magazines contain trend information, advertisements from manufacturers and direct-response offers that can put you on track to interesting products from lesser-known distributors.