How to Find Products for Your Import Business
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This excerpt is part of Entrepreneur.com's Second-Quarter Startup Kit which explores the fundamentals of starting up in a wide range of industries.
In Start Your Own Import/Export, the staff at Entrepreneur Press and writer Krista Turner explain how to start and run a successful import-export business. In this edited excerpt, the authors outline six sources for helping you find the right products to import to the U.S.
How do you go about finding goods to bring stateside? You have six options:
- Travel abroad on an import search mission.
- Wait for foreign manufacturers to contact you.
- Attend trade shows.
- Contact foreign embassies' trade development offices.
- Contact the U.S. Department of Commerce's International Trade Administration.
- Track down leads on the internet and in trade publications.
Traveling abroad is, in most people's minds, the most delightful of all these options. It's not always practical in terms of time, money or other commitments you may have, such as your day job or family, but it's not a must, either, so don't fret if you can't manage it.
The big plus is that you can view foreign products in a realistic setting, checking out what sells where, why and for how much. You may know here at home, for example, that Swiss watches and Japanese electronics are top sellers, but so does everybody else. This knowledge isn't necessarily going to shoot you to the top with a new and exciting product. But if you travel in Mexico, for example, you'll see that everybody on every street corner is savoring paletas, frozen Popsicle-type treats made with fresh fruit and cream. If you put this person-on-the-street observation together with your own domestic observation that smoothies--fresh fruit and yogurt frozen drinks--are the rage, you might decide that paletas could be a good import.
If you're interested in general merchandise, traveling in search of goods can be the best way to garner immediate results. As in domestic exporting, there are many manufacturers out there who've never considered selling their products in the United States, even though the market may be extremely profitable. And the most effective way to find these companies is through field research.
But keep this caveat in mind: Don't limit yourself by looking only at what products you want to import. Consider also what kinds of strategies you'll use to make your profits. Are you more interested in importing products with brand-name identities, or do you lean toward low price and high volume?
If you're going the low-price/high-volume route, you'll want to focus on countries that are low-cost-goods producers, like China, India, and Mexico. Because these countries usually have emerging economies, your importing mission (indeed your entire trip) may be a little more complicated and require a little more patience. But don't be daunted. This is the stuff of adventure. And if you're not the adventurous type, think about this: The potential profits in these types of ventures are often much greater for the newbie importer than going the brand-name route.
Traveling in search of products to import is fun and lucrative, but experienced importers also rely on manufacturers contacting them. This method has two important bonuses: 1) You don't have to go anywhere to search for merchandise, and 2) you don't have to persuade anybody to export their merchandise. If they're contacting you, you know they are interested.
If you're brand-new to international trade, of course, this option probably isn't going to do you much good because no one knows you're out there to contact. But as your company grows, as you make contacts all over the world, you'll find that other companies will come to you--often sooner and more frequently than you might imagine.
Not all your calls for help will come from manufacturers with a product to export. You'll also receive calls from importers seeking a particular U.S. product--sometimes merchandise with which you have no familiarity. Where do you go to fulfill their requests? One terrific source is the Thomas Register of American Manufacturers, a database of products and companies that boasts more than 700,000 manufacturers and distributors from 28 countries with 11,000 product categories. Access the register for free at thomasnet.com.
Trade shows are a terrific way to meet foreign manufacturers, distributors and representatives. Like church-sponsored singles dances, everybody there is in attendance for the purpose of attracting somebody else. So get out there and mingle!
Foreign trade shows or fairs, set up by foreign governments to showcase their own manufacturers, are held to tempt you, the potential importer. You'll have to travel abroad to attend some shows. Others come to you (or rather various locales in the United States). Call the embassy or consulate of the country you're interested in to find out when and if they have trade shows scheduled and where.
While you're making those calls to consulates and embassies, ask for their trade development office. Many countries and geographic regions sponsor offices where you can find specific information on manufacturers of everything from toothpicks to truck tires to fur coats. Often a single phone call is all it takes to get a long list of suppliers eager to do business with American importers. Don't be shy. These people are on the job just to match you with a supplier back home. Let them get to work!
The U.S. government's International Trade Administration can also help you locate various trade groups and development agencies that will help you find specific kinds of manufacturers or suppliers.
Like a good bounty hunter, you'll want to explore every avenue. Don't forget the many terrific online trade lead sites. For starters, check out: