Whatever you do, don't call Scarlett Messina's import experience skin deep. Messina has traveled the world to locate products for her New Hope, Pennsylvania, beauty-product boutique, Scarlett. The result: a selection you can't find at your everyday cosmetics counter.
"Because my father was a professor, I lived all over the world as a child," says Messina. "I got a flavor of what was out there."
Today, Messina estimates spending as much as 75 percent of her time on the road and is constantly finding new products.
Not all her purchases work out perfectly, though. "The worst was Tiipiigi, a fragrance made by Inuit Indians in Greenland. It smells like scotch! But because it's from Greenland, customers did buy it." But not as much as expected.
Messina offers these tips to U.S. entrepreneurs fancying the idea of scouting internationally for imports:
- Go off the beaten track. "We're like foragers, hunters, gatherers," she says of her and her store manager's trips to find new products. To find a soap-maker in the Cotswolds, for example, Messina says she had to travel by plane (to London), by train (to Swindon) and then by car "through the hedgerows."
- Network. "I have a group of friends who travel and tip me off when they find something," she says. Messina also networks by Internet.
- Know your product. "People come to my store because I'm a beauty aficionado," Messina notes. And her products aren't sold haphazardly over the counter--she hires experienced help.
- Test your market. Messina often imports only a small amount of any product to test her customers' reactions. If the product is popular, she returns for a larger order.
- Follow up with current vendors. It's easier, says Messina, to ask current vendors to expand their product lines than to seek out new vendors. "If someone does a great bath product, I'll go back and ask them about shower gels." By feeding ideas back to her regular vendors, she's able to expand her product line and benefit her suppliers at the same time.
- Don't be "overly American." When doing business abroad, it's best not to come on too strong, says Messina. "You must realize where you are. You don't want people to think you're taking things from them, preying upon them. Try to embrace their culture, and don't act as if, because you're American, you have some kind of entitlement."
Come to think of it, that's good business advice wherever you are.
Moira Allen is a freelance writer in Mountain View, California, and editor of Global Writers' Ink, an electronic newsletter for international writers.