2-Step Process to Marketing Your Import/Export Business
A surprisingly small percentage of domestic producers export their wares. Your marketing goal is to convince the huge remainder that they can increase profits by exporting -- with your guidance -- to specific target countries. You can accomplish this with emails to their websites, making connections through networking and via social media and by making follow-up phone calls to anyone who responds.
If you’re starting with imports, don’t ignore the following information; you’ll work in basically the same manner.
Your first step, before you initiate contact with any manufacturer, is to do some basic market research:
- What products are hot sellers in the domestic marketplace? Focus your attention on products that you know well or are bestsellers in their market niches.
- Are these products hot sellers in your target countries?
- If not, are there situations or markets that would put these products in great demand if the products were available?
- Who manufactures these products?
- What’s the selling price of each product, and of competing products or brands, domestically and in your target countries?
Once you’ve researched some companies, you can move on to step two and begin a campaign. One choice is to look for manufacturers of one of the products you’ve researched. Then either search online or call the company, and ask for the name of the person to whom you’ll want to write. If the company is small, you’ll probably want the president or owner. If it’s a larger concern, you might want to direct your letter to the vice president in charge of sales or the sales manager.
In corresponding, make sure to address these points:
- Introduce yourself and your company.
- Briefly outline the potential of the overseas market.
- Outline the product’s potential within that market.
- If possible, explain why and how your company, out of all others, will be able to position the product best. For example, if you have experience with like products, be sure to say so.
- If you already have contacts with foreign distributors, explain that you have foreign reps for overseas sales.
- Let customers know you care about them, their wants and needs.
- Ask for a personal meeting to further discuss the possibilities.
Send emails, or letters, to several companies. It’s best not to start with two clients that have the same type of products because if they both respond, you’ll have to compete with your own clients. But if you’ve exhausted your first line of attack (without success), go back and try other clients in the same product line.
Now wait a week to 10 days. If you haven’t heard from your target manufacturer(s), send an email follow-up. Suggest some available times in which you could talk.
Desperately seeking imports
We’ve talked about how to find export products to send abroad. But what about imports? You have several options for finding goods to bring stateside:
- 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. Commercial Service’s International Trade Administration (ITA).
- Track down leads on the internet and in trade publications.
Traveling abroad may sound like the most delightful of these options, but it’s not always practical in terms of time, money or other commitments you may have. It’s not a must, 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.
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, 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 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: The potential profits in these types of ventures are often much greater for the newbie importer than going the brand-name route, which brings with it a lot of competition.
While traveling in search of products to import is fun and lucrative, 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. This option will be more available to you as your company grows and you make contacts all over the world, because 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 many countries with more than 10,000 product categories. Access the register for free at www.thomasnet.com.
Trade shows are also a terrific way to meet foreign manufacturers, distributors and representatives. Foreign trade shows or fairs, set up by foreign governments to showcase their own manufacturers, are held to tempt potential importers. You’ll have to travel abroad to attend some shows. Others come to 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.
Many countries and geographic regions also sponsor trade offices where you can find specific information on manufacturers of everything from toothpicks to truck tires to fur coats. You can call or email the consulate or Google “Trade development office in [name of location, country or city].” While some will have variations on the phrase, you can find out how best to get in touch with them. Once you’ve made contact, ask for a list of suppliers eager to do business with American importers.
The U.S. Commercial Service’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.
Once you’ve located foreign manufacturers or suppliers whose products have U.S. sales potential, now you have to sell them on the idea of entering the American marketplace and convince them that you’re the person to usher them in. How do you do this? Basically, the same way you’ll pitch domestic manufacturers -- by sending a letter or email. In your letter, outline the various opportunities available in the United States for the product, and highlight that you’ll handle all import logistics with little cost to the manufacturer.
Follow up in a few days with another email. Think of the follow-up as a firm but gentle nudge, an opportunity to strengthen your position and demonstrate real interest in importing the merchandise. Remember that part of your task is to convince the potential client that your company is the best one for the job, so you have to supply a reason for this. You also want to strike up a conversation with them. The trade industry is largely predicated on relationships, and if you are the pushy American, you may not make a lot of connections, so be cordial and take an interest in your customer, or trading partner.