International trade involves more than shipping U.S. products overseas. For many products, foreign sources of supply can provide higher quality, lower cost or some other desirable feature in comparison to U.S. sources. For instance, Italian shoes, French wines and Japanese cameras are widely available in the United States because of their recognized superiority in some respects to domestic alternatives.
Importing doesn’t have to be limited to goods, either. Many companies have grown by importing services in imaginative ways. For instance, a large quantity of the data-entry work that used to be done in the United States is now done by workers in countries such as India and China. The companies for whom this work is being done have effectively imported the data-entry services of international workers.
At one time, identifying sources of products to import was a serious challenge for American importers. But vast improvements in the global telecommunications network have greatly eased that task. Today anyone with a computer and a modem can do Web searches to locate suppliers virtually anywhere in the world. Furthermore, they can communicate with those suppliers, exchanging specifications and requirements far more easily, swiftly and conveniently than ever before. If you have an idea for importing a product made in another country, it should be easy to find a supplier who can sell it to you.
Here are tips for finding a source of products to import:
- Start by focusing on countries whose imports to the United States are granted favored status. This means lower import duties and lower cost for you.
- Once you’ve selected countries as likely sources, contact trade representatives at the appropriate embassies. They should be able to provide you with lists of manufacturers of the products you’re interested in.
- Attend foreign and domestic trade fairs where companies seeking to export to the United States are exhibitors.
- Read U.S. and foreign newspapers and magazines, scanning for advertisements and articles about products you might want to import.
The Internet is having a large impact on the way international business is conducted. This impact is especially significant when it comes to finding leads for international trade partners. You can look at TradeNet, the U.S. government’s online trade-matching service, for numerous links, databases, message boards and other tools for finding products to import and other opportunities to grow your business internationally.
Once you’ve identified some likely sources of products to import, make contact with the company and begin gathering information. You’ll want to obtain samples of products and, of course, discuss prices and terms of payment. Take special care to check the quality of the products-the United States is a sophisticated marketplace, and shoddy products that might succeed elsewhere will be shunned here.
As in any circumstance where you’re checking out a new prospective supplier, ask for references. Get a referral to a company that has dealt with this supplier before, and call to check them out.
Shipping procedures are a paramount concern when moving products long distances. High-value items may be shipped by air, but many products come by ship. This often means transit times measured in months, with the associated risks of missing market opportunities. Make sure your supplier understands your requirements for delivery and that the shipping procedure chosen will do the job. Once you are happy with the arrangements, have an attorney experienced in international trade review the contract.
Our take on foreign trade
International expansion is not necessarily the best way to grow your company. The U.S. market is big enough for most small businesses to expand almost indefinitely. But entering the international arena can protect you against the risk of decline in domestic markets and, most important, significantly improve your overall growth potential.