You may think that export business is dominated by larger companies. But consider these statistics from the U.S. Department of Commerce: Small and medium-size enterprises (fewer than 500 workers) accounted for 97% of all U.S. exporters, and very small companies (defined as fewer than 20 employees) made up 70% of America’s exporters in 2002 (the last year for which figures are available.) Small and medium-size businesses had $158 billion in export revenues that year, up from $103 billion 10 years before. And it’s not just manufacturing companies that are selling to foreign customers: Non-manufacturing companies make up 68% of all small and medium-size exporters.
Selling internationally presents fantastic growth opportunities — if you can find and recognize them. Below are seven strategies to develop or find new or hidden markets in the world marketplace. Use these ideas to find new customers and new uses for your products and to fuel greater sales growth and profitability for your business.
1. Find and expand into new geographical markets for an existing product
This is the simplest and quickest strategy to grow your business. It requires minimal investment with either direct or indirect exporting, and little planning of market development. Exporting is a common growth tactic for both mature international companies and smaller companies.
To find new geographical markets, start with the government’s information resources. In the U.S., try the Department of Commerce (ita.doc.gov/index.html), the U.S. Commercial Service (buyusa.gov) or the U.S. Small Business Administration (sbaonline.sba.gov/OIT). At buyusa.gov, for instance, if you select the New York City geographic region, it leads you to the name and contact information for a “senior international trade specialist.” These people are experts in global trade in specific industries, and meeting with a specialist in your industry would be a good first step in deciding where you might want to export to. They can tell you about the economic situation in different countries, what potential tariff and regulatory barriers you may face and other indispensable data. Also on the buyusa.gov website is a link to export.gov, which has a “trade leads” section that lists specific trading opportunities and is searchable by region, industry or keyword. For example, a recent search showed that a Costa Rican company is looking to purchase knitting equipment — valuable information for a manufacturer in that industry — and a Portuguese company is looking for skin care products for seniors to sell in that country.
Look to see where, if anywhere, your U.S. competitors are exporting to. Often that’s a good way to pinpoint a thriving market. Trade associations often have information on where companies in their industry are exporting. Another excellent source of this information is the Port Import/Export Reporting Service (PIERS). PIERS (piers.com) is the only information service that provides names of U.S. consignees or shippers as well as overseas suppliers, along with detailed descriptions of import or export shipments for the commodity of your choice. This information is taken from ships’ manifests by a nationwide corps of reporters and is loaded weekly into a computer database. Not long ago, PIERS came in handy when an American window blind manufacturer was trying to find South African customers who were importing window shades into Cape Town. The manufacturer wanted to effectively compete with an industry giant already exporting to Cape Town. After securing a list from PIERS that showed who was buying the competitor’s goods there, the manufacturer created a direct mail package specifically aimed at those customers. Using the PIERS list gave the company the competitive advantage it needed to show the South African prospects the superiority of their product and win them over as customers. There is a cost to using PIERS, typically $150 for a search.
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