If you are looking to begin importing, it is important to do your due diligence. Certain products are far more suited to being shipped internationally than others, and understanding your responsibilities as an importer or exporter is vital to ensure that you meet your legal obligations. There can also be a number of hidden costs associated with importing that you haven't considered, and putting processes in place to ensure prompt delivery of goods is essential.
How to choose a product to import
If you are looking to import products from foreign manufacturers, you will need to become familiar with Alibaba. Alibaba is the largest online marketplace for chinese manufactured goods and is by and large considered the primary source for small business importers. While other options do exist, they will require heavier vetting on your part, and you will need to establish your own relationship with the manufacturer, which can be difficult for a new or small business.
Once you have an account on Alibaba you will be inundated with options. There are thousands upon thousands of potential products you could import, but not all suppliers are equal. You should only be looking at gold suppliers with trade assurance. This significantly lowers the risk of you being sent faulty/counterfeit products or being scammed.
Once you are looking at the right suppliers, you need to find products which:
- Are not patented, trademarked or subject to copyright
- Are legal to import
- Are not already popularly sold on Amazon, eBay or Etsy
- Do not pose a health or safety risk to consumers, of any kind
- Are not likely to break in transit
- Are not likely to malfunction
- Can be branded
- Are available at manageable minimum order quantities
That covers the essentials. If a product fits those criterias, it is possible to make money importing it. Does that mean it will be easy? Of course not. If you are a first time importer, there are a few extra tips you might want to take on board to limit your exposure and increase your chances of success:
- Choose a product in the $20-200 price range
- Avoid liquids as they have longer shipping times
- Avoid chemical, medical and food products
- Find a niche market with few major players
- Choose products which are labour intensive (this is where chinese manufacturers have the greatest advantage)
- Request samples
- Visit the factory in person and establish a relationship with people in the business
- Build a marketing and sales funnel first to test the viability of your product idea
- Choose a niche where you have a competitive advantage (knowledge, brand value, price, product range, etc)
The reality of importing
Entrepreneurs first exploring the import space can sometimes feel giddy when they see the potential profits of imported products. It is not uncommon to find an item which you can buy for $1-2 per unit selling for $20-30 per unit on Amazon or eBay, leading some of the less risk averse new business founders to throw down $1000 in a heartbeat, expecting to make huge returns overnight. These entrepreneurs invariably get burned.
First of all, there are hidden costs of importing they generally haven't considered, including:
- OEM branding fees
- Shipping and handling fees
- Import taxes and tariffs
- Storage costs
- Investment of time and resources to package and distribute products locally
- Postage fees
- Cost of returns and refunds
- Sales and marketing expenses
- Business overheads
- Income taxes
- Your own time and labour
It can also take a significant amount of time to sell your inventory, if the product is not one which sells in high volume, or you lack the marketing budget to push it more aggressively. So what may look like a whopping 2000% profit margin on the surface may be reduced to a 20% margin when everything's said and done. If you are considered importing, don't be dismayed. Many businesses operate on slim margins, it is just important to manage your own expectations and do the research necessary to ensure you aren't forecasting unrealistic profits.