International Market Research for Exporters: Making a Molehill Out of a Mountain

Richard Corson | June 14, 2021 | Export Markets, Export Basics
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International Market Research | Shipping SolutionsThe unfathomable amount of information available online about anything and everything can overwhelm us. International market research is no exception; most of the vast amount of information we collect to guide our international business decisions is obtained from online sources. Knowledge of where to find reliable, accurate, current data and statistics, and how best to use the websites, is crucial to making good decisions.  

So, how do you begin?

First, know your product(s’) Schedule B number. These numbers are used to classify exported products in the U.S. and are based on the international Harmonized System (HS). They are also used in several online databases for market research. If you do not know the number, go to the U.S. Census Bureau’s website. On the homepage, click on "Find A Code."

Learn more about HS, HTS and Schedule B Codes— Download the free white paper.

Researching Countries

Next, remember that the U.S. has free trade agreements in force with 20 countries. Since tariffs have been eliminated or reduced in these countries, exploring the opportunities in these markets is a sound strategy. The International Trade Administration’s (ITA) Tariff Tool is a relatively new creation, and very helpful. According to the website, “the FTA Tariff Tool incorporates all products (agricultural and non-agricultural goods) . . . within . . . the Harmonized System, and includes information on product-specific rules of origin to determine the eligibility of the reduced tariff rates with any U.S. FTA partner. The Tariff Tool not only provides information on current tariff lines, but also provides transparency on future tariffs and the years when those products become duty free.” You will enter your Schedule B number to obtain the data. You’ll find a link to the Schedule B search engine (you can enter the number without the decimal point) on the website.

Companies can also find tariff rates in countries around the world on the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) website. The Trade Topics tab also contains excellent information.

If your research leads you to one of the 20 countries with which the U.S. has a free trade agreement, visit the U.S. Trade Representative’s (USTR) website. The information on free trade agreements is excellent.

Continue your research with a journey to the U.S. Commercial Service (CS), a part of the ITA. The CS, which works primarily with small- and medium-sized exporters, has an enormous amount of high-quality information on countries, regions and industries. The Country Commercial Guides are a must read. Companies should also talk with a trade specialist at their nearest Export Assistance Center for additional counsel and advice. The CS trade specialists take customer service very seriously and regard the companies they assist as their clients.

Complement the visit to the CS website with a trip to ITA’s Industry and Analysis Market Diversification Tool. According to the website, “The Market Diversification Tool can help identify potential new export markets using your current trade patterns. Enter what products you make and the markets you currently export to, and the Market Diversification Tool crunches the numbers to help you identify and compare markets you may want to consider.”

Looking for new export markets?  Download the free eBook—  Evaluating Export Markets: How to Assess Country and Customer Risk

Additional industry and country information is available from many other excellent sources,  including:

  • Global Edge, a component of the Michigan State University (MSU) International Business Center, which is part of MSU’s Center for International Business Education and Research (CIBER). There are 15 nationally-designated CIBER’s at universities across the country, created by Congress to “improve the nation’s capacity for international understanding and competitiveness.”
  • The CIA. The CIA does much more than conduct clandestine operations. The organization’s World Factbook “provides basic intelligence on the history, people, government, economy, energy, transportation, military, terrorism and transnational issues for 266 world entities.”
  • The United Nations (UN). The UN is a vast organization involved in many activities around the world, including trade. Check the country profiles on the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development website.

Evaluating Risk

International business presents a variety of challenges, many of which can be mitigated. Corruption is one of them. At this point your research has led you to some countries that appear very attractive, but how do they compare to other countries in their degree of corruption? A non-governmental organization called Transparency International creates a list that ranks countries by level of corruption.

A related topic is your company’s interest in protecting its intellectual property rights. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, a part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, is an indispensable source of information.

Exporting involves rules and regulations. It is imperative that companies understand that they can not do business in some countries nor with some individuals and entities. They must also know when an export license is required. Three government agencies will assist you in this part of your research.

  1. The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which oversees the sanctions program, is a great source of information.
  2. To determine if your product needs an export license—the vast majority do not—familiarize yourself with the Export Administration Regulations (EAR) under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security. The EAR also contains the list of persons and entities you can not export to.
  3. If your company exports defense-related products, you must understand the U.S. State Department’s International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) to determine how ITAR applies to your transactions. Many companies hire an attorney or instruct in-house counsel to assist them in these matters. 

Shipping Your Goods and Getting Paid

As your research moves to the actual transactions, companies should familiarize themselves with the information available on financing and shipping terms. The U.S. Small Business Administration and the Export Import Bank of the U.S. offer programs used by a wide variety of companies across the country.

Two additional government agencies have financing programs that might attract your company. The International Development Finance Corp. (DFC) is "America’s development bank. DFC partners with the private sector to finance solutions to the most critical challenges facing the developing world." The U.S. Trade Development Agency "connects the U.S. private sector to infrastructure projects in emerging markets . . . funding feasibility studies, technical assistance and pilot projects . . ."

Learn Your Export Payment Options: Download the Free Trade Finance Guide

Freight forwarders know the International Commercial Terms, referred to as Incoterms, and you should have at least some familiarity with them. When you search the web for the Incoterms you will find no shortage of sites defining the meaning of FOB, CIF, etc. If you choose to rely on just one site, consider the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC). The ICC publishes the Incoterms, and “Incoterms” is a registered trademark of the ICC.

Read Shipping Solutions' articles spotlighting each of the Incoterms 2020 rules here: An Introduction to Incoterms, EXW (Ex Works), FCA (Free Carrier), FAS (Free Alongside Ship), FOB (Free On Board), CFR (Cost and Freight), CIF (Cost, Insurance and Freight), CPT (Carriage Paid To), CIP (Carriage and Insurance Paid To), DAP (Delivered At Place), DPU (Delivered At Place Unloaded) and DDP (Delivered Duty Paid)

Researching international trade policy helps you understand the “big picture” and why the country enacts certain positions. Two organizations that provide analyses on trade policy, among many other policies, are the Brooking Institution and the American Enterprise Institute.

For the exporter of agricultural products, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service is very valuable.

Finally, companies should always seek local conferences and seminars, webinars, including World Trade Week events, organized by the U.S. Commercial Service and local partners, every May. As the world slowly reopens after the pandemic, trade shows and exhibitions will once again offer wonderful opportunities to conduct informal research. If at all possible, exhibit at the show or shows most relevant to your industry or attend the show and walk the floor.

While you can save a lot of time by throwing darts at a map or going with a hunch, invest the time to conduct International market research. The latter will take longer upfront and your company will likely spend some money in the process. This is money well spent to prevent going down blind alleys. The result will be decisions reached by a thorough analysis that will give you the confidence to grow internationally.


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