The world is your oyster when it comes to international trade. Resources for finding new overseas distributors, who are often the best way to start exporting into a new market, range from brick-and-mortar trade shows to online marketplaces. Here are a few ways your business can find international distributors.
1. Trade Shows
One of the best places to connect with potential partners is at trade shows, either in the United States or, even better, in the markets you are targeting for expansion. For information on upcoming U.S. trade shows, the Trade Show News Network (TSNN) publishes data on the top events in the United States and Canada. An equally helpful tool on the TSNN site is a searchable database of shows worldwide, enabling you to filter upcoming events based on criteria such as industry focus and country.
“Attending international trade shows is one of the best places to find agents and distributors, and is often a good starting place for relatively new exporters," says Roger S. Cohen, an international trade consultant in Nyack, NY. “A more expensive option for companies that understand the potential of a specific market is to have a booth at an international show. This can be expensive, but it makes it easy for potential distribution partners to find you."
2. Government Resources
The U.S. government also offers a number of tools that are designed to help American exporters connect with international buyers. Two of the most useful federal programs are the Gold Key program and the International Partner Search, both fee-based services offered by the U.S. Commerce Department.
The Foreign Agriculture Service (FAS), part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, also offers a wide range of programs to assist American agriculture exporters. The FAS Market Access Program, for example, is designed to help promote exports by subsidizing the cost of overseas marketing and promotional activities.
—Stanley Chao, president, All In Consulting
In addition to federal resources, check to see if your state has offices overseas. Many U.S. states maintain foreign offices that are staffed with personnel who can help connect you with industry experts and potential partners. To connect with your state trade office, visit the State International Development Organization's online directory.
Cohen also suggests checking with commercial diplomats from other countries who are often based in their country's embassies or consulates in the United States. These international trade specialists can sometimes make introductions to distributors, or may know of reverse trade missions in which buyers from their country travel to the United States in search of new suppliers.
3. Trade Associations
Trade associations are another avenue for connecting with potential overseas partners. The World Trade Centers Association, for example, has 317 affiliates in 88 countries worldwide. In addition to providing physical infrastructure for conducting business in local markets, many of the World Trade Centers offer programming and networking opportunity events to connect U.S. exporters with buyers and multipliers in local markets. While some World Trade Centers focus primarily on real estate endeavors, others offer a wide range of export education programming and networking opportunities.
Local chapters of the American Chamber of Commerce also are a potential source for information about trade opportunities, market data and partners in many countries around the world.
Moreover, both U.S.-based and non-U.S. industry associations can often provide detailed information and introductions related to specific industry verticals in a given market. Some U.S. trade associations even have affiliations with similar trade groups overseas, so a good starting point is the industry group that serves your niche in the marketplace.
4. Online Marketplaces
Perhaps the most well known online marketplace for B2B e-commerce is Alibaba. The Chinese-based company has more than 40 industry categories and connects buyers and sellers in more than 190 countries worldwide. U.S. exporters can join for free and test the platform before deciding if it's worth investing in some of the site's premium features.
Another platform to consider for B2B is Amazon Business. The Seattle-based company's platform serves businesses of all sizes and across all industries. Amazon Business, launched in 2015, is an online marketplace that connects buyers, manufacturers and sellers.
5. Your Existing Network
American companies that are established in their industry and already have distributors overseas may be able to leverage existing contacts to find new partners in other countries.
An interesting twist on this idea is to approach the potential end user of your product for introductions to their suppliers. Cohen says that one of his clients, which makes components for car radios, was able to penetrate the notoriously challenging Japanese distribution network based on a referral from an equipment manufacturer to its radio supplier. As a result, the American company was able to find a distribution channel for its specialized electronics component.
Stanley Chao, president of All In Consulting based in Los Angeles, and the author of Selling to China, agrees that leveraging your existing contacts is one of the best ways to find new distribution partners. This is particularly beneficial for U.S. exporters considering the Chinese market. "The best way to find good partners is always word of mouth," says Chao. "You have to know people in the industry who can steer you to the right place. A least for China, a Western company needs to work with someone who understands both China and the specific industry they are in."
For help developing a strategy for finding overseas distributors, the Basic Guide to Exporting provides a useful checklist. The key criteria will vary based on specific industry sectors and regions of the world, but some basic considerations include the size of your potential partner's sales force, its sales history, its geographic reach, its experience with different products, its infrastructure and its overall experience.
Finally, do your homework before starting to look for potential distribution partners. “It's a global market," says Cohen, “and everyone has competition wherever they go."