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How to Prepare Your Product for Import/Export

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Two Start-up Business People Discussing Layout And Colors
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When Coca-Cola first came to China, it was given a Chinese name that sounded very similar . . . but the characters used for the name meant "Bite the Wax Tadpole."

Here, we will help you prepare your product for import/export. This phase is critical; you should expect to do some degree of adapting your product for sale outside domestic markets before you make your first sale. Don’t just jump in and start selling! Consult with prospective customers, wholesalers, agents, embassies and so on to determine the best strategy for selling your products in an overseas market.

Studying competing products in the country where you wish to do business is a great way to target what works in that market. If you cannot visit the country and scan store shelves yourself, get in touch with folks on the ground there and see if they can apprise you of what products are comparable to yours.

Meanwhile, grab a sample of your own import/export-ready product, and let's run through our checklist:

    1. The name of your product. Sure, it sounds fine and intriguing to an American, but what does it mean in the target market? Find out beforehand. If you don't, you will end up with a fiasco like Chevrolet had on their hands when they introduced their new automobile called the "Nova" in Venezuela -- which, in Spanish, means "doesn't go"!
    2. The colors of your packaging. What do the colors connote in the country of destination? Vibrant, attention-grabbing red sometimes signifies "warning" or "danger" in the U.S., but in Chinese culture, it indicates good luck. A slick black package with touches of embossed gold or silver conveys elegance and sophistication in the U.S. and some newly industrialized countries, but in certain parts of Africa, for example, it suggests death! Even if your design principles have been foolproof for products to be sold in the U.S., expect to have to scrap them and start fresh when it comes to marketing products abroad.
    3. Overall packaging and labeling design. Besides your color choices, your illustrations or graphics need to be appropriate, appealing and understandable to your end-user. If there is any possible way you can get opinions on your package design from actual consumers in your target market, do so. Would they buy it on the basis of the way it looks? For example, if you put a smiling face on your package, but the purchase of that particular product is taken quite seriously in their country, would your labeling be trivial or cheap-looking, or even offensive? And if you want to sell your products in stores that scan data, bar-coding your product will be essential.
    4. The size or quantity of your product itself. It might be perfect for U.S. patterns of consumption, but way too much in Japan, where the size of the typical household is very small. One single Whopper may feed one American, but that same burger sold in France may make a lunch for two, or have to be tossed in the trash. If too much of your product will go to waste, it's not economical or convenient for your consumer, and they won't buy it.
    5. Weights and measurements. Indicate weights and measurements on your label according to the local standard measures. Metric is considered the global standard, but you must double-check.
    6. Will you need a bilingual label? Canada requires a French-English label. Finland requires a Finnish-Swedish label. Most Middle East countries require an Arabic-English label. You must find out! For some destinations, the first order or trial shipment requires only a sticker on the outside of the package in the language of the importing country. Generally, this sticker should state the importing agent's name and address, the weight of the package in the country's standard units of measurement, an ingredient legend and the expiration date.
    7. Number of units per package. Be careful of the cultural significance attached to the number of units you place in a box. Some countries, particularly in the West, find 7 to be lucky and 13 to be unlucky. In Japan, the number 4 is the sign of death, so packing anything four to a box will be the kiss of death for your marketing venture! Anytime you have a relatively small number of products packed showcase-style in their box, check beforehand to make sure the quantity is not considered unlucky in the overseas market. Obviously, a box full of cookies need not be a problem.
    8. Pictures of your product on the label. A picture tells a thousand words. When Americans read PIZZA on the outside of a box, they know what's inside. But will they in New Caledonia? Probably not. Keep this in mind when you develop packaging for worldwide sales. Illustrations are acceptable, two-color pictures look nicer, but four-color label photography shows it like it is. Put yourself in the shoes of the prospective customer. If you don't know what's being sold, why buy it?
    9. Packaging material. If your packaging is behind the times in the United States, don't think you'll be able to unload (export) it in the world market. Customers worldwide appreciate innovation and cutting-edge technology, and they EXPECT it from the United States. The same holds true for bringing a product (importing) into the United States. Don't let your customers down! Keep informed on what is the newest and best in your packaging category.
    Example: My company at one time was exporting all-metal tins of gourmet nut snacks until I had a customer ask why we weren't packaging our nut snacks like Planter's! Planter's was using a composite tin (made from sturdy cardboard) that was safer and lighter in weight than an all-metal tin, but making the change was a major undertaking for us, requiring a change in supplier as well as new labels -- all too costly at once for a small business. So we waited until our labels were almost out of stock, then negotiated with new suppliers. Once we found one who could produce the composite tin, we reordered enough labels to cover both our domestic demand and the overseas business we could anticipate as a result of the improvement.
    10. Extending current product applications. Here's where a few months of actually living in a foreign country would really pay off in knowing how the locals do things and what they need to be able to do better. You may find that if you changed the speed of a kitchen mixer, a food item in China might be made better and faster than ever before. Reconfigure an existing vacuum attachment and it might be perfect for some out-of-the-way corners in Sri Lanka. Before you set out to do business in a particular country, ask some simple questions: How do the people there like to spend their time? What are their favorite foods? How do they clean their homes? How are their clothes laundered?
    11. Make sure electrical products are suitable for international use. If your wired product is not adjusted to the electrical standards in your target market, you'll have all sorts of problems, especially if you have already shipped the unacceptable product! A good resource you should know about is Electric Current Abroad, a publication of the U.S. Department of Commerce. It provides everything you need to know about electrical standards worldwide. If for some reason you don't find what you need, contact your local chamber of commerce or a government official in the country where you are about to do business.
    12. How will you handle warranties, guarantees, consignment sales or service calls overseas? Anticipate what it will take to put one of these commitments in place not locally, but globally. Can it be done? If so, map out the logistics from start to finish and determine who will be responsible. If it is not feasible, then don't offer it.
    13. Environmental effects on your product. Humidity, high energy costs, poor water supply, extreme hot or cold temperatures, poor infrastructure -- all can affect how your product holds up in a new market. It may be that you can adjust your product to withstand a damaging environment, but if not, you will simply have to choose a market that is a better fit. If there are no roads to move your product, you can't get anywhere. Period.
    14. Country of origin. In order to sell a product in retail stores or elsewhere, some countries require a statement on the product that indicates where the product is made. Check with your prospective customers, wholesalers, agents, embassies and logistics specialist to determine if it is required by law before you import/export a product in the country where you are about to do business.

Adapting your product to meet the needs of an overseas market is a considerable undertaking, and will most likely require a substantial investment of both time and money. It will be smart to determine if the anticipated sales will outweigh the expense, and to project how long will it take to recover your product adaptation costs. You may find it more realistic, at least initially, to import/export your products to countries that will accept them as they are. From there, you can always grow and expand from your successes at your own pace.

But keep a long-term perspective: being willing to make strategic changes to your product will open doors to many more international markets. The risk is minimal compared to the risk of maintaining the status quo! Take the initiative, make the investment, get your product the best it can be, and you'll be able to sell it anywhere in the world.

Caution: Even a close translation might not be close enough -- "Jolly Green Giant" translates into Arabic as "Intimidating Green Ogre."

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