The Import-Export Business: What’s it All About?

The import-export business can be easily defined. You search for the kind of goods that people want and then sell them at a profit. Basically your job description is to locate these goods, find the buyers who want them, then arrange to get goods and buyers together. If you can keep your expenses low and your sales high, you’ll make a profit. It’s as simple as that.

If you’re not too sure about the difference between importing and exporting, think of it like this:

If you live in the United States and you bring in replica icons from Bulgaria or poker chip cases from China, you’re an importer. If you live in Mexico and you ship a zillion sarape blankets from there to the United States, you’re an exporter.

Unless you move home by relocating to another country, you’ll almost certainly be engaged in the import end of the business. At least to start with.

The Import-Export Business: The Profit Margin

What kind of profits can be made? Well, one contact in Indonesia tells us that there, the average mark-up on craft products is around 350% wholesale, 500% retail. What that basically means is this:

A village artisan is making intricately carved wooden masks and selling them to whomever turns up for the equivalent of $10 a time. One of his customers is an Indonesian-based wholesaler.  If you buy the mask directly from this wholesaler, you’ll pay something like $35 for it. But if you’re a tourist who buys from a store in Indonesia you’ll be paying more like $50.

And if you’re the sucker who buys the mask in the States, you’ll undoubtedly be looking at a stratospheric price tag. A lot depends on where you purchase it from — an internet sales site or a high-end specialty store.

Huge mark ups aren’t uncommon for many goods from Central and South America either. By the time these items appear in stores in the States, they can have risen in price by as much as 800%. Sometimes even more.

Everybody is chasing a cut of the profits. The artisan… the craft co-operative… the export wholesaler… the importer… the store itself.

The trick to realizing big profits is to cut out as many of the middlemen as possible.

The Import-Export Business: Writing and Photography Skills

When it comes to selling your goods, writing and photography skills are extremely important in the import/export business. And it applies even if you only aim to start out by selling your finds in a small way. Maybe you’re thinking of setting up your own website to showcase all those crafts you’ve bought back from overseas. Or having a “shop window” on E-bay.

Let’s say you’ve imported a consignment of Pulpaya straw mats from India. Depending on the texture and design, if bought locally, these mats start at just 45 rupees — less than $1 apiece.
What of the two following ads is more likely to attract customers?

Import-Export Sample One
Woven straw mats from India. Red and blue trim. 71×35 inches. Price: $6.95 each

Import-Export Sample Two
The traditional Pulpaya grass mats of the southern state of Kerala are amongst India’s oldest hand-woven products. These mats are even mentioned in the Atharva Veda (3500-1500 BC), the philosophical treatises of ancient India. Used to sit on as well as for sleeping on, in historic times these mats were used mostly by the elite. Ordinary people used to sit on wooden planks.

Woven out of Korappullu, a tall species of grass belonging to the Papyrus family, these mats are designed in various colors. The Korappullu grows to its maximum height during August-September. The villagers collect them in bulk quantities, cut them into long thin strips, and dry these for three days. The strips are then dyed by boiling the grass in water along with pieces of the bark of a tree called Chapangam. Usually it takes an entire day for one weaver to create a Pulpaya of 71×35 inches.

They are available to you for just $6.95.

Just because a phrase has become clichéd doesn’t mean it isn’t true. A picture often does say a thousand words. And as a trained travel writer, you’ve got the skills you need to paint the kinds of compelling word pictures that will easily sell the items you buy.

Certainly for the arts and crafts market, customers appreciate knowing something of an item’s history… how it is made… what it is made of… the people who produce it. A photograph alone won’t usually provide this information.

Even if you’re writing an ad blurb for the items you’ve imported from overseas, you should aim to make that advertisement as colorful as possible.  It doesn’t have to be lengthy. Below is a short ad for a beadwork Huichol jaguar.

Import-Export Sample Three
Our beaded animal heads all relate to Huichol tradition and belief. Much of these traditions are fueled by the use of the hallucinogenic peyote cactus.

The Jaguar represents the shaman’s powers to overcome fear and confront unknown obstacles in the spirit realm and dream world, as well as in the everyday lives of human spirit warriors. In addition, jaguars are also messengers of the fire god Tatewali, and bring healing knowledge and luck to those on the spirit path.

The brilliantly-colored beadwork is unbelievably intricate. Made by hand of carved wood, the Jaguar gets coated with beeswax. Each individual bead is picked up with a cactus thorn, then placed one by one in the wax.

Here’s another ad for an alebrije, a folk art carving from the Oaxaca region of Mexico. It’s taken from

Import-Export Example Four
Fluttering long eyelashes, a flirty green pig wears flowers. With pink nose and toes, she is a colorful expression of Mexican folk art. Florencio Fuentes transforms copal wood into a delightful alebrije. These fanciful sculptures take their name from a Caló gypsy word for “something difficult, tangled, confusing or fantastic.”

The site also goes on to give an introduction to Florencio, the man who carved it.

“My home town is known around the world for the elaboration of wooden pieces from copal wood. The famed alebrijes statuettes are an amalgamation of different animals. These mythical characters are believed to roam the land of dreams.

“Ever since I was tiny I liked a lot to play at carving copal wood. This is a legacy of my parents who dedicated half the year to the craft, alternating with their farm crops.”

The Import-Export Business: Website Resource

The site is a very good one to look at both for descriptions of products and also the kind of information you should be seeking when you interview artisans about their work — and which you could easily turn into entire articles.

They also give customers suggested retail prices for what their products can be resold for. However, whenever you can cut out the middleman, do so. You’ll get a much better deal if you seek out the artisans themselves.

That alebrije on Novica’s site carries a price tag of $29.95. This suggests the customer marks it up to resell at $52.95. But go down to Oaxaca and you can find similar-sized alebrijes for between $5.50 and $7.

[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]

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