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    A Mission for Detectives: Looking for Importers


    © International Trade Centre, International Trade Forum - Issue 1/2001 

    Perhaps no question is asked more frequently by exporters than "Where and how can I find importers?" Helping businesses to ferret out the response can be a real challenge. A firm grasp of specialized sources is necessary, but it is not enough: an inquisitive mind and a healthy dose of perseverance are essential to track down leads to the right importers for your business.

    Among the information that exporters seek, contacts with importers tops the list. Inquiry-reply services of developing country trade promotion organizations, as well as those of ITC, are asked no question more frequently than how to find the right importer. ITC corroborated this finding by conducting reviews of the business information services of trade promotion organizations in developing countries, and consequently developed a Guide to Importers' Directories to address this demand.

    The supply of information on importers by no means matches the demand. Finding directories of exporters is child's play - such directories abound in print, on the Internet and on CD-ROM. Accurate directories of importers, however, are difficult to find. Information about importers is limited, dispersed, of uneven quality and frequently expensive. They are few and far between, and rarely free of charge. Business matchmaking opportunities, price information and other commercial information fall into the same pattern. While offers to sell abound, offers to buy do not.

    ITC's Guide to Importers' Directories helps exporters in developing countries in the difficult task of tracking down information. The guide does not furnish importers' addresses, but rather the means to discover them. It furnishes contact details, geographic areas of coverage, how to obtain information, prices and a description for 130 publicly available sources.

    Internet: not a panacea 

    A frequent myth is that anything can be found on the Internet, if one knows how to look for it. Not true. The Guide to Importers' Directories, for example, points users to the Internet in only one-third of the cases (44 sources of 130). One should distinguish between promotional web sites, which point users to off-line services, and information-oriented web sites, which offer on-line access to services. Promotional sites are clearly far more numerous and less interesting than information-oriented sites. (Only the latter are cited in ITC's guide.)

    The Internet is a fast-changing domain, however, and it is likely that information-oriented sites will increase dramatically in the years ahead. Data about importers can easily be sold, and growth in e-commerce applications of the Internet is now moving rapidly.

    The devil is in the details 

    The level of detail in directories of importers can vary greatly. While exporters dream of specific lists of importers for narrowly defined products, often they must be satisfied with broad product categories.

    Some sources are improving the level of detail. The International Directory of Importers (published by Interdata; http://www.export-leads.com) is one notable example, as it is one of the most extensive directories, both in terms of world coverage and the number of importers.

    The way to judge information in an importers' directory is to check how reliable the data is, how frequently it is updated, how much contact information exists for each importer, and whether the imported products and services are listed in detail.

    Directories of manufacturers are useful whenever they clearly mention that the company also imports. However, they usually do not indicate which products or services are actually imported. This is the case for the majority of well-known company registers, such as Euro CD-Book, Thomas Register and ABC Europe, as well as databases from Dun and Bradstreet and Hoppenstedt.

    In contrast with the directories cited above, lists and directories provided by customs offices generally offer detailed export-import transaction data, including a precise customs code and description of imported products. These sources, however, offer little information about the firms involved in the trade transaction. Usually, there is no phone or fax, and even complete addresses are not common. What this means in practice is that a researcher can use customs sources to find names of importers, and then use complementary sources for contact information, such as company directories, "yellow pages" (the business section of telephone directories), Internet search engines and relevant web sites.

    Knowing your sources 

    If you know how directories collect their information, then it's easy to anticipate strengths and weaknesses in the contents. Most directories of importing firms fall into one of two categories:

    • Directories based on customs declarations; and

    • Directories based on surveys.

    The strong points of customs-based directories are breadth of coverage, frequency of update and details of transactions. The strong point of survey-based directories is that more data exists about the firms.

    The best importers' directories are those that combine both methods: first, researchers collect data from customs; then they investigate complementary sources for details on importing firms. Two examples of such directories are the Italian Trading Companies database (ITIE) and Firm-import, the importers' section of the Telexport database of French exporters and importers, developed by the French Chambers of Commerce and Industry network. Both are distributed by Data Star.

    Business intelligence 

    One's personal networks can often be the best information source. Business executives of small and medium-sized enterprises generally prefer to use their personal and professional contacts to gather the business information they seek. A phone call to an agent, a discussion with a client or service provider, a visit to a specialized trade fair, a business trip - all are excellent ways to build a "business intelligence" network and collect relevant information about importers.

    Information specialists often neglect these tried and true methods in favour of the latest marvels of information technology. Business executives, on the other hand, sometimes miss out on published commercial information that could help them flesh out the leads they gather through networking. Obviously, the key is to combine both direct contacts and information searches.

    Where to turn for advice 

    When an exporter can't find information on importers, the first reaction should be to approach competent information providers.

    Trade support institutions 

    Trade support institutions such as ministries of commerce, chambers of commerce and industry associations can be of assistance. They often have information centres with Internet access, lists of sources, printed directories, CD-ROMs and databases. They can also contact their commercial offices in relevant countries, which often have sector-related lists of importers. In addition, about 20 national import promotion offices exist in developed countries, with the aim of promoting links with developing country exporters.


    Customs agencies in the target markets are often best placed to track importers and their business interests. Many countries do not freely provide this information, however, on the pretext that the business data is confidential. In a growing number of countries, however, customs administrators are willing to provide such information, especially as they begin to realize that selling tailor-made information about importers can be a valuable source of revenue.

    In the European Union, as national barriers fall, banks have replaced customs as the information source on import-export transactions. This is a trend to monitor, as it may be followed by other regional groupings.

    Importers' associations 

    Another source of information is importers' associations in the target market. Lists of members generally offer detailed and useful contact information in specific product categories.

    Market studies 

    Market studies for various business sectors also contain lists of importers. Examples include those developed by United States embassies, published on the Internet or those available on CD-ROM. An example is the National Trade Data Bank, a comprehensive set of databases and documents for exports gathered in a monthly CD-ROM (US$ 50) or at http://www.stat-usa.gov. ITC also frequently publishes market information containing sector-related lists of importers.

    A willingness to investigate 

    The rapid rise of the Internet, which in a short span has become an international information marketplace, can create a sense of misplaced complacency. The search for business leads cannot be perfected simply by mastering use of search engines on the Internet. A flair for seeking out business leads and a willingness to investigate are equally important.

    A Brazilian exporter of ceramic tiles who targets the Middle East, for example, may find that importers' lists are not available. The potential clients, construction firms, use wholesalers as suppliers. As construction material wholesalers are also usually importers, the Brazilian firm will have no difficulty in obtaining from a Brazilian trade office in the relevant country a phone book which contains a list of construction material wholesalers, and then contact them directly.

    For another illustration of how to track down importers, take the case of a Romanian furniture-parts exporter which seeks a foothold in Sweden. While there may be no list of importers specialized in furniture imports, the exporter can easily identify major furniture producers in Sweden which may be interested in new suppliers. To find the relevant contact information, one can consult a list of Swedish furniture manufacturers and exporters.

    Following up leads 

    In summary, a good "detective" in search of business prospects will follow many leads. Here's how to do it:

    • First, determine who is most likely to import the product. Rely on common sense and business intelligence leads gathered through contacts and by observing competition.

    • Then, use published information to check locally for names of importing firms and potential partners. Use the Internet, directories, customs listings, business matchmaking opportunities, trade-fair catalogues and whatever other published information is available.

    • Finally, personally investigate further the best leads to select the best potential partners. Use trade offices, market studies, business trips, trade fairs and creditworthiness reports.

    At each step, particularly the second one, the Internet is valuable.Whether an information specialist or an exporter, the ideal profile of the perfect business "detective" is:

    • good understanding of the information needs of the business

    • knowledge of relevant primary sources

    • mastery of Internet search tools

    • logic and strong analytical skills

    • ease in making contacts, a willingness to explore, and above all... perseverance!

    Bertrand Jocteur-Monrozier, ITC Senior Adviser on Trade Information Management, coordinated the research and production for the Guide to Importers' Directories. He welcomes new sources of information on importers for the next edition of ITC's guide. Contact him by e-mail at monrozier@intracen.org