If you’ve been importing long enough you’ve probably found a competitor selling the exact same product as you but at a lower price. You wonder if your competitor is simply sacrificing margins or if they’re getting their products for cheaper, and if so, from who.
Research tools which lean on public U.S. customs records can be extremely valuable for finding and verifying Suppliers.
Or if you’re just beginning working with a supplier and they tell you that they supply Walmart/Home Depot/<insert huge retailer here> and you wonder if they’re in fact being completely honest and really export to these companies.
Thankfully, thanks to public U.S. customs records, this information is easy to find. In the United States, customs data is public information. That means that any company that imports something into the U.S., and any company that exports anything to the U.S., leaves a paper trail behind them that is open to nearly anyone’s eyes (actually, you can request your information to be hidden but few, if any, companies do this. You can get access to all of this information through a Freedom of Information Request to the Department of Homeland security and paying $250-300. Or…
You can use a third party website such as a ImportGeniusor PortExaminer. Most websites are paid but some are free (as in the case of PortExaminer) or offer a number of free searches per month.
You can simply enter the name of the supplier or competitor you are researching and you will be returned, theoretically, all of the recent import/export activity for that company. Why theoretically? Well there’s some serious gaps in the information:
Most websites only give you access to U.S. import/export information
Information is only as good as the information filled out in the Bill of Lading (describing something on a customs declaration as Auto Parts doesn’t exactly tell you what type of auto part it is being imported)
Many Chinese companies hide their activities by exporting under the name of another company/trading company
Import records like Bills of Lading are largely public information in the U.S.
Even with these short comings though the information you can get about suppliers and competitors can prove very valuable. I like to use it in a number of ways including:
Finding a Supplier for a product that I can’t seem to locate on Alibaba or other channel
Verifying a Supplier’s claims and legitimacy
Seeing the average order size of a Supplier to see if they’re open to smaller orders
In Part 2 of this post, I go into more detail how you can use public customs data to do Supplier and Product research.
Update: In 2015 ImportGenius became a site sponsor of ImportGenius. I’ve always recommended ImportGenius to importers even prior to this but since their sponsorship, my recommendations are of course even more vehement