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A Secret Weapon for Doing Competitor and Supplier Research

If you've been importing long enough, you've probably found a competitor (probably on Amazon) selling the exact same product as you, but at a lower price. You might be wondering if your competitor is simply sacrificing margins or if they're getting their products for cheaper, and if so, from whom.

Or perhaps you're just beginning to work with a supplier and they tell you that they supply to Walmart/Home Depot/<insert huge retailer here> and you're wondering if they're in fact being completely honest.

Guess what? Using an Import Records software tool like Jungle Scout, you can find out the answers to all of these questions.

Related reading: How to Import from China Cheaply, Safely, and Quickly (Mega Guide)

What are Public Import Records?

If you've ever imported anything, you're likely familiar with the “Bill of Lading”. This is the document that lists all of the information about your shipment, including your name, your Supplier's name, and a brief overview of the shipment's contents.

Now here's the big shocker: the United States government and many other countries make this information publicly accessible. If you've ever searched for your name or company name just for fun on Google you may have even come across a record of your import.

The information on the Bill of Lading is public information in the U.S.
The information on the Bill of Lading is public information in the U.S.

By now, you've probably put the dots together and realized that these Bills of Lading and Import Records are exactly how you can snoop and find new Suppliers.

This past year, I've been using public import records to find Suppliers. I've had extremely good success using this method to find high quality suppliers with reasonable prices and who don't actively solicit new clients.

What You Can and Cannot Get from Import Records

The data you can receive from Import Records is limited only to shipments arriving via boat (so if you're trying to research a competitor who is shipping their iPhone cases via air, you're out of luck). However, for the United States, this consists of about 10 million records per year. In other words, there's a lot of data out there.

Here's the full list of information that most tools will give you access to:

Country of Export Est. Tax Port of Lading/Unlading
Country of Origin Exams Related Party Status
Discrepancy Types Export Date Special Program Ind.
Entered Value Filer Ultimate Consignee
Entry Date HTS Number/Desc.  
Entry Number Liquidation Date  
Entry Type Manuf. Id  
Est. Duty/Rate Mode of Transport  

So what information do you NOT get access to? There's a lot, of course, but the most important thing you're not going to have revealed to you is company website URLs (both for the Supplier and the Importer) and email addresses. Basically, you have to take the name of the Supplier and start googling, trying to find their contact info. Sometimes it's easy to find and sometimes it's next to impossible to find, which I'll address later.

How to Use Import Records to Find New Suppliers

The technique I have been using recently to find new Suppliers is to find a list of all Suppliers my competitors are using. However, I look only at my largest competitors. In the niches my company operates in, these competitors tend to be publicly traded companies but you can pick any large-ish retailer (re: multiple brick and mortar stores). Try to avoid scraping the Supplier list of smaller companies.

Young woman showing stock level to a worker in warehouse on a laptop computer. Warehouse manager with worker verifying stock level on system.

There's a few reasons why I target only larger companies:

  1. Larger companies tend to have bloated costs and expenses and tend to sell their products at exaggerated prices. Smaller companies like us who have more efficient Supply chains can import directly from their Suppliers, sell at lower prices and still make a healthy margin. By the same token this is also why I don't like to use the same Suppliers as smaller companies as they tend to have efficient Supply chains and there's no real room to reduce costs.
  2. Larger companies tend to only work with very professional Suppliers with excellent quality goods and who often are not advertising on Alibaba.

How to Find a Reliable Supplier from Import Records

Once you download your Supplier list, you're likely going to get a list of dozens or hundreds of Suppliers. What we want to do is find real Suppliers, with easy to find contact information, who are interested in doing business with us. As mentioned before, you will get the names of Suppliers, but not their URLs/emails. So the real grunt work comes from Googling the companies' names and trying to find websites for these companies.

There
There's over 1000 Supplier records for Cabelas.

Unfortunately, finding these websites isn't always easy and even if you do find their website, they're not always open to doing business with you. You're going to find three types of Suppliers:

  • Real deal Suppliers in China eager to work with you
  • Real deal Suppliers in China who don't want to work with you
  • Suppliers who hide their identity behind trading companies, subsidiaries, and other techniques

Addressing the last two types of companies, many companies and Suppliers try to hide their information from prying eyes like ours. They may use Hong Kong trading companies to hide their identity, holding companies, and so on. You'll be hard pressed to find any information for these companies. There are also some companies who you'll find great websites for and that show all sorts of importing treasures but unfortunately they have no interest in doing business with smaller companies.

However, all the rest are Suppliers who would love to do business with us. And as I alluded to previously, these are typically Suppliers not advertising on Alibaba, with excellent quality products, and at excellent prices.

Related Listening: Episode 174: Avoid Getting Scammed When Importing Products From China

How to Do Competitor Research the Smart Way

Thanks to public US customs records, information about your competitor's import history and your supplier's export history is easy to find. In the United States, customs data is public information. That means that any company that imports something into the US and any company that exports anything to the US leaves a paper trail behind them that is open to nearly anyone's eyes.

You can get access to all of this information through a Freedom of Information Request to the Department of Homeland Security and paying thousands of dollars. However, thanks to some clever SaaS products, getting this information is much easier than dealing with government bureaucracy.

jungle scout supplier database
Research tools which lean on public U.S. customs records can be extremely valuable for finding and verifying Suppliers.

Before Spring 2019, the only ways to access this information was through ImportGenius or Panjiva, which are about $200 to 300/month or PortExaminer/ImportYeti, which you can use for free. However, these tools are outdated and have incomplete information. As of March 2019, Jungle Scout offers the exact same information as Import Genius or Panjiva but for just $39 per month.

You can simply enter the name of the supplier or competitor you want to research on and you will be given information about all of the recent import and export activity for that company. Well, theoretically, that's what's supposed to happen. Why theoretically? That's because there are some serious gaps in the information:

  • Most websites only give you access to US import and 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 or trading company.

Import records like Bills of Lading are largely public information in the US. And even with their shortcomings, 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 channels
  • Verifying a supplier's claims and legitimacy
  • Seeing the average order size of a supplier to see if they're open to smaller orders

How to Use Import Record to Creep on Your Suppliers

Let's pretend you are in the automotive industry and you're looking to sell wiper blades.  You notice that a seller on Amazon is selling wiper blades for extremely cheap and you wonder a) how they get them for so cheap, and b) where they get them from. By accessing customs data information through a website such as JungleScout.com you can find out this information easily.

With Jungle Scout's Chrome plugin, all you need to do is pull up the product detail page and then within the Jungle Scout plugin, click the “Suppliers” icon like below.

How to find amazon suppliers
To find what suppliers your competitors on Amazon are using, use Jungle Scout's Chrome plugin.

This will then bring up a page on Jungle Scout that shows the exact supplier this seller is using for these wiper blades.

amazon competitor research

It shows that this seller is using Yancheng Teda Drilling and Product for these exact wiper blades. A simple search on Alibaba or Google for this supplier name allows you to source the exact same products.

Not only does using import records allow you to find what products your competitors are using. It's also great for verifying suppliers before you purchase with them. For example, I can simply click the supplier name above and see a full record of their export history to the United States.

supplier verification
Using import records is also great for verifying suppliers.

Now we can see that this supplier has five customers in the United States (if you scroll down further, you can see their actual names). This gives you some certainty that this supplier is legitimate and, if you wanted to take things even further, you could contact those buyers for trade references.

My Results

Over the past year or so I've found two solid suppliers via some ‘snooping' of just one major competitor.

The first Supplier manufactures a certain type of ‘case' (I'm consciously avoiding specifics here) for my competitor. Our cost is $15 and our competitor sells it for over $50. The margins aren't necessarily amazing (especially after you factor in shipping) but they are strong. Best yet, there is absolutely no one else selling this case besides this one competitor. And this Supplier advertises almost nowhere on the internet (there's no way I could have found them without Import Genius).

The other Supplier is an absolute home run. They manufacture about 100 different plastic products in our niche. In addition, they offer dozens of other products I had never even thought of importing at equally as good of prices. When you try and pull up their company website, half the time it is broken, and when it does work it looks like something developed in 1999. If I found their website randomly, I would never ever do business with them. But by looking at their import records, I could see that they have been working with many large companies in North America for years. When we finally did receive a shipment from them, the quality was superb and they did a lot of ‘extras' for free, like including our logo on the physical product.

How to Hide Your Import Records: Vessel Manifest Confidentiality

Want to hide your import history from competitors? It's easy and straight forward.

You can email a written request with your business name and address to vesselmanifestconfidentiality@cbp.dhs.gov.

You can also use CBP's new automated form on this page: https://www.cbp.gov/trade/automated/electronic-vessel-manifest-confidentiality.

Requesting confidentiality is free, and YES you should do it immediately if you're importing into the United States.

Are Import Records Available for Any Other Countries Besides the United States?

Currently, the United States is the only major economy that makes import records publicly accessible. That means that, unfortunately, you can't easily find import histories for countries like Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and others. Sorry!

Final Thoughts

There's a serious lack of tools and apps related to importing. And while public customs data information isn't the be-all and end-all for doing competitive research, for the limited time and money it takes to perform, it's an excellent place to start. If there is one take away from this article, it's that you should always try and find Suppliers not advertising on Alibaba (they do exist- I promise). It's not always possible to find such Suppliers, but when you do, you're more likely to build a long lasting relationship with them and maintain a much less competitive product line with them. 

Have you had any luck using customs information to find suppliers or verify suppliers? If so, please comment below.

Dave Bryant

Dave Bryant has been importing from China for over 10 years and has started numerous product brands. He sold his multi-million dollar ecommerce business in 2016 and create another 7-figure business within 18 months. He's also a former Amazon warehouse employee of one week.

64 Comments

  1. What is the reason that “Many Chinese companies hide their activities by exporting under the name of another company/trading company”?

    1. Mainly to protect their buyers but often these companies have such a web of subsidiaries and trading companies they operate under that it happens inadvertently.

  2. Do any of the services show what is the cargo value for individual shipment records? For example, the value of 1 container widgets imported from China. I’ve used Import Genius before and wasn’t able to find this this information.

    1. I really can’t remember but if import genius isn’t revealing it then it’s probably not available.

    1. Hi,

      They’re both pulling from the same data source so they’re pretty comparable IMO.

  3. Hi Dave,
    How recent is the data? Since Port Examiner is free, do they get older data or more incomplete?
    With all the tariff talks, this type of info will be more important.

      1. I’ve tried this method with a few services and always hit a dead end. I’m trying to find the source of one of my suppliers but their name is never found in these databases. Any suggestions ?

        1. They likely either have their records blocked, are buying domestically, or have another company they import under.

  4. Hi, Import genius provides information about who imports them from china to Venezuela and who are their suppliers? Thank you.

  5. I just learning about ECommerce, I love this blog, it’s another piece in a great puzzle, thank you.

  6. Great info! Very helpful, im currently sourcing for good suppliers which I am having a bit of difficulty with, many of the sample products I have been made though ALibaba are below quality and is costing me quite a lot of money.

    1. It’s a wide spectrum of quality with China in general. Many great suppliers and many not so great.

  7. Hi Dave, great info, thanks. I’m doing a bit of research on how to source this data for myself. There seem to be two access points, and I can’t figure out how to get to either:
    1. The companies selling data from shipping companies, such as manifestdb.com
    2. The companies selling customs data, like Import Genius, Panjiva, PIERS, etc.

    Besides US customs data, do you have any idea how these guys are sourcing their data, and how I’d get ahold of it myself? Thanks in advance.

    1. Hi Brendan – my understanding was that it only comes from U.S. customs directly. I do not think the shipping customers are selling manifest data.

  8. Jungle Scout only works a small % of the time. So I’m trying to find a better way. This is great info you’re sharing. Thank you dave

    1. Yes, all of them unfortunately only have the data SOME of the time. They’re all using the same data pool though.

  9. Hi Dave, I am another competitive intelligence researcher, is there a database website that can give information of shipments/manifest between two foreign countries like Greece and Netherland? Thanks

      1. Thanks for responding Dave.
        Do you know in which country importers`s bill of ladings are public information?

  10. Hi Dave,

    I found this article really interesting. Do you know if there is anything similar if my competitor is in the UK? I know 100% they purchase their product from china but I cannot for the life of me find it.

  11. Hi Dave
    Piers, Panjiva and others only has exporters but I can’t find a database of Chinese Import or Europe Importers.
    please, Can you help me?

  12. I saw a new result popping up called ImportKey. It seems similar to Panjiva and ImportGenius. Have you looked at this one before?

  13. Do you know of any way to gain this information from Canadian bill of ladings etc?

  14. Indian trade data of Import& Export plays a very essential role in defeating and chasing the competitors in the same business because in this competitive world, a person who has knowledge of current market trends always wins. It is the success key for the growth of Indian economy. It shows the current up & down trend of Indian trade market.

  15. Very useful article. Ive just applied for the data to be hidden via government request and I’ll be setting up another company to show on the BOL as well. My question is, is there anyway to remove the information that Panjiva and others have on their site or is it there forever? On a personal directory you can “opt out” so your information is not displayed but I’m wondering if it’s possible to get in touch with these companies and have them remove this import data somehow as it’s pretty detrimental.

  16. hi is it possible to track your competetor,s supply from united state if it was by road thank you

  17. Dave – Interesting article. Thanks.
    We are trying to identify the HS Codes that competing importers use for their imported products. We believe there is a high level of mis-classification in our industry. We subscribe to Panjiva and there is some HS data listed for shipments but I am told that this data is a “guess” by Panjiva and is, thus, not very accurate. Do you have any comments or advise?

    1. Hmmm, I thought the HS code was disclosed (at least the first 6 digits. Could be wrong though.

  18. Is there a way to find the supplier when they hide it under a different trade name? Does the Jungle Scout extension or any others offer that service/ability?

      1. I thought you said you can pay us customs for it? If you pay us customs will the same information be given or the actual manufacture.

  19. Hi Dave,
    Similar to what John K. mentioned, I’m also seeing a lot of mis-classification of US codes when I look at importer data on Jungle Scout. Either Jungle Scout isn’t pulling the correct HS codes or people are trying to get around the Section 301 Tariffs List 3 codes. Is this common practice now? There is a product I want to source but if it’s subject to the additional 25% duty it cuts the profit margin in half. From my research, I doubt others in this market are paying the additional duty or they would hardly be profitable at the price they are selling at. And according to Jungle Scout, the HS codes they are using don’t line up with the product and they also aren’t a List 3 code. Feel free to reply via email.

    1. I would say that without a doubt there is a significant increase of misclassification of goods now :)

  20. Dear sir ,
    I am Ajay Kumar from india , I want startup business in import and export trade data provider so please infrom me where to collect free bill of landing data

  21. Can you see the duty that was imposed on an import shipment if you know:

    1) CONTAINER NUMBER
    2) VESSEL NAME
    3) PORT OF ENTRY
    4) DATE OF CUSTOMS CLEARANCE

    1. Using import records you can see the HS code from which you can determine tariff rate.

  22. Hello Dave, very interesting article indeed! Is there a website in which we can dig for free in addition to PortExaminer/ImportYeti. I heard about enigma. Let me know if you know this tool or if you know any other tool that would be worth checking. Thank you.

    1. Most of the free tools have pretty limited data. Jungle Scout is definitely the most complete and affordable.

  23. Dave,
    I am attempting to locate import documents for shipments brought in by a particular individual. The main piece I am looking for is the value of the property provided to customs. Is this available using this online tool? If not, is there someplace I can get this information?

    Thanks,
    Eric

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