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)
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.
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 However, these tools are outdated and have incomplete information.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
Related Listening: Episode 66 – Importing Insights with Dave Bryant
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 email@example.com.
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.
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.
This will then bring up a page on Jungle Scout that shows the exact supplier this seller is using for these wiper blades.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Have you had any luck using customs information to find suppliers or verify suppliers? If so, please comment below.