In 1992 UNCTAD (the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) set up a network of “Trade Points,” worldwide offices set up to assist SMEs trade internationally. In 1994 the United Nations International Symposium on Trade Efficiency officially launched the Global Trade Point Network. It was planned to be an innovative system using email, “Gopher” and the then-new World Wide Web to communicate trade opportunities between Trade Points worldwide.
This ambitious project soon became viral. Within two years there were millions of “ETO’s” (Electronic Trade Opportunities). ETOs soon morphed into the term “trade leads” – offers to buy or sell internationally. By 1998 the Trade Point system claimed to have listed more than 1 billion leads. But the system had a major flaw: there was no quality control over the types of deals that were posted. Anybody with access to a computer would post a request to buy a product or service, even if they did not have the means to buy or the product to sell.
As the World Wide Web expanded, more people worldwide set up online marketplaces. Some were quite simple HTML pages with links. Others were more complex databases. By 1999 there were hundreds of these websites. In 2011 there are thousands. The most well-known are Alibaba.com, GlobalSources.com, Tradekey.com, TOBOC.com and many more (you can find a list at http://tradeleads.info).
But to this day a big question remains: How do I know which marketplace to trust and how do I qualify the leads I find? There still is no clear answer to this. However, my personal opinion is that International Trade online has to be a combination of the old and the new. That is, online marketplaces are great tools to find suppliers and buyers, but import/export is still done the same way it always has been – spending time with people in other countries, getting to know them and their products, and developing long-term friendships and trust.
That said, there are ways that can help bridge the gap between the old and the “new:”
- eMarketservices.com, a website funded and operated by the trade promotion organizations of Canada, Norway and Spain, eMarketservices provides knowledge and information about eMarkets in different industries all over the world. Although some of the information is dated, most of it can serve as a guide to doing business online. Highlights of the website are:
- A Handbook of how to use online international B2B marketplaces
- A checklist to consult before using online marketplaces for your business
- A directory of hundreds of marketplaces, sorted by industry
- News about international B2B eCommerce
- Credit Reports – One you have established an online relationship with an overseas partner you might want to check him/her out a bit more. One way to do that is by running a credit report, preferably through a local credit reports service in their country. There is a good list of these services.
- Online Trade Data – The trade data companies profiled on World Trade Daily are great resources for doing due diligence on overseas partners. They will show companies that are shipping the types of products they deliver. Look at PIERS, Zepol, Panjiva, Datamyne and a few others.
- The US Commercial Service can help indentify reliable overseas buyers through its services. Consult a local expert at a US Export Assistance Center. If you are an exporter outside the US consult your government’s export assistance agency.
- Get on an airplane – at the end of the day you have to know your business partners. And the best way to do it is to visit them onsite. Spend time with them, eat dinner together, and see their facilities. That is how long-term business relationships have always been cemented.