CHICAGO (TheStreet) -- Many large U.S. corporations have gotten through the past few years relatively unscathed thanks to international sales. While domestic customers may be holding back, those in emerging markets have propped up plenty of corporate balance sheets. And when it comes to booming overseas markets, perhaps none is as coveted as China.
While China's rapidly growing economy represents a potential windfall, its vast market of potential customers can feel out of reach for small businesses. There are, after all, plenty of hurdles to overcome before a U.S.-made product reaches a Chinese buyer, including government bureaucracy, unfamiliarity with Chinese markets beyond Beijing and Shanghai and significant language and cultural differences.
The U.S. exported $45 million worth of wine to China last year, an effort boosted by the Wine Institute, a trade association for California wineries.
But thousands of small U.S. companies are selling to China, thanks to trade initiatives that encourage such cross-cultural partnerships. The key is to find a niche where having an American product is an advantage. You may never be able to beat Chinese manufacturers on price, but you can benefit from the perception that Western products represent high quality and luxury.
Here are some ways to investigate the potential for Chinese sales:
1. Trade associations
A professional association within your industry can be a good resource for information on the Chinese market, especially since they're focused on your business niche.
As a case study, consider the Wine Institute, the trade association for California wineries. The U.S. exported $45 million worth of wine to China last year, a 27% increase from the year before; 90% of those wines were from California. Even more impressive were the numbers for Hong Kong, where consumers are more wine-educated: The U.S. exported $1 billion worth of wine last year, a 147% increase over 2009.
The Wine Institute has aggressively courted the Chinese market through educational programs, trips to California for Chinese media and trade partners, billboards in luxury shopping malls and consumer wine tastings in regional markets.
"California has an iconic image," says Linsey Gallagher, the Wine Institute's director of international marketing. "It's the sun, it's the beach, it's Hollywood. We want to connect that aspirational lifestyle component to the concept of California as a world-class wine producer. There isn't a strong food and wine culture in China, so we're really focusing on education."
While some winery owners might see the vast Chinese market as a potential savior, Gallagher urges them to be realistic about what it takes to sell there. "We spend a lot of time trying to manage expectations," she says. "Out of a billion people, maybe 18 million can afford a bottle of imported wine, and you have to think how to reach those people. Right now, China is the shiny new toy, but it's a long-term build. The opportunity is huge, but it's a five- to 10-year horizon."
2. Hire a consultant
Type "China business consultant" into any search engine and you'll find thousands of listings for business experts who get paid to facilitate cross-cultural business partnerships. The upside to hiring a consultant? You get personalized advice, tailored to your needs. Most consultants also offer related services, such as document and website translations and introductions to Chinese counterparts in your field.
The downside, as always, is cost. You'll have to pay upfront for consulting long before you see a dollar of revenue from overseas sales.
3. Tap into government resources
Part of the U.S. Commerce Department's mission is to promote American business overseas. That means any small business can take advantage of Commerce-funded initiatives, such as the
. Work with them and you'll have access to experienced negotiators who live and work in China and have personal relationships with potential Chinese business partners. Trade specialists also have data on which industries are growing and which companies are interested in working with American partners.
The Commercial Service China Web site is a good place to start investigating China as a potential market and answers a lot of "first-timer" questions.
While expanding overseas can be daunting, consider these numbers from the Commerce Department: in 2008, 97% of U.S. exporters were small or medium-sized businesses. Could your company be next?
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This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.