Cashing in on Your “Inner Shopper”

I was in Mexico’s Colonial Highlands recently, strolling through a handicrafts fair, when I saw a display of little mirror-compacts with casings made from decorated, beaten tin. I thought they’d make perfect little gifts for girlfriends—a useful item they could toss in their handbags.

At about $2 each, the price was definitely right. I’d seen cheap mirror-compacts with plastic casings—nowhere near as pretty and well-made as these—selling in the States for five times as much.

Often when I travel—and I travel a lot—I see attractive items like these that make me think, “Oh, what a bargain! Those would sell for so much more in the States.”

I’ve bought hand-woven scarves and carved wooden platters in Ecuador, decorated pottery and striking silver jewelry in Mexico, and hand-sewn handbags and jackets in Peru. There were plenty of other bargains I passed up.

But these treasures can be much more than just nice gifts—there is money to be made. Here are some things to look for…

Seasoned importers focus on small, light, inexpensive items. The size and weight keep the shipping cost down, and the low price means you can afford to buy a variety of colors and styles. It also means that, after your mark-up, the final price will be low enough that people won’t agonize over a purchase. All these factors increase saleability and improve your profit margin. So think nice jewelry, leather goods, carved wood or stone items.

It also helps if items are unbreakable—or unbendable. Years ago, on a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, I bought brightly-painted, hammered-tin Christmas ornaments shaped like globes. They weighed very little, but due to the shape they had to be individually wrapped for travel. They didn’t cost much, but I spent a fortune shipping them back. I loved my ornaments but if I had it to do over, I’d picked something in a more portable shape. I could have easily packed three times as many ornaments in the same space in my suitcase.

That’s not to say that you can’t import bulky, heavy, or fragile items—you just need to plan how to ship them back.

Generally I don’t buy anything that wouldn’t cost at least twice as much back home; often it would cost three or four times as much. For added value, I particularly look for items that depend on fine craftsmanship, since labor costs much less in places Asia and Latin America than it does in the U.S.

Will your export-import dreams turn into a business? It depends a lot on you. Some people turn their hobby into a substantial business. Others use it primarily to fund their travels. Either way, getting paid to shop in exotic corners of the world is a pretty sweet deal.

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