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    Using the Internet: Exploring International Markets

     

     
     
    © International Trade Centre, International Trade Forum - Issue 1/1999

    Are you looking for timely business information at a relatively low cost? Many companies and trade support institutions (trade promotion organizations, professional associations, consultants) are adopting the Internet to improve their access to information sources, expand their scope of data collection and to bridge information gaps for specific international markets.

    Export managers-whether in large or small companies-can retrieve, from their workstation, a wide range of business information with this rapidly evolving tool. The Internet operates as a "virtual library", with a user who may be in Africa, a web site that may be in the United States, and links to web sites that may be in America, Europe or Asia. Even if connecting and downloading can be slow (depending on the computer, modem and telephone connections), it is faster than going to a public library or requesting information by mail.

    The Internet now has about 100 million users worldwide, according to the International Telecommunications Union's latest World Telecommunications Report. The Internet is used by business executives not only in large industrial centres, but increasingly in remote areas and in developing countries. Notably, some countries with the highest number of Internet users per capita-such as Finland, Chile, South Africa or Australia-were handicapped in the past by information gaps and physical distance from major export markets. Shipping goods may remain a question of distance, but information access no longer does, thanks to the Internet.

    Clearings in the "virtual jungle"

    Finding one's way through the Internet is not an easy task. Thousands of web sites contain business information, but they are dispersed and difficult to identify through their domain name. As the Internet is not centralized, and great freedom exists in registering and naming web sites, finding relevant sources in this "virtual jungle" is a challenge for non-experienced users.

    Several services can help clear the paths through this virtual jungle:

    • Printed directories. Several "Yellow Pages" are available. The largest directory of databases (Gale) classifies databases by subject, and indicates available media (on-line and/or CD-Rom).

    • Search engines. Search engines help identify relevant sources by combining keywords (such as country, sector and/or topics). Searches on specific subjects on international trade can lead to disappointing or partial results, or generate long lists of sources which have to be tested one after the other.

    • Mega-sites. Tradeport, Trade Compass and World Trade Centers Association are examples of "mega-sites" specialized in international trade, offering large menus and links to web sites with company profiles, business opportunities, market news and other trade information.

    • ITC's Index to Internet Sources (http://stage.intracen.org, option "Infobases"). The most popular feature of ITC's web site, the index covers 1500 sources, classified by categories, and with short comments about each source. Begun in 1997, it is updated regularly, in cooperation with many trade promotion organizations which share their experience in the use of Internet services.

    Frequently asked questions

    ITC receives many queries about trade and the Internet from developing countries, whether through seminars, technical cooperation projects, or via the Internet.

    Q. Where can I find a trade partner for my product?

    A. Many national business databases and trade promotion organizations tend to use the Internet as an inexpensive medium to open their company registers to a worldwide audience, including a growing number of developing and transition economies such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, the Republic of Korea, Malaysia, Malta, Mauritius, Mexico, Poland, Slovenia, Thailand and Tunisia. (For more information, see ITC's Index to Internet Sources.)

    Among web sites with large databases with international coverage are:

    • Wer liefert was Business Network (http://www3.wlwonline.de/wlw/us) covers 223,000 potential suppliers in 10 countries.

    • European Business Directory (http://www.europages.com) displays over 500,000 companies from 36 countries, freely accessible.

    • Kompass International Database (http://www2.kompass.com), probably the largest source of company profiles with detailed product classification, covers 1.5 million companies in 60 countries, representing 23 million products and 400,000 brand names (searches are free; the retrieval of search results is not).

    • World Trade Centers Association, with 300 members in 180 countries, offers a directory of 140,000 importers, exporters and related businesses.

    Q. Where can I exhibit my products? Which trade events provide relevant market intelligence and useful contacts?

    A. Many trade organizations use the Internet to post the agenda of their trade events. For worldwide searches, these sources offer many opportunities with free on-line access:

    • Eventsource contains a database of 55,000 trade shows, events and seminars (http://Eventsource.com).

    • Expo Base offers a multilingual directory of 15,000 trade fairs and over 25,000 service providers (http://www.expobase.com).

    • Trade Show Centre covers 20,000 trade shows, 35,000 conferences and seminars and 5000 vendors (http://www.tscentral.com).

    Q. Where and how can I find information on technical standards, phyto-sanitary regulations, the environment and consumer protection?

    A. Governments, national standards institutes, and international organizations are starting to find it easier and cheaper to disseminate official documents via the Internet than to mail printed publications. An added advantage: users can retrieve abstracts or full texts through powerful thematic indexes. For example:

    The International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) and the ITU's standards are accessible through the World Standard Service (http://www.wssn.net/WSSN), which also provides links to numerous national standards institutes.

    The food industry can find detailed information on maximum limits for pesticides from the Codex Alimentarius of FAO (http://www.fao.org)

    Major on-line database hosts such as DST, DIALOG and PROFOUND have set up web sites to promote their services and establish easier access without special modem connection and communication software (see ITC's printed directory "Selected commercial databases", 1998).

    (Many people also ask ITC about procurement opportunities. See pages 27-28 for more information on this subject.)

    Value-added services of the Internet

    In addition to providing useful trade information, the Internet offers other advantages for communications, translation, graphics, purchase and delivery. Some of these advantages are explored in greater depth elsewhere in this magazine issue.

    The issue of translation is worth special mention. Services on the Internet are improving, with possible text communication by e-mail. For example, Newsbase Russia (newsbase.co.uk) publishes various daily and weekly e-mail bulletins, in English, on Russia and Central Europe on a subscription basis, with headlines from main local periodicals.

    One can also obtain by e-mail, upon request and for a fee, full-text articles, translated into English (see ITC's "Information keys to the Russian Federation", 1998).

    Graphics trends for business use should also be highlighted. Businesses and trade organizations are using images to display product catalogues and for trade magazines (see especially http://www.asiansources.com and http://www.asiaone.com). E-mail messages can also carry attachments with complex graphics that describe products or define detailed tender specifications.

    Web sites covering business information increasingly offer direct e-mail links to enable users to react immediately to order a publication, to subscribe to a bulletin, to contact a potential trade partner, or to send registration forms to trade fairs and other events.

    Internet also offers a large variety of "news-groups" with the possibility to disseminate information to specific audiences. In this sense, Internet becomes a powerful tool to develop and implement marketing strategies, as cybermarketing expert Arnaud Dufour points out (see page 30).

    Drawbacks

    There are still shortcomings in using the Internet. The main ones are:

    • Thematic imbalance. Numerous web sites carry company information and trade opportunities, but suppliers far outnumber potential buyers or importers. Many sources contain macroeconomic indicators, but few provide detailed trade statistics or customs tariffs. In fact, due to the high volume of data involved and the complexity of data retrieval, publishers still prefer to disseminate such databases on CD-Rom. For example, ITC's PC-TAS, a major source of international trade statistics, is updated yearly on CD-Rom. (For more information on PC-TAS, see page 36).

    • Geographic imbalance. Too few sites cover developing countries. Web sites are developing rapidly in Asia and Latin America, but at a slower pace in Africa and Arabic-speaking States. Internet sources that support South-North trade far outnumber those that promote South-South trade.

    • Reliability and relevance. Too many web sites cover secondary sources. Reference to primary sources is often hidden or difficult to find. Checks on data quality can be insufficient.

    • Time-consuming searches. Searching through web sites can be time consuming, due to complex or poorly designed menus, and poorly designed search engines that accompany the site.

    • Cost. For some countries, Internet access costs remain high. ITU reports that the average cost of a connection to a dial up an Internet connection in Africa is US$ 75 per month, while only US$ 15 in the United Kingdom and US$ 10 in the United States. Moreover, many trade-related databases are protected by keywords and require entry tickets or subscriptions.

    Internet: a competitiveness factor

    The situation is improving rapidly. Web sites are developing exponentially in the developing countries. Costs-while uneven from one country to another-are declining due to better telecommunications infrastructure, more government support and greater competition among Internet Service Providers.

    This positive trend should help developing and transition economies to bridge their information gaps on international markets. More importantly, it should allow them to develop their own information industry cost-effectively, and boost exports of products and services.

    Internet represents a key to business information exchange and to the development of electronic commerce. In today's globalized world, investing in the Internet and getting the most from it has become a major competitiveness factor.

    Bernard Ancel is Chief of ITC's Trade Information Section.

    (See also FORUM 1997/2, "New information and communication technologies for market development, by B. Ancel and M. Borgeon.



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