You’ve set up your FBA store and sourced the perfect products to stock it. For most store owners, if you’ve set up good systems, things should hum along nicely.
Until they don’t.
If you’re sourcing your products offshore, you may never experience any problems, but you’ll be one of the lucky ones if you don’t. International shipping is full of a number of possible issues, many of which sellers won’t have even thought of until they happen to them.
You can’t always do much about it, but you can be prepared for the unexpected by building that into your inventory order numbers. Let’s look at some of the issues which often impact people importing products:
Knowledge of the Rules
Dealing with your own, domestic rules and regulations can be headache enough, but when you’re importing from overseas, you’re also subject to any laws the foreign country has for exports. On top of that, rules both foreign and domestic seem to change continuously.
Some of the most common causes of delays for importers involve mistakes with paperwork, often because customs brokers or officials at either the origin or destination don’t have enough information to proceed with paperwork. Sometimes, when they do have the information delays are caused because something about the product is not to standard. For example, we’ve seen shipments turned away or destroyed for reasons like:
- Country of origin labeling was on a sticker rather than stamped or otherwise permanently fixed to the product. Customs rejected the shipment because they felt that the importer could remove the stickers and replace them.
- The importer relied on the expertise of a customs broker for dealing with all paperwork. They thought that once they received FDA clearance and subsequent delivery, that meant their shipment was in the clear. It turned out that not only did the FDA still have a “redeliver” period where they could require the product back, but the broker had failed to pass the shipment onto USDA for clearance afterward (these were food items). This resulted in an expensive product recall and fines.
- The paperwork was unclear from the country of origin. US Customs thought the product appeared to be counterfeit and ordered it destroyed.
- Delays caused because paperwork was not filed ahead of a shipment arriving.
It can seem like a bit of a chore, but it’s always a good idea to familiarize yourself with the import rules and keep yourself updated with any changes which may affect your own products.
Another hint here is to shop around when it comes to customs brokers. Look for those who are well-reviewed and are familiar with importing the categories of products which you are bringing in. Good brokers will often help you out by pointing you to appropriate regulations, mediocre or poor ones will often spend time covering their own butts and may be unwilling to give any information away which could be termed as “advice.”
You’ve got to know the rules (or have a broker familiar with them) for your particular types of products. There may be certain rules for the product type or even the materials it is made from. Country of origin labeling (as mentioned in the examples), is one which will impact most imports. Find out the requirements and see whether you need to make arrangements with your manufacturer. The tricky thing is that you may not realize you’re doing something wrong for months, until a particular customs agent notices. They tend to be very busy and sometimes issues like labeling slip through.
Another nasty surprise you’ll want to try and avoid is unexpected taxes or tariffs. Some products are duty-free by agreement and others may have small, or quite large import tariffs placed on them. We know an importer who paid a surprise 410% tariff on a product they imported which had suddenly had changes made to tariff requirements. Be in the know with this kind of thing so that it doesn’t destroy your profitability before you’ve even begun.
Port Congestion and Transport Shortages
Universal Cargo wrote of some issues with shipping that US importers and exporters are facing. There is a shortage of qualified truckers available to cart goods from ports, while many ports are also becoming increasingly congested. This can lead to major delays in cargo clearance and delivery.
A downside to delays is that they often lead to extra fees being charged for things like storage of goods before they can be inspected. If your shipping company is being charged, they will pass that onto you somehow. Of course, the delays can also affect how quickly you get your products, possibly leading to stock-outs before you can get new supplies. We know importers who have waited for anything up to a month or more of extra time to receive their goods.
There’s obviously not much you can do about port congestion or transport shortages, but you should prepare to expect the unexpected. This means have budget up your sleeve for any additional charges and work out a system where you’re ordering new stock well ahead of time in an effort to avoid stock-outs.
Another thing you could look at is the specific port where you are bringing goods into. Sometimes there might be the choice to go with another port (for example, San Francisco rather than Long Beach), but there may be other issues at play (San Francisco doesn’t take LCL (less than a container load) shipments, for example). Of course, you also need to consider the cost of ground transport from the port of entry.
Lack of Visibility
Importers can run into issues when they lose visibility over their supply chain. Knowing where your products are at any given time is an important question you should be able to answer. There is no one so vitally interested in the status of your shipment as you are, so don’t leave things to chance.
For example, if you’re filing your own clearance paperwork, then you need to know how far out your ship is from port so that you can file early within the pre-notification period. Early and correct filing of paperwork can help to move your shipment more quickly through customs clearance and hopefully avoid delays or costly storage fees.
The idea is that you should be thinking a step ahead of your cargo at all times. What comes after clearance? Transportation either to where you are or directly to an FBA warehouse —
again, you should have this arranged so that you can avoid delays and secure transport early.
Customs delays are an unfortunate and common occurrence which again, you can’t do much about. What you can do is mitigate some of the circumstances under which a customs delay may occur due to something you have (or haven’t) done.
This means having your paperwork in order early, so it helps to know what Customs is looking for:
- Correct and clear invoicing. Ideally, an invoice should be as clear as a good packing slip.
- A clear breakdown of the value of goods (they need this to calculate any duties).
- Whether goods are correctly labeled and packaged according to the regulations for their category.
- Whether the numbers of goods match up with what has been invoiced (for example, you’re not trying to sneak in extras without paying duty).
- Whether your shipment contains any prohibited or illegal items.
As you can see, clearing a path through Customs which avoids unnecessary delays starts well before your goods leave the manufacturer’s warehouse. This is where you need to know the rules and have come to an arrangement to ensure packaging, labeling, or any other required features are compliant.
Knowing When to Ask for Help
You could try to keep up with everything importing and shipping-related yourself, but it’s a big job and is quickly complicated by rule changes, or even simply having to know about a lot of rules in the first place. The key for helping to avoid nightmare shipping or customs experiences can be in knowing when to get professional help.
Many small importers try to take on the whole process themselves and it’s understandable that you may look for ways to save money. But for peace of mind and to avoid potential extra costs, it can be well worth hiring a third-party logistics provider (3PL).
Sometimes you can arrange this through whoever you are getting to do your shipping, or otherwise go to a 3PL and have them arrange the entire process. This includes things like filing the correct paperwork with Customs and arranging ground transport of goods once they’ve arrived. You can also expect that a good 3PL will make every effort to help you avoid extra storage fees.
If you’re importing your products for sale via FBA, plan on the unexpected occurring at some point. You might think you’re safe with agreed upon fulfillment times from manufacturers, but you simply cannot control delays that can happen with shipping and customs.
Have a good inventory management system which doesn’t rely on tight turnaround times for restocking your products. You should also ensure ahead of time that your invoices, packaging and labeling will be compliant to avoid Customs delays or refusal of the shipment.
It can be complicated keeping up with all of the regulations, so if you want to sleep better over it, a third-party logistics provider might be a good choice for you. Have someone else worry about the important details!