Sunday, January 7, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, January 7, 2001

Hawai'i importers face daunting challenges

By Leigh An Crow
Advertiser Staff Writer

For consumers, finding goods from other lands is as easy as stepping into one of the hundreds of import shops in the Islands. But for the merchants, keeping their stores stocked requires overcoming myriad challenges that many small-business owners will never face.

While it’s difficult to quantify exactly how many importers there are in Hawaii, $2.6 billion worth of imported merchandise passed through customs in Hawaii in 1999, the latest year for which figures are available from the state Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism.

While the value of imports to Hawaii is relatively high — accounting for just under 7 percent of the gross state product — the business of importing is tougher than it might seem, according to entrepreneurs and trade consultants.

Items may be less expensive in other countries, but importers face long hours, long journeys and sometimes unsettling cultural surprises. They must work through quotas, regulations and language barriers, find trustworthy guides, cope with costly shipping delays and mix-ups, and process business transactions in countries lacking technology. They face high travel costs, primitive accommodations and challenging local culinary preferences.

Still, many importers say that while they can buy their goods from wholesalers or from Mainland markets, they prefer buying direct to obtain better prices and authenticity.

Even more importantly, they say, they reap the knowledge and learn the stories that accompany the items, passing that on to Hawaii customers and becoming ambassadors for the artisans whose works stock their shelves.

Here are the stories of three Oahu importers who go on the road at least annually, and the challenges they face doing business far from home.

Journey is heart of the business
Entrepreneur learns you can't fight the cultures
To become an importer, do your homework first

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