Internet allows even smallest businesses to go global, panel says

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 24, 2012 

— Global trade is no longer just for the big guys.

In a major shift, the Internet and new technologies have allowed small companies and micro-businesses to make their mark in the world of international trade, meaning global commerce relies far less now on big companies using large-container shipping.

A panel of business and government experts gathered in Washington on Wednesday to ponder the changing face of trade and to examine how the Internet is shrinking the world for consumers and exporters.

They agreed on one point: As part of the evolution of commerce, global trade is accessible to every business in the United States, regardless of its size. And they said that would be an increasingly important message to relay to skeptics who thought that trade helped only multinational corporations.

“There’s no question that the global perception that the current system is made to serve the elites is a problem,” said Brian Bieron, the senior director of federal government relations for eBay Inc., a company in San Jose, Calif., that bills itself as the world’s largest online marketplace. “And I don’t think it’s true, but it’s real.”

As part of a panel discussion at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, eBay released a study that found that 97 percent of its commercial sellers – most of them small businesses – now export products. More than 80 percent of the businesses export to five or more foreign countries.

In contrast, less than 4 percent of U.S. businesses that don’t use the Internet are involved in exporting, according to the study, presented at the forum sponsored by eBay and the National Foreign Trade Council, a pro-trade association in Washington.

Susan Schwab, who was the U.S. trade representative under President George W. Bush, said the eBay study provided “dramatic commentary” about the potential of global trade to aid small businesses and create jobs around the world.

“We have new ammunition for policymakers and free traders, whether in the United States or other countries,” she said. “Perhaps we can get some converts.”

The eBay study said the federal government could help small businesses by making it easier for them to comply with complex customs regulations and to allow them to accept duty-free returns from international buyers.

That drew a quick endorsement from Chris Chapman, a self-described ski bum who runs Snow Sports Deals, a company with six employees in Lothian, Md. He sells skis and other sporting equipment, and he said that 80 percent of his sales now came through the Internet, including exports to China and Russia.

Chapman said all the government paperwork passed through his desk.

“If the form’s bigger than a half-page and takes me five minutes, it’s not going to get done, in a company my size,” he said. “That’s where we need help.”

Michael Masserman, the executive director for export policy, promotion and strategy at the U.S. Department of Commerce, said it would be increasingly important for all U.S. businesses to do more exporting, with 95 percent of the world’s consumers living outside the United States and forecasters predicting that 80 percent of global growth through 2016 will occur outside this country.

“There’s been a fundamental shift,” Masserman said. “Years ago, the competition for business was across the street, across the town, sometimes across the state. Now it’s across the world.”

Ralph Carter, the managing director for legal, trade and international affairs for FedEx Express, said powerful Internet search engines provided merchants with easier ways to find buyers. And, he said, the number of mobile phone users is expected to exceed the number of desktop Internet users next year.

“Imagine the access that everyone has in the power of their hands, to buy anything you want, anytime you want,” Carter said.

Email: rhotakainen@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @HotakainenRob

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