How to grab a slice of the US import market

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The US is vast. Some of its 50 states are home to bigger populations and economies than many European countries. But where can SMEs find and take advantage of new import and export business opportunities?

Despite China being hot on its heels, the United States (US) continues to be the largest economy in the world – a title it has held since the late 19th century. As one of the world’s largest, most international and diversified economies, the US accounted for 15.74% of the global GDP in 2021, according to Statista. It consistently ranks first for competitiveness and ease of doing business. It also happens to be the world’s largest consumer market with endless business opportunities in both imports and exports.

A super sized import economy

According to World Integrated Trade Solution (WITS), America imported US$2.36 trillion worth of goods from around the globe in 2019 and represented 12.95% of total global imports in the same year – making it the largest goods importer in the world today.

Despite having around a third of the population of other economic superpowers such as China or India, the US continues to be the driving force in the global economy. To put things into perspective, if California alone were a country, it would have the fifth largest economy in the world.

There are also cultural differences between the north, south, east and west coasts to consider when selecting what goods to import or what licences your business will need to operate in the US. In other words, to think of the ‘United States of America’ as one market is a mistake. When trading with the country, it's advisable to divide focus region-by-region so that your imported goods can best target a specific community or audience.

Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) wanting to move into the American import market may easily feel overwhelmed at first by the sheer amount of business opportunities available.

So how do you get in on the action? Our guide will help you identify key ways to get involved with the US import market so you can begin growing your business.

Top 10 imports to the US

The first step to entering the US import market is to know the top types of goods imported into the country. This will help you gauge the suitability of your business for the market as well as identify gaps that your business could potentially fill. As of 2021, these are the top 10 imports into the US, as found by International Trade Centre (ITC):

  1. Machinery including computers: US$428.8 billion (14.6% of total imports)

  2. Electrical machinery, equipment: US$416 billion (14.2% of total imports)

  3. Vehicles: US$283.1 billion (9.6% of total imports)

  4. Mineral fuels including oil: US$223.9 billion (7.6% of total imports)

  5. Pharmaceuticals: US$149.5 billion (5.1% of total imports)

  6. Optical, technical, medical apparatus: US$106.2 billion (3.6% of total imports)

  7. Gems, precious metals: US$96 billion (3.3% of total imports)

  8. Plastics, plastic articles: US$82.5 billion (2.8% of total imports)

  9. Furniture, bedding, lighting, signs, prefab buildings: US$81.4 billion (2.8% of total imports)

  10. Organic chemicals: US$64.4 billion (2.2% of total imports)

Top imports into the US include electrical goods and computers, machinery, and vehicles. To find out more about the top three growth areas, download our Country Guide to the USA below.

What’s happening online?

The flourishing US e-commerce economy has become a tour de force for global import and export businesses.

The US e-commerce market is second only to China, making an estimated US$599.2 billion in revenue in 2021 – an increase of 11% from the previous year, according to ecommerceDB. Furthermore, fashion (31%), electronics and media (21%), and toys, hobbies and DIY (20%) are currently taking the lion’s share of revenue as the largest e-commerce segments in the US.

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Key factors contributing to the success of e-commerce businesses in the US include internet penetration rates of over 91%, and a growing GDP per capita of over US$69,288 in 2021, as found by the World Bank. The widespread use of English as a main language for communication is also another factor of success. Challenges come from the country’s sheer size (covering four time zones) and most of the population living on either the east or west coast.

While the predicted Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) for online sales of 5% is lower from previous years, the American e-commerce market is still expected to grow presenting new import opportunities for global businesses. 

Where are they shopping online?

As for where Americans are carrying out their e-commerce shopping there’s no surprises here: Amazon. In 2021 the online giant accounted for a massive 56.7% of US online retail sales, according to new PYMNTS data. With e-commerce sales now estimated to make up 15% of total retail activity in the country, gaining traction on Amazon could mean big business for import and export SMEs worldwide. 

Amazon’s e-commerce domination is most obvious in three key segments: Clothing & Apparel, Sporting Goods, Hobby, Music & Books, and Furniture & Home Furnishings. Global businesses who are looking to move into the US import market can consider opening up an Amazon storefront to take advantage of the platform’s popularity.

Tying into the e-commerce boom is the rise of mobile commerce or ‘m-commerce’ involving online retail sales made via smartphones or mobile devices. Find out more about digitalisation and other key trends in the world of international trade.

According to Statista, American m-commerce sales amounted to US$362.11 billion in 2021 and are projected to reach $710.42 billion by 2025. But what does this mean for businesses hoping to import goods into the US? With estimates by Forrester, global market research company, suggesting that m-commerce makes up 45% of e-commerce sales in the US, businesses will need to ensure their e-commerce platforms offer premium mobile shopping experiences to draw customers in.

Do Americans buy from overseas retailers?

As American e-commerce and m-commerce markets continue to grow and evolve, cross-border shopping and shipping of goods is more prevalent than ever. 

According to Invesp, 54% of online users in the US have reported buying products from overseas retailers before. These products are, primarily purchased from businesses in China (38%), the UK (12%), and Canada (10%), according to Statista. Top product categories within this segment include Clothing and Accessories (31%), Books, Media and Video Games (22%), and Computer Hardware or Software (16%).

According to Statista, while cross-border e-commerce only made up 3% of overall e-commerce revenue in the US in 2021, factors such as affordability, variety of product options, and access to niche brands will continue to drive its growth. Find out how global SMEs wanting to enjoy a slice of the American import market landscape can ride the cross-border e-commerce wave with DHL.

How global businesses can participate in the US import market

Key to international import and sales success in the US market is the retail proposition. Customers there expect to know the price they will be paying at the checkout, to have a choice of competitive delivery options (or better than domestic retailers), localised payment options (US issued credit cards, for example), and service levels that make a business stand out. America is all about the service, so you need to shine.

You can make a real difference when you’re armed with the right information. Our downloadable USA Country Guide PDF throws a spotlight on the major growth sectors and sales opportunities within the US import sector. Essential tips and valuable data, all in one place. Get yours today. 

Sign up for a DHL Express Business account today to begin growing your business internationally. Find out more about starting your own business in Australia and how engaging a global express delivery provider in Australia can help ensure a smooth import and export journey worldwide.