How to grab a slice of the US import market

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Statue of Abraham Lincoln

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

Despite China being hot on its heels, the USA continues to be the largest economy in the world – a title it’s held since the late 19th century. As one of the world’s largest, most international and diversified economies, the US accounts for almost 25% of the global economy. It consistently ranks first for competitiveness and ease of doing business. It also happens to be the world’s largest consumer market.

Infographic detailing facts about America's economy

A super-sized economy

Despite having around a third of the population of other economic superpowers such as China or India, the USA 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 sixth largest economy in the world.

There are also cultural differences between the north, south, east and west coasts to consider. To think of the US as one market is a mistake. When trading with America it's advisable to divide focus region by region.

Import importance

America imported US$2.25trn worth of goods from around the globe in 2016, up by 40.6% from 2015. US imports represented 13.7% of the estimated US$16.473trn in total global imports in 2015.

So how do you get in on the action? Top imports include electrical goods and computers, machinery, and vehicles. For the top three growth areas, download our Country Guide to the USA. 

The USA’s top 10 imports

1. Electrical machinery, equipment: US$336bn (14.9% of total imports)

2. Machinery including computers: US$315.4bn (14% of total imports)

3. Vehicles: US$285bn (12.7% of total imports)

4. Mineral fuels including oil: US$163.4bn (7.3% of total imports)

5. Pharmaceuticals: US$92.5bn (4.1% of total imports)

6. Optical, technical, medical apparatus: US$80.8bn (3.6% of total imports)

7. Gems, precious metals: US$67.3bn (3% of total imports)

8. Furniture, bedding, lighting, signs, prefab buildings: US$63.1bn (2.8% of total imports)

9. Plastics, plastic articles: US$50.4bn (2.2% of total imports)

10. Organic chemicals: US$49.8bn (2.2% of total imports)

US Mail boxes

What’s happening online?

As you’d expect, the USA is a tasty proposition for e-commerce. Internet penetration stands at over 88% –
almost 287 million people – making it an attractive and lucrative online market.

A growing GDP per capita of over US$56k and widespread use of English as a main language makes this multicultural market relatively easy to access. Challenges come from its sheer size (it covers four time zones), and most of the population being either east coast or west coast.

Compared to other online markets

Ranked as the number one country for e-commerce in 2015, the US is driven by consumer demand with overall retail worth US$4.83trn, and web sales recorded as US$394bn for 2016, up 15.1% from 2015. 

Compound Annual Growth (CAGR) predicted for online sales is expected to be around 7.4%. However consumer electronics, clothing and personal care are expected to outperform this with CAGR of approximately 10% each.

Boom times

Online sales are expected to reach more than US$459bn in 2017, up 13% from 2016 and accounting for 12.9% of the anticipated US$3.56trn in total retail sales.

As of February 2017, retail sales via websites totaled US$3.93bn (15.1% growth from 2015) in 2016, averaging 8.1% of total retail sales over the year. While web sales grew by 15.1% on 2015, total retail averaged 2.1% growth through the year. By 2022, online sales are expected to account for 17% of all US retail sales.

Where are they buying? 

Public Market Centre sign

No surprises here: Amazon. In 2016 the online giant accounted for a massive 43% of US online retail sales. Analysis of more than 4 million online purchases showed that Amazon alone accounted for 53% of the growth in the US e-commerce sales for the year. 

Its growth in 2016 was driven by sales in the electronics, home, and apparel categories. With its purchase of Whole Foods in 2017, adding groceries to its armory, Amazon’s online dominance will only grow further.

Americans like to shop from their smartphones

In 2017, retail mobile e-commerce sales in the United States amounted to US$156bn. But what does that really mean? In Q3 of 2017, mobile retail commerce sales captured 23.16% as percentage of total retail e-commerce sales, so it’s already a big deal for US shoppers. And with mobile e-commerce forecast to account for nearly 50% of all e-commerce sales in the US by 2020, you need to ensure your e-commerce platform offers a superb experience on smartphones and tablets.

Do Americans buy from overseas retailers?

77% of all online users in the US are open to the idea of shopping internationally, whilst 42% have already done so. Cross-border online consumers primarily shopped with businesses in the UK (49%), China (39%), Canada (34%), Hong Kong (20%) and Australia (18%).  

By 2018, it is expected that 41.8 million US consumers will buy cross-border goods, to the value of US$80.2bn. Choice, price, and uniqueness are top of the list as reasons for shoppers making cross-border purchases.

How to make a go of cross-border trading

Hollywood sign in the Hollywood hills

Key to international sales success in the US 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), localized 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. 

Country Guide: USA

Want to know how to do business in the USA? Read our FREE fact sheet now!

Country Guide: USA
Country Guide: USA