Overseas, a sales representative is the equivalent of a manufacturer’s representative in the United States. The representative uses the company’s product literature and samples to present the product to potential buyers. A representative usually handles many complementary lines that do not conflict. The sales representative usually works on a commission basis, assumes no risk or responsibility, and is under contract for a definite period of time (renewable by mutual agreement). The contract defines territory, terms of sale, method of compensation, reasons and procedures for terminating the agreement, and other details. The sales representative may operate on either an exclusive or a nonexclusive basis.
The widely misunderstood term “agent” means a representative who normally has authority, perhaps even a power of attorney, to make commitments on behalf of the firm he or she represents. Firms in the United States and other developed countries have stopped using the term and instead rely on the term “representative,” since agent can imply more than intended. It is important that any contract state whether the representative or agent does or does not have legal authority to obligate the firm.
The foreign distributor is a merchant who purchases goods from a U.S. exporter (often at a substantial discount) and resells it for a profit. The foreign distributor generally provides support and service for the product, thus relieving the U.S. company of these responsibilities. The distributor usually carries an inventory of products and a sufficient supply of spare parts and also maintains adequate facilities and personnel for normal servicing operations. Distributors typically handle a range of non-conflicting but complementary products. End users do not usually buy from a distributor; they buy from retailers or dealers.
The terms and length of association between the U.S. company and the foreign distributor are established by contract. Some U.S. companies prefer to begin with a relatively short trial period and then extend the contract if the relationship proves satisfactory to both parties.
A company may also sell directly to foreign retailers, although in such transactions, products are generally limited to consumer lines. The growth of major retail chains in markets such as Canada and Japan has created new opportunities for this type of direct sale. This method relies mainly on traveling sales representatives who directly contact foreign retailers, although results might also be achieved by mailing catalogs, brochures, or other literature. The direct mail approach has the benefits of eliminating commissions, reducing traveling expenses, and reaching a broader audience. For optimal results, a firm that uses direct mail to reach foreign retailers should support it with other marketing activities.
American manufacturers with ties to major domestic retailers may also be able to use them to sell abroad. Many large American retailers maintain overseas buying offices and use these offices to sell abroad when practical.
Joint Venture Partners
In some cases, joint ventures provide the best partner-like manner of obtaining foreign trade income. The firm then choses to begin a business relationship with a firm in the host country. International joint ventures are used in a wide variety of manufacturing, mining, and service industries and frequently involve technology licensing by the U.S. firm to the joint venture.