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Abstract

Focus groups were held to provide more in-depth information on issues raised by a largescale survey of agricultural exporters conducted in 1994 by USDA. Two focus groups were held in New York State and two in California, and the total of 28 participants included both experienced and new exporters of fruit products. The emphasis of the discussion was on the information-seeking behaviors of export firms and businesses that are considering entry in offshore markets, and on identifying potential information gaps or obstacles to success in the exporting arena. Participants were also asked questions about their knowledge of and attitude toward new (Internet-based) technologies to deliver information on exporting. The findings of the study revealed some important divergences between new entrants and those more experienced at selling overseas. While experienced exporters have well-developed informal networks of information and focus their search strategies on better long term and short term supply/demand information, "would-be" exporters tend to be more concerned with locating a "qualified" buyers list, and getting information on export procedures, and trade logistics. In addition, would-be exporters expressed frustration with two types of obstacles where information is least likely to solve the problem: barriers caused by time lags and exogenous factors (such as precipitous changes in a foreign government). While successful exporters also express concern about time-lag related risks, they envision insurance and other risk management strategies as most appropriate and do not particularly look to the government to solve the problem. Search strategies of most producers still rely almost exclusively on phone, fax, and paperbased information. The focus group discussion revealed that the pressure of time on managers and the relationship aspect of business result in a strong reliance on information from personal contacts which may keep exporters from looking further for more formal sources of information(such as products produced by USDA). There was a cautious attitude among participants on new information technologies due to the confusing nature of the Internet and the lack of security for transactions. However, experienced exporters think that over time, as the Internet environment becomes more stable and easier to use, it will emerge as an important venue for sending and receiving information. "Would-be" exporters had a higher level of skepticism. Focus group participants raised two types of information obstacles that could be met with Internet-type products: the challenge of building a network of contacts, and the difficulty of sorting through massive amounts of information. Use of e-mail in other business environments has become a standard method of building professional networks. In addition Web product development is now heavily focused on building useful filters for users interested in linking to various sources of information, but who also wish to have a focused search strategy. Using digital images that can be easily transmitted, transactions could be more closely monitored and coordinated. While no one saw information technologies as a panacea, there was genuine interest in its potential for increasing the ease of exporting.

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