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Nobody said shipping was easy.
Lisa Will, the founder of Stonz Wear Inc., a Vancouver-based outfitter that specializes in high-end outerwear for infants, has learned a lot about the intricacies of shipping her products around the world.
There's the shipment of $25,000 worth of hats and booties, recently donated to Japan in the wake of the tsunami, which, after a hunt for a shipper willing to contribute services, got stranded at the receiving airport on account of a mix-up.
There was the shipping container of incoming fleece, a raw material, that was selected for an expensive and time-consuming inspection by Canadian customs officials - at Ms. Will's expense.
There's the endless thicket of customs rules and regulations. (Did you know that Canada has a trade agreement with Norway that covers shoes? Now you do.)
There was the turkey, sent slightly randomly as a Christmas gift from a grateful American customer, that could only be picked up after spending two weeks in customs.
"It's definitely been painful, but we've done it," Ms. Will says. "And we're still learning."
Shipping is a world unto itself. But as the Internet makes it easier than ever for small businesses to tap global markets, more and more entrepreneurs are having to learn its ropes. They can make the process easier a couple of ways: By keeping things simple, and by knowing when to turn to professional advice.
There's nothing wrong with keeping it simple
There's no lack of options for small business looking to ship overseas, from courier companies to international shipping. But if your product fits into a small package, consider going with an old system that works well.
For many small international shippers, first-class postal services form the backbone of their operation.
"It's very simple when we use Canada Post or USPS, because they work together very well," says Sameera Banduk, a marketing specialist at Well.ca. "We haven't actually come across much red tape."
To help manage customer expectations around shipping times, Well has built a Web page that customers can use to estimate shipping times and costs, if they plug in their postal code.
In addition to postal mail, the firm also maintains relationships with courier companies, that can provide expedited shipping for additional costs if need be.
However, Ms. Banduk says that offering free shipping in Canada is a service that the company feels strongly about providing.
Other small shippers have found the same thing.
"Canadians don't like paying for shipping; Americans expect to pay for it," says Julie Cole, a co-founder and vice-president of Mabel's Labels, a 40-person Hamilton, Ont.-based business that makes waterproof labels that can be applied to kids' housewares and belongings.
Providing quick deliveries for American customers is important for the business, which relies heavily on Canada Post for shipping. To speed up the trans-border process, Mabel's Labels is looking to hire a logistics company to expedite the process the old-fashioned way: driving shipments of labels across the nearby U.S. border, and mailing them directly from the American side.
Of course, the more you ship, the more important it is to make sure that you're on the right side of the law.
This is where things get tricky.
Doing it yourself
It's legal for exporters to do their own customs paperwork, much in the same way that you can file your own taxes without an accountant. Either way, you're responsible for making sure that your paperwork is in order.
Not every export needs to be declared. Some goods fall under "no declaration required," most significantly, goods destined for consumption in the United States, and goods under $2,000.
In Canada, imports and exports fall under the purview of the Canada Border Services Agency, though they're not the only branch of the government with an interest in the customs game. For instance, even if an item meets their requirements, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada or Health Canada rules might still apply.
The CBSA maintains a website especially for small businesses , which contains both step-by-step instructions for would-be exporters, as well as links to the relevant forms.
Just as you want to sure that your goods are on the level as they leave Canada, you'll want to ensure that they're cleared to enter your destination country. The World Customs Organization is the global body that gathers this information.
"Knowing your tariff codes is really, really important," Ms. Will says. "There's so many 'if' scenarios. If you even get part of something made elsewhere, that's a whole different ballgame than importing raw materials."
Go for a broker
Given the great global tangle of import and export regulations, professional advice might be advisable.
Customs brokers are the accountants of the import/export world. Licensed by the government and certified by their own associations, they're on top of the minutiae of rules and regulations that govern getting goods in and out of the country. A broker is necessary for importers; exporters can go the DIY route, or use a broker to make sure that they're on the right side of the law.
"Border requirements are not getting any easier," says Carol West, president of the Canadian Society of Customs Brokers. "There's a complexity in understanding import and export, and there's a liability if you get things wrong."
Brokers can also serve as points of contact should a shipment go south in the middle of the night, requiring immediate intervention. They can operate as independent businesses - often working extensively online, meaning they can effectively work from offices in another city - or as part of shipping companies. Brokers can also be affiliated with "freight forwarders," companies that organize shipping, without actually performing the transportation themselves.
Either way, Ms. West recommends that small businesses looking at exporting at least make contact with one of her members, to explore whether their business is a good fit for a broker's services.
"My advice would be, it doesn't cost anything to ask the question," she says. "Talk to the broker upfront, and the broker can talk about the price."
It might well be more affordable than the cost of getting it wrong.
Special to The Globe and Mail