Business

Columbia-based e-commerce site delivering U.S.-made products to Europe

USA eShop chief operation officer, John Wilkinson, Snoozer Pet Products president, Gary O’Donnell and USA eShop CEO Jerry Smith stand beside shipment of Piedmont pet products bound for Europe.
USA eShop chief operation officer, John Wilkinson, Snoozer Pet Products president, Gary O’Donnell and USA eShop CEO Jerry Smith stand beside shipment of Piedmont pet products bound for Europe. Photo courtesy of USA eShop

In the United Kingdom and across Europe, pet lovers can take home delivery of custom-made Cozy Cave Dog Beds and other high-quality U.S. pet items from Snoozer Pet Products in the tiny Upstate town of Piedmont.

European shoppers can also enjoy the comfort and colorful style of functional, fashionable boot socks from South Carolina’s JoJoSox, designed by a mother and daughter team in Orangeburg.

And let’s not forget the benefits and taste of tea grown on South Carolina’s coastal Wadmalaw Island by the Charleston Tea Plantation, also shipped overseas to waiting European customers.

For these small S.C. manufacturers and many others across the country, USA eShop opened the door to the $183 billion U.S. export market. But the U.S. imports more than $220 billion in goods each year, leaving a $37 billion annual trade deficit, according to U.S. Commerce statistics.

Since 2013, USA eShop has made American-made products easily available to motivated customers in Europe by recruiting small manufacturing companies that want to sell abroad, then cutting through the red tape and customs headaches and expenses to quickly get the products there.

Based in Columbia, their website, www.wishboxusa.co.uk, is billed as the only e-commerce shop that exclusively imports and sells American-made goods in Europe from small U.S. manufacturers. USA eShop was named the South Carolina Small Business Administration Exporter of the Year.

“Even though we have representative products from (more than) 30 states, it was very easy and important that we first start with companies from our own backyard, South Carolina,” said Jerry Smith, USA eShop founder and president.

After testing the marketplace, often by trial and error, the company “soon found that several S.C. companies had products in great demand in Europe due to (their) quality and innovation.”

WishBox currently represents the products of 20 S.C. manufacturers on its website. Nationwide, the e-commerce website represents the products of more than 100 U.S. small manufacturers, many of which had never exported their products before.

Two years ago, Snoozer, which has shown great growth over the past two decades, was not doing any business overseas. It did receive persistent emails and phone calls from would-be customers overseas who wanted to purchase their products.

However, the company, founded in Greenville in 1985, had no effective means of fulfilling those potential orders in any cost-effective way. In two years, Snoozer has exported at least 10 shipping containers of pet products overseas, USA eShop said.

This is how USA eShop works: The company connects with small U.S. manufacturers that produce mostly consumer products. The companies likely are little known, particularly abroad, and have never exported abroad.

With few exceptions, none of the companies have enough orders or customers lined up in Europe to fill even one traditional shipping container. If the small manufacturer attempted to export as a lone wolf, the cost would be prohibitive, according to John Wilkinson, USA eShop chief operating officer.

Economies of scale are necessary to make the shipping cost of freight affordable, even on a large, oceangoing container ship, he said.

Take Snoozer’s premium dog beds as an example. Dog beds are bulky by nature and theirs generally cost $100 or more, Wilkinson said. There is a big demand for them in Europe. However, to ship the beds overseas by box would cost more than the beds themselves.

USA eShop solves that problem by combining the freight of several companies into shared containers to fill them up. A dozen companies may have freight stacked in a single container – a pallet of one company’s product here, several cases of another’s stacked there, and so forth until the container is full.

USA eShop then has a warehouse and fulfillment center set up outside of London, where the U.S.-made products are shipped, cleared through customs and stored. Once the inventory is in stock, local couriers are hired for parcel delivery. European customers go to the website, www.wishboxusa.co.uk, find the American-made products they want, and get delivery to their door the next day, Wilkinson said, roughly for 5 British pounds, or the American equivalent of $7.50 (prior to Friday’s Brexit impact on the British currency).

“We’re focused exclusively on working with small and medium U.S. manufacturers and helping them open up that export channel, said John Wilkinson, USA eShop chief operating officer. “Customers get it the next day – no hassle.”

Smith previously operated an export management company in Irmo, Transcon Trading Co., for two decades, before devising USA eShop. Transcon concentrated mainly on locating distributors for U.S. products in foreign countries. Under Smith’s leadership, Transcon succeeded in opening up 90 distribution channels for U.S. manufacturers to sell their products overseas.

Smith sold that company several years ago. After some time off – Smith being a restless entrepreneur – he noticed that that same gap persisted. Small U.S. manufacturers didn’t have a channel through which they could ship their American made products to consumer markets in Europe.

Distributors that were willing to take on the products of a small manufacturing company – even well-made American products, but with little name recognition and little established demand, were hard to find, Wilkinson said.

“As technology evolved and e-commerce became a part of life, (we) realized there was an opportunity to marry up that business model he had previously with the European e-commerce and fulfillment operation,” he said.

Wilkinson, a graduate of the University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business with an International MBA, , got connected to Smith through professors and the two began discussing the idea of filling that export gap. “I had to give it a go,” Wilkinson said.

Each year South Carolina does about $30 billion in exports, with the United Kingdom and Germany, both members of the European Union until Friday’s Brexit referendum passed, being two of its top five trading partners. Like the U.S. at large, South Carolina imports about $39 billion annually. “That’s exactly what we want to change,” Wilkinson said. “This is our little part.”

Exporters say European customers crave American products because they are well-made, and they are willing to pay for them. When they go to the internet to order U.S.-made goods, they find delivery can take weeks in some cases and include the addition of taxes, tariffs and other hidden costs relatively unknown to the general consumer.

“We just totally knock that out and make it a simple e-commerce purchase,” Wilkinson said. “Accessibility with the internet, whether you’re in the U.K. or Australia, you can see any website in the world. There’s obviously some incredible brands here (in the U.S.) and you have the small businesses and small manufacturers.

“They can see it, they want it, they’re talking about it on social media, but they just can’t get it,” Wilkinson said. “We’re filling that gap.”

Roddie Burris: 803-771-8398

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