Small Business

Web Searches with All the Frills


By Karen E. Klein Q: I am building a business plan for my lingerie boutique, but without a tax number I'm having trouble getting product prices. Where can I find manufacturers or suppliers online? When I look up "lingerie" on the Web, I get nothing but porn. I need these numbers in order to figure out how much capital I need to get started. -- T.M.M., St. Augustine, Fla.

A: Who manufactures what? This is a common question among startup owners, who are not yet familiar with the industry they are hoping to join. The problem with your Internet search is that you are lacking some important modifying keywords, such as "manufacturer" or "wholesale" or "distributor." If you add those words to your Web search, as in "lingerie" and "manufacturer" or "wholesale" and "underwear," the results are likely to be much better.

UNDERWEAR APLENTY. Another place to search is in the Thomas Register, a set of reference books listing manufacturers. "The books can be found in most libraries that have business sections," says Barbara Lewis, president of Centurion Consulting, which provides advisory services for small businesses. The online version of the Thomas Register, allows you to search for manufacturers by the type of goods they make. Says Lewis: "When 'lingerie' is typed in the search box, the query results in 41 companies that manufacture lingerie. You can then access their company profile, Web site and contact information."

Many times, when you are looking for producers of specific goods, it helps to have a Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) code to search for. SIC codes classify goods and services into extremely specific categories for business and legal purposes. You can search the database for the products you want to source and come up with a SIC code that should help you narrow the list of manufacturers. The SIC database is online at www.theodora.com/sic_index.html

A couple other ways to find manufacturers: Join the trade association or professional organization affiliated with the industry you're targeting, then look in their membership directories or publications for outfits that make the products you want to source. If you're looking for figures from companies that are publicly traded, you should be able to find a lot of information on their costs and goods sold from their SEC filings.

TAKE A NUMBER. The reason you may be having trouble getting product-price lists from manufacturers is that you need a reseller's number. Wholesale manufacturers do not charge sales tax, but they are obligated to collect information -- like reseller's numbers -- from those retailers with which they do business with. The information allows them to certify that their goods ultimately will be subjected to sales tax.

"Many times, manufacturers won't sell to you or even talk to you if they don't have your resale number," says Linda Pinson, author of Anatomy of a Business Plan and business planning software Automate Your Business Plan. "If you're serious about opening a boutique, why not go ahead and do the paperwork necessary to start your company," Pinson suggests. "You can go to your state's business Web site and do a lot of the logistical work of starting a company online now."

Have a question about your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an e-mail at smartanswers@businessweek.com, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 45th Floor, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally. Karen E. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues.


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