Every company – from small businesses to Wall Street giants – can profit from local market expertise. Studying abroad gives you a chance to build that expertise in your host country and leverage it for your own gain.
By the end of your study abroad, you should be an expert in the local market. Your “research” doesn’t even need to be difficult. No report necessary. You just need to experience the local market and reflect on what you see. Doing so will make you a more attractive candidate to employers or a better prepared entrepreneur.
At the end of the day, you don’t even need to be an expert in local market research. (Unless you plan to open your own consulting firm.) You just need to know enough to identify when something looks wonky and raise a red flag.
Local Market Research: What You Need to Know
Western Union identifies four clear requirements to selling overseas. Read through the list and you’ll realize, these are all abilities you’ll acquire during study abroad:
- Study the Region. – You will have firsthand experience with the social, economic, and technological status. Done.
- Consider the Cultural Differences. – You’ll learn what the society values and avoids, and how that differs from your home country. Done.
- Understand the Local Language. – You’ll finish your study abroad with a grasp of the language and its nuances. Done.
- Follow Local Trends. – Keeping in touch with the local friends you make during study abroad will help keep you up to date on changes in the culture.
Companies pay tens of thousands to hire localization experts, or at least hundreds to contract out local market research. When you show up to a job interview with local market expertise on your resume, on top of your other skills, hiring you just makes financial sense.
The Best Study Abroad Programs for Local Market Research
In general, you want a program that maximizes your exposure to the local community and minimizes restrictions on you.
In video game terms, you want Minecraft, not Super Mario Brothers. Look for the characteristics below to find a university that will give you the freedom to create your own experience.
1. Off-Campus Housing: Local Market Research Through Daily LifeThere’s no better way to understand the local market than to live on it. When you live off campus, you’ll have to find an apartment, pay rent, contract and pay for utilities. You’ll have to do your own grocery shopping and may even have to furnish your place as well.
Each of those activities will give you a more refined understanding of the local economy, goods, and services. Regular shopping in your area will bring you into contact with more locals – both shoppers and business owners – who you can observe and ask questions to.
Consider the difference in goods and services available in your home and host country, and think about the reasons. Are production and shipping costs involved? Are there tariffs to protect domestic production?
To this day, I cannot understand how heated toilet seats have not made it to America.
If you notice a particular deficiency, you can ask about it. Each day, when you do your shopping, try to chat with the local business owners. Ask them what they think about different products and how they would sell. You’re not necessarily looking for a profitable business idea right off the bat (though it would be nice, wouldn’t it?). For now, just try to understand.
Costs and Salaries
Another thing to consider is local costs and salaries. Depending on where you live, goods may seem cheap or expensive to you. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they are to locals. Knowing the cost of housing and utilities, how much locals budget for food, and how much disposable income people have is key to understanding the local market.
When I taught English in Thailand after graduation, I avoided discussing my salary. I thought it was low because I hadn’t really tried to negotiate. I knew other foreigners who made much more.
But then, a local friend asked me point blank and his jaw dropped when I answered. Turns out I was making at least 3 times as much as a local would in the same position. In my first year, I was making about as much as the most senior teachers at my school.
That gave me a whole new perspective on what was available to those teachers and other workers on the local economy.
It may not be comfortable to ask about salaries, but you can make a good guess based on the costs you pay. (Or, if you have language ability – scan the local job offerings!)
2. Homestay – Local Economy, Local StyleLiving with a homestay family gives you the chance to see how locals really live. While you can see availability of goods and services by living on your own, a homestay lets you see inside the lives of real consumers.
Keep in mind that a family that can afford to host a student is probably above the economic average. But, if you’re thinking about local market research, that’s the level of consumer you want to understand, anyway.
Without being too nosy, examine the products your family uses. Are the furnishings luxurious or functional? Does your family prioritize price or quality / long-term use? Look at the different consumables and groceries, too, so you can compare them to others at the shops.
If you can, go shopping with your host family to observe their purchasing habits. Do they buy from large grocery shops or farmer’s markets? Do they haggle or pay store price? How does that compare to how your fellow students shop? These are all key points to understand about the local market; you won’t get them anywhere other than a homestay.
Consider your family’s economic situation, as well. Do bother parents work? Does anyone hold multiple jobs? Is it a multi-generational household? (If so, is that a cultural characteristic, or a money-saving effort?)
If you’re not already, start writing all of your experiences in a journal. Collecting a series of small references will help you put together a bigger picture later.
3. School Holidays for Travel – See the CountryHopefully, I don’t need to encourage you to travel during your study abroad. But since you’re going to be traveling anyway, here’s how to leverage that experience for your resume.
Make sure your study abroad program has a break, or at least a long weekend, during the program so you can travel on your own. If you’re on a year-long program, then the break between semesters is great, too. If that isn’t available, you can travel before or after the program, but in the middle is easiest: less luggage.
As soon as you have your academic calendar, look for 3-day weekends or longer breaks. Then figure out how you’re going to use them. You cannot afford to waste these opportunities to see your host country! In many countries, you’ll be able to find discount travel tickets for students.
Aside from the adventure of seeing your host country, and the facebook envy you’ll generate, traveling is beneficial. You’ll experience the local tourism industry, usually from the budget perspective. Understanding how public transportation, lodging (from 4-star hotels to hostels), and the food industries work will help you understand the local market better.
If you’re staying in hostels, you’ll also meet local travel enthusiasts that you can ask for advice. Find out what they do when they travel and what their interests are. Understanding leisure pursuits and hobbies is a key part of local market research.
Action Local Market Research
Like many other benefits of studying abroad, you maximize your local market research experience by getting involved. Getting involved means making friends and connections, which is much more beneficial than just observing.
Getting involved, by the methods below, also helps you make long-term connections that will help you keep in touch with trends in your host country after you go home.
4. Local Community Interaction: Consumer Research
Interacting with the community is great for both observation and building relationships. You’ll get to meet a broad sample of people, rather than just academics and students.
You’ll get to see a range of economic situations, too. You might meet the society’s most needy through community service. You might meet the wealthy class at a benefit or party for international students. In each case, observing and talking to the people around you can help you understand their values.
Pay attention to where people spend their resources (both money and time). Do they focus on their appearance – clothes, make-up, accessories – or is function more important than looks? What material possessions do they value? Homes, cars, gadgets? Pay attention to their conversation topics and you’ll see where their focus is.
Understanding the focus at various levels can help you understand what the local market values and needs, from basic goods to luxury items.
5. Intern Off Campus: Local Economy ResearchIn addition to knowing what people want, you need to understand their resources. An internship or even an off-campus job, will help you understand the job market, pay, and resources available on the local market.
In an internship or job, you’ll be alongside working professionals. These are people who need to balance their own budgets and supply their own needs based on their income. They are the consumer base and understanding their priorities is key to local market research.
As with community interaction, above, pay attention to what people wear and talk about. Appearance can tell you their priorities. You can also compare appearance at various salary levels. Maybe entry-level employees are struggling to make ends meet, but the senior management wears tailored suits. Even that observation can help you understand the wealth gap.
When you make friends with your coworkers, you can also learn about their hobbies and passions. What to they spend their time and money on outside of basic needs? Does this change from younger, single members of the workforce to older, married members?
Internships and off-campus jobs put you in touch with the core of consumer culture on the local market.
6. Take a Course in Local Business or Economics: Academic Market Research
As a counterpoint to your personal experience, taking a course can expand your understanding of the local market. Personal observations can lead to misunderstandings or bad assumptions. The classroom – and professor – offers a safe environment to discuss what you see and get background information.
A course can also give you a broader perspective. You’re only seeing the economy in one part of the country. Chances are good that you’re in a city, since that’s where most universities are. A local economics course can help you understand the rural infrastructure that supports the city life. If you’re in the countryside, the opposite applies as well.
You can also use the course to compensate if you can’t participate in an internship or homestay. Your class is another opportunity to learn about local salaries, spending habits, housing market, and other goods. Even if you are in a homestay or internship, this is a great way to fill in the gaps in your understanding.
Leverage Your Local Market Research Experience
Local market research experience on your resume can help you get hired and move up in your company later in life. When you have a unique set of expertise, you’ll be in position to make high profile contributions to your business. In the right enterprise, you may even find yourself in a traveling or leadership role much faster than your peers.
Local market research experience is even more critical for aspiring entrepreneurs, since you’ll have to be the expert
In any case, you’ll be in position to make – or save – your company significant money. Netflix, the US movies-on-demand giant recently embarrassed itself with a failed international expansion. They tried to take a model that worked in the US and export it all around the world at once. They failed to evaluate local conditions – including leisure activities and payment methods – and overestimated their new subscriber targets. Missed targets, stocks down, directors unhappy.
A few well-placed study abroad graduate could have made millions of dollars of difference. All it would have taken would be to say, “Hey, this approach doesn’t look like it will work with this economy. Let’s do some more research and adjust our targets.”
I’m not saying you have to go out and be a hero. But since getting involved in the local area during study abroad is one of the best parts of the experience anyway, why not leverage it for more benefit?