However, I don't know anything about customs, duties, etc.
You mentioned above that you pay a customs broker--this sounds to me like another term for "middleman."
Well, I'm not sure if you can clear customs yourself, given that you state that you do not know much about it.
You might also have to be in the right location so you might just have to bite the bullet and pay someone about $100 to clear your shipments through customs for you.
Is there a way to bypass the middleman? Are brokers necessary on small orders like I'm considering (1/2 to 1 cube)?
It all depends on whether or not you have the time, and knowledge on how to clear customs.
IMO, it's much better to use a customs broker as it is tedious.
I keep thinking about mailing christmas gifts to family overseas--it's really not a big deal, so how big is big enough to go through customs, or whatever else is needed?
Almost everything goes through customs, they just don't hassle small stuff as much.
But if you are shipping by boat, maybe you can get it cleared with other product that's shipping.
Ask your shipper (the vendor) how it will be packed and shipped.
As far as logistics on the homeland, I'm feeling really stupid right now--I guess I just didn't think that getting freight from a dock to my place would be all that difficult.
It's not difficult, but it can be costly. And unless you have a decent profit margin costly logistics can kill the profitability of your venture.
Shipping LTL (less than load) can be expensive. Warehouses will then charge to receive the product.
So, IMO, inland distribution and warehousing is something to pay attention to.
Where you warehouse makes a hell of a difference.
For example, some places have much cheaper warehousing than others. Nevada is a pretty cheap state for the west coast for example.
Where you have your entry point is also important.
If you have a problem with customs, for example, they might hold the product (place it on hold, not hold it for you). You then can't move it and unless you ahve local options available you hit demurrage (a hefty fee for having things sit in docks, yards etc for more than the couple days they are alotted.
Lastly, you have distribution to the end user. Using something like UPS makes it easier (if costly).
The location of your warehouse can make a difference for other freight costs, for example, when I send product from Milwaukee to New York it's more expensive than from New York back to Milwaukee because due to the regional manufacturing levels some directions have more empty loads than others.
However, my intent is to buy direct, and sell to the retail, not wholesale market (though wholesale market is not out of the question if my costs are low enough).
The wholesale market is where my advice really kicks in, because if you are dealing with, say, UPS it's easier.
UPS is prohibitively expensive in my market but might not be for you.
On the retail end, internet sales would be probably half my market, while local sales in a store I own would account for the rest (I'm just a small operation here, with lots of potential
Sounds to me, like you have a pretty easy model. If you can factor in shipping costs to customers with UPS or somesuch and still maintain competitive prices and profitability you should be fine.
Logistics with wholesale will be different, UPS is already an expensive way of doing things but when you really need a well-oiled logistics machine with trucking and such you;ll need to cover more bases. With UPS it's pretty straightforward.
What I'd do if I were you is the following:
1) Get terms as close to DDP (Delivered Duty Paid) as you can, not FOB (free on board, means you take ownership of the product when it hits the water). In other words let the shipper handle the inbound risk and just pay the cost for a delivered product.
2) Ship out UPS to end-user.
You should probably talk to some freight forwarders and customs brokers in your area to get a better idea of regional issues you might face.