Buying and Selling

flag Panama Panama: Buying and Selling

In this page: Market Access Procedures | Reaching the Consumers | Distributing a Product | E-commerce | Organizing Goods Transport | Identifying a Supplier

 

Market Access Procedures

International Conventions
Party to the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer
International Economic Cooperation
Panama joined the WTO in 1997. It made a free-exchange agreement with Taiwan (2004), Salvador (2003) and Canada (2009) on the elimination of tariffs in sectors of industry, agriculture, forestry and fishing. The country is currently negotiating with the United States. Panama has also shown interest in negotiating with MERCOSUR and has been invited to join the G3 (which unites Venezuela, Colombia and Mexico). Finally, Panama signed a Free Trade Agreement with Canada.
Non Tariff Barriers
There are few restrictions regarding import. The most important restrictions are set for products considered as dangerous for Health or which are against law and order. Certain goods require a license from the Ministry of Agriculture, or from the Department of Trade and Industry (weapons, plants, seeds and live animals). The non-tariff barriers considerably restrict the freedom of import (very strict quotas, reference prices and excessive sanitary standards).

Colon Free Trade Zone (FTZ) or Zona Libre de Colon (ZLC) on the Atlantic coast, created in 1948, ranks second in the world after Hong Kong. In the FTZ, some particular products can be imported, stored, modified and re-exported, without any need to go through customs whether on entrance or on exit, nor to pay for any special taxes. The strategic location, in the centre of America and near the Panama Canal, offers an important potential for the development of international trade. The most important products of the FTZ are: clothes, broadcasting devices, synthetic clothes, shoes, watches, perfume and fragrance, spirits, cigarettes and pharmaceutical products. The main suppliers of the FTZ are Hong-Kong, South Korea, Singapore, some European countries and the USA. The main customers are the Caribbean islands and the countries of Central America.

Customs Duties and Taxes on Imports
Duties are calculated "ad valorem" according to the CIF value ( Cost, Insurance and Freight), between 3% and 40%.


Customs Classification
About 50% of imports are exempt from duty.  There are 48 types of products which are subject to customs tariff equal or higher than 90%, such as agricultural and agro-industrial products (strawberries, potatoes, tomatoes and tropical fruits, amongst others ).

Imports on products that do not exist in the country are subject to duty of less than 27%. Imports are also subject to the equivalent of VAT, transfer of movable property tax and also a tax that is paid on the documents which  varies between 2 to 5% of the FOB (merchandise subject to custom duty) and from 5 to 8% (free merchandise).

Import Procedures
It is not necessary to obtain a license to import in Panama. All companies with a trading license can freely import into Panama any product whatsoever that is unregulated. A trading or industrial license is required for individuals or companies wishing to undertake commercial or industrial activities. A phytosanitary permit is required to import certain non-food agricultural products. Special import permits are required for all types of firearms, ammunition and fertilisers. In general, food products and beverages should be registered with the Panamanian Food Safety Authority and should respect the requirements regarding hygiene and quality control. Food products that are not freely on sale in their country of origin cannot be imported into Panama. It is the duty of the Executive, at the request of the Ministry of Health to establish the sanitary rules relating to the fabrication, storage, importation and sale of medicines and subsidiary products. It is forbidden to manufacture or to import into Panama these products without them being analysed or registered beforehand.

Main documents required by the Panamanian Customs authorities for import purposes:

  • Import declaration (prepared by the Customs agent)
  • Commercial invoice (in English or Spanish, quadruplicate)
  • Airline transport letter
  • Bill of lading (triplicate)
  • Business permit number
  • Health or phytosanitary permit (in the case of animal or vegetable agricultural products)
  • Certificate showing that products are sold freely (in the case of products meant for human consumption including for example body lotion).

For more information, please visit the website of PwC.

Importing Samples
Samples are not subject to customs duty as long as they are perforated or are marked not for sale.  Temporary importation is authorized for a 3 month period renewable 3 times for the same length.  A guarantee for the amount of the duty which would have been payable had it been a normal import has to be deposited in form of a certified cheque made out to the Public Treasury.  It is also possible to provide as deposit in the form of insurance.  Exemption can be partial or total.
 
 
For Further Information
Panama Customs General Management

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Reaching the Consumers

Marketing opportunities

Consumer Profile
Panama has the second-highest per capita GDP in the region, nevertheless, poverty and inequality remain widespread: in fact, Panama has the third-worst income distribution in Central America, with a Gini Index of 49.2 points (CIA World Factbook, latest data available). About one-fourth of the population lives in poverty; however, from 2006 to 2012 alone poverty was reduced by 10% (World Bank). The indigenous population accounts for a growing share of Panama's poor and extreme poor, while the non-indigenous rural poor population improved their situation by moving to urban areas. The purchasing power of Panamanian has been on the rise in recent years (World Bank), resulting in an increased interest in quality products and organic food.
The population is concentrated towards the centre of the country, particularly around the Canal, but a considerable number of people also lives in the far west around David; the eastern third of the country is sparsely inhabited.
Consumer Behaviour
Panama claims the second-highest GDP per capita in Latin America and is one of the main markets due to its strategic position and the commercial and financial opportunities that the country has to offer.
Panamanian consumers can be divided into two socio-economical segments: the higher income group, which prefers international products and gives more importance to quality rather than price, which is influenced by American and European trends and likes to go shopping in malls; and the lower-middle-income for which price is the key factor when making a purchase decision, often looking for discounts and buying in department stores and outlets.
Panamanian consumers are open to new products and are now buying more on the internet. Nevertheless, they do not only use the internet to seek discounts, but also to get information and reviews about the products they intend to buy.
The influence of the U.S. is still really strong, thus American brands are generally considered of better quality when compared to similar products of other origins.
When it comes to food, the grocery market in Panama is mostly driven by supermarkets, hypermarkets and independent food stores. In recent years, consuming more convenience and healthy foods has been the trend.
Consumers Associations
Panamanian Institute for Consumer Rights (IPADECU)
Consumer Protection and Competition Defense Authority
Main Advertising Agencies
PUMER advertizing agency (Spanish only)
WX Digital Agency
Tomorrow Digital

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Distributing a Product

Evolution of the Sector
Based on the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2016-2018, Panama ranked No. 42 out of the 138 countries surveyed and is among the 10 most competitive economies in Latin American and the Caribbean. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate is 5.4% for 2017, the highest in Latin America.

Food retail sales were $376.7 million in 2017. High growth categories include savory snacks, processed meats and seafood, sauces and condiments, ready meals, processed fruits and vegetables, dairy products, and snack foods. Supermarkets, traditional (mom & pops) hypermarkets and independent food stores dominate Panama’s grocery sector. Other popular retail formats in Panama include membership club stores, and wet markets located nationwide, which concentrate on domestic produce. The largest and most popular market is the “Mercado de Abastos”, located in Panama City.

Modern food retailers have been improving quality and convenience. Supermarkets, hypermarkets and independent food stores, which are most popular among consumers, mostly drive the grocery market in Panama. Supermarket chains are increasing their presence by opening new stores in populated areas across the country and offering online grocery shopping and delivery. Store brands are becoming prevalent in these chains and appearing on the shelfs of top supermarket, private labels give the chain a way to set themselves apart from the competitions and enable them to offer customers more choice. Independent grocery and convenience stores are also transforming their store-planning format, locating stores in convenient, generally neighborhoods; they number around 11,000. There are mini convenience stores, conventional size stores with expanded foodservice, and even hyper-convenience stores with the extensive variety of product offerings and in-store seating for foodservice
Market share
Panama City accounts on average for 65% of total domestic sales of consumer goods. The remaining 35% is divided between other major cities including David, Colón, Santiago and Chitré (ITA, 2021).

In Panama, the mass retail distribution structure is not too sophisticated: Direct importers either sell their merchandise in bulk or retail. Concerning mass consumption products (food and medicines), bulk and retail sales are done separately. Regarding industrial products, sales are usually conducted by exclusive local agents or distributors and sometimes the local firms buy directly through brokers or producers.

Regarding industrial products, sales are normally made by local exclusive agents or distributors. In other cases, local companies order directly from foreign brokers or the manufacturer.

Some of Panama's main importers are also regional distributors for Central and/or South America, with storage facilities located in the Colón Free Zone (CFZ). In general, importers/distributors of CFZ have affiliate stores in Panama City for retail sale in the local market.

Most of the Panamanian trade goes through the ports of Manzanillo, Cristobal and Evergreen on the Atlantic Coast, as well as the port of Balboa on the Pacific Coast. Tocumen International Airport handles most of Panama's air cargo.
Retail Sector Organisations
Retail organization of Panama
Ministry of Economy and Finance of Panama
Panama Chamber of Commerce

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E-commerce

Internet access
Panama has experienced steady economic growth during the past few years, which has had a positive effect on the country’s telecom market, attracting considerable investment from significant international operators including Telefónica, America Móvil and Liberty Global. With that, mobile and broadband services have been the fastest growing sectors in the country.  In 2017, there were almost 3 million internet users in Panama, making the penetration rate 69.7%.  Internet penetration has grown in recent years and is expected to continue to do so, fuelled by greater consumer demand for services, as well as the government’s incentive for a highly connected Panama. In 2017, 46.7% of households had a computer, 60.7% of them had internet access at home. Additionally, the number of fixed-broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants was 7.9, while there were 60.7 mobile-broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants. There has been a great development of the mobile sector in recent years, and mobile penetration rates are over 180%, considerably higher than the regional average.
E-commerce market
The retail market in Panama is strong, but e-commerce is still in its early stages. In 2018, e-commerce in Panama is estimated to reach US$ 700 million. A number of Panamanian firms, especially supermarkets, fast food delivery, and consumer electronic stores, now have websites and a growing number of companies is working on providing their own. Smartphones and other mobile devises are highly used in the country, and more people are now purchasing goods and services on the internet regardless of the location, which drives e-commerce growth. Panama is gaining the attention of foreign investors, especially due to its tax benefits and US dollar based economy. Within the e-commerce sector, this combination of factors seems to be particularly encouraging for companies planning to invest abroad. Some of the most popular e-commerce websites in the country are encuentra24.com, olx.com.pa, as well as global giants Amazon, Ebay and AliExpress.

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Organizing Goods Transport

Main Useful Means of Transport
With its canal, Panama is considered as one of the major transport logistics centers.  The country also has modern harbors on two oceans which are linked by a railway network, highways and international airports which  have equipment capable of catering for all sorts of cargo transport.
The railroad network is made up of one 47 mile-track and joins Balboa to Colon.  Transport capacity is on average 500,000 containers per year.
The road network comprises of 11,643 km of road, of which 4,028 are tarmac.
Ports
Colon container terminal
List of Panamanian harbors
Airports
TOCUMEN Interneational Airport Panama
Sea Transport Organisations
Panama Maritime Authority
Air Transport Organisations
Panama Civil Aviation Authority (Spanish only)
Road Transport Organisations
Transport and Traffic authority (Spanish only)

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Identifying a Supplier

Type of Production
Industry accounts for 13% of the GDP, the service industry is much more significant and accounts for some 81.1% of the GDP in Panama and provides approximately 70% of employment.  The main industries are construction, breweries, cement and other building materials as well as sugar grinding.

Business Directories

Multi-sector Directories
AmCham Panama - Directory of companies in Panama
Angloinfo - Panama business directory
BizExposed - Panama business directory
Expat.com - Panama business directory
South America Business Directory - Panama business directory
Yellow Pages - Business directory in Panama.
 

To search directories by industry in Panama, check out our service Business Directories.

 
Professional Associations by Sector
26 professional associations listed for Panama.
 
Trade Agencies and Their Representations Abroad
Panama Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture. (Spanish only)
General Professional Associations
User Companies Association of the Colon free zone
Panamanian association of Entrepreneurs. (Spanish only)
 
 

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Latest Update: November 2022