Many consumer companies have been able to offset the business they're losing as American consumers falter. They've been the beneficiaries of a special, magical element called "international exposure," which has certainly led their shareholders to breathe a big sigh of relief.

And of course, when it comes to big international opportunities, many companies would love a presence in China, a country with a huge population that's becoming increasingly well-heeled. Many investors get excited at the mere hint that a company they're interested in is thinking of doing business overseas.

However, some of these moves into countries like China may be easier said than done, so you'd best be thinking long term when considering specific companies -- and be prepared for some snags along the way.

Easier said than done
A recent Wall Street Journal article pointed out that department store retailers may have a heck of a hard time making their way into the Chinese market. As an example, it pointed to Saks (NYSE:SKS), which revealed its plan to open a Saks Fifth Avenue store in Shanghai two years ago. That store was supposed to be open in time for the Beijing Olympics -- a huge opportunity, to be sure -- yet as things stand now, it's still 18 months away from its debut.

The WSJ pointed to many stumbling blocks for department stores' international plans. For example, many designers balk at making deals with the department stores, since they're trying to open their own stores in certain busy international locales. Everybody wants a piece of this compelling growth story.

Meanwhile, in the Saks example, the need to gain approval from local and regional governments in China has also helped make for a difficult entry. This is a bummer, but hardly surprising. I can't help but think about the way Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) took a strange back-door approach to getting into India late last year. Stymied when it came to gaining regulatory approval, it tiptoed into the country by distributing its products through multiplexes.

In more recent (but similar) tidings, I saw a clip of Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) Steve Jobs on CNBC just today, saying that while he believes the new iPhone will be in China (and Russia) later this year, it's still working on regulatory approvals in that country.

Traveling abroad
As much as Saks' experiences underline the difficulties companies can run into in countries like China, there's no reason to give up hope. Like I said before, plenty of consumer companies are already offsetting sluggishness here at home with popularity abroad.

McDonald's (NYSE:MCD) and Yum! Brands (NYSE:YUM) both have international expansion well in hand, and have been enjoying the fruits of their plans; Yum! is particularly well known for its strong presence in China. Tiffany (NYSE:TIF) may have struggled domestically in its most recent quarter, but its top line got boosted by dazzling performance in Europe and Asia. VF Corp (NYSE:VFC) is another company that's enjoyed help from abroad as of late.   

In closing, if one of your companies says it's expanding abroad, awesome -- just remember that there can be plenty of unforeseen barriers. If you already believe in the core business, great -- you're already in for the long haul and willing to wait for those strategies to come to pass, and you're not just relying on the siren song of international expansion over the short term.

There are plenty of companies that already have expansion plans well under way. Such companies may present great values for those who have their hearts set on opportunities in huge, compelling markets like China.