When should eCommerce businesses consider selling internationally?

Richard Jess

May 22, 2017

Confidence amongst small online retailers within the UK’s eCommerce industry is high, with more than half aiming to increase international sales in both new and existing markets. There has never been a better time for UK eCommerce businesses to take advantage of the digital power to help launch and grow internationally.

In the United States alone eCommerce sales are soaring, with predictions of a $4 Trillion sales target being reached by 2020, as consumers are making over half their purchases online. Results similar to these are being met across the globe, as the United States isn’t the only country attributing significant growth in online sales.

Ultimately, whether your eCommerce business resides in the UK, US or elsewhere, your online store gives you the ability to target prospective consumers at every corner of the world. However, retailers must weigh up the pros and cons for accessing this much larger market segment to determine the feasibility and logistics of their outreach.

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The trillion dollar question for eCommerce retailers is do they risk adapting their robust business strategy to significantly increase their business revenue or to they settle for dominating their existing sector and target market.

Is international shipping a good idea? The answer to this issue comes down to both revenue and demand. From a demand perspective, currently more than 50% of consumers have purchased products online from another country. This highlights the existing appeal of overseas purchases, especially and more frequently for lower-valued goods. Countries as far as Australia and America are strong and popular markets for the UK with costs being cheap and more practical to buy products, even with shipping costs included.

As mentioned previously, there will always be risks attached to expanding into international markets but here are some of the challenges and considerations you should examine:

1. Improving international search visibility

Successful eCommerce stores will currently be heavily optimised for the region the are operating and targeting. Google’s SEO and search algorithm is very secretive, but there are areas that can be easily identified. Despite other countries sharing the same language as your store, Google detects the most relevant content based not only on the language of the search query but also on the most relevant geographical location.

The difficulty for retailers arises when attempting to widen their geographical outreach. It is complex to make a specific product or category page relevant in search queries for multiple countries without using spam tactics, which are penalised by Google. So, how do you get around this?

Well, one way around it is to create a landing page per country you want to target, with content and assets directed towards that audience. This will drive them to the most appropriate products within your catalogue. This may require more effort from the retailer but the efforts will increase your odds of emerging in organic search results for customers overseas.

2.  Provide greater payment options

Although the norm across online platforms is to accept primary payment from Visa, MasterCard, PayPal etc. these may not necessarily be the preferred payment methods for international shoppers. Many retailers across the world, including the UK, have integrated more payment options for the ease of use and attraction of a larger audience to their stores. These options include real-time bank transfers, direct debits and mobile payments.

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When considering whether to expand internationally, the payment options and providers are key to facilitate sales. Apple Pay and Amazon Pay is now widely available for all Shopify retailers where customers can use their Apple and Amazon accounts to make purchases from your Shopify store.

Retailers could also offer bank transfers for international customers to fulfil orders manually once the order process is completed. Although this may require more work and increase fulfilment time, providing a user-friendly experience is key for customers.

3. Open additional Shopify stores in for multiple regions

Another option for retailers to make their store more consumer friendly and searchable within a specific market or region is by opening multiple Shopify stores.

Retailers with only one Shopify store often face challenges with payment gateways, because if products are displayed with a foreign currency the customer is forced to checkout using the currency of the store’s location.

Having a Shopify store in multiple regions would help provide individual store inventories, domains, backend systems, accounts and a default currency with available payment gateways. This will help separate and track online orders per country across the world.

4. Implementing a recognisable brand

Creating a unique brand identity is what separates you from your competition, but it’s maybe not as simple as it sounds. When you move beyond the local market pond and begin exporting products internationally, you are entering a much larger ocean and a more diverse marketplace. The competition will be vast and your brand must be able to withstand the competitive pressures of a global market.

A brand needs more than just a logo to cement its reputation internationally. Think about creating a story or building an experience which consumers can interact with and relate to. This will greatly improve the impact your brand will have on your audience. Ochil Fudge Pantry is a great example of how a business can effectively build a brand users can interact with:

Mastering a brand’s story in depth takes time and clever creative expertise. However, there are a number of successful businesses internationally which demonstrate that being memorable and attractive to customers doesn’t necessarily have to be flashy and overpowering.

What is necessary however, is a greater investment in strategy, expense and time. These may not provide direct return on investments, but are a crucial element for ensuring the longevity of your brand in an already saturated global marketplace.

5. Avoid cultural restrictions

Dependent on your brand, there may be elements of your online business that affect the attitude, dialect, technology or religion of countries around the world. This is highly unlikely, but we have all experienced culture shocks when travelling overseas.

These ‘taboo’ slip-ups are more likely to appear in your brands message rather than the products and services you offer. This aside, when selling internationally you should also consider what names and categories you are presenting your products in. There are not many businesses in the world than Nike, who have been affected exactly by this issue – and it may surprise you.

Back in 2012, Nike released a their latest ‘Black and Tan’ shoe range despite not releasing this was also the name given to a violent paramilitary group that suppressed the Irish during their war of independence in the early 1920’s. Despite the size of the retailer, nobody had recognised their clinical error, until they apologised in March 2012.

The lesson that should be taken from this is, if you decide to live a little and kick-start your business in international waters, do some research on unique product names and brand messages to ensure you won’t offend your new market audience.

6. Don’t underestimate delivery times and costs

Most eCommerce stores include general shipping information in their store for their consumers. This is either directly on each product page or a listing of standard delivery times to different regions with shipping options.

Shipping internationally is an entirely different ball game, meaning shipping and delivery information must be accurate and update regularly depending on destinations. Setting reasonable expectations of arrival times will avoid customer backlash and an overall better customer experience.

Retailers should also include any taxes, duties or custom fees into the shipping (landed) costs. Shopify assists with measuring the differences in shipping costs from region to region. These additional costs could impact your customers as well as your conversion rates, which means it is important to be transparent with costs from the get go.

7. Consumers will always need you

Consumers never stop with their questions, that is the reality. When you broaden your business scope to operate internationally, you will need to consider how best to handle the varying time zones to deal with customer service issues. The United States are 5 hours behind the UK, which limits the real-time communication to only 2 – 3 working hours. Email correspondence could take days to complete, which will frustrate overseas customers.

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To avoid this and satisfy customers you must provide possible solutions for alternative customer services outside your business hours. Examples might be using a customer service organisation to manage customer enquiries, or integrating a virtual assistant in a time zone opposite to yours.

8. One language does not fit all

When you purchase a product online, you want to know as much information as possible. As a retailer, when making the jump internationally you can significantly increase your sales revenue by providing detailed product descriptions and other related information in local languages.

Optional extras are always available when expanding internationally and translations are no different. It is an added expense, but it could help promote your products abroad with accurate well-translated descriptions for various languages.

Shopify offer translation apps from the Shopify App Store which is easily integrated into your eCommerce store. When selling internationally, this helps breakdown the language barrier between retailer and customer and provides a platform where the two can fulfil aspirations.

In Conclusion

Taking the leap to operate overseas is one of the biggest and most daunting decisions you will make in your business career. This blog will help outline whether the decision to operate internationally is viable based on a number of risks and differences between operating locally and globally. However, once you have done significant research and decided it is a viable option the potential for growth in the eCommerce sector is huge. Growth will only happen if you make it.

Speak to us today for help on this process!