Ecommerce sales are ramping up in the United States, with consumers doing more than half of their shopping online, according to ComScore and UPS. But with international ecommerce, the U.S. isn’t the only country seeing explosive growth in online sales; research from eMarketer predict's that global ecommerce sales will hit $1.9 trillion this year, with double-digit growth nearing $4 trillion by 2020.
Your online store gives you the ability to sell to every corner of the world where prospective customers have access to the web. However, many online merchants continue to shrug off this opportunity due to the logistics of cross-border fulfillment.
There are numerous advantages, and a bigger slice of revenue just waiting for you, if you’re willing to pivot and make some changes to your ecommerce strategy.
Why you should ship internationally
It comes down to both demand and revenue. Pitney Bowes performed an international ecommerce study in 2014 that provided insight into the growth potential of international shipping, showing that more than 40% of consumers have purchased something online from another country.
According to their research, the largest cross-border growth is currently between the U.S. and Canada since shipping is relatively cheaper in this corridor compared to overseas markets. There’s still plenty of overseas demand though, especially for lower-value goods. Both the U.K. and Australia are strong markets for U.S. retailers due to a lack of local supply. This can make it cheaper and more practical to buy products online even with shipping costs factored in, especially for Australians.
Of course, expanding into international markets isn’t without its challenges. If you’re considering or preparing to open up your ecommerce store to international consumers, here are some things to keep in mind.
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1. Offer more ways to pay
While it’s standard to accept primary payment forms like Visa, MasterCard, Discover, PayPal, etc. in a shopping cart, those standard payment methods aren’t necessarily preferable forms of payment for some international shoppers.
In fact, in the UK and other countries, it’s not uncommon for them to pay through other methods such as real-time bank transfers, direct debits, and mobile payments.
Consider expanding which payment methods you accept to cater to a wider audience. Apple Pay is now available for all Shopify merchants, and you can even let customers pay with their Amazon account in your Shopify store.
It might increase fulfillment time on some orders, but you can also offer bank transfer to international customers and then manually fulfill orders once the payment is completed.
2. Increase international search visibility
Your store and product pages are likely going to be optimized for the local region where you operate. Even if other countries share your language, Google tries to show search users content that is most relevant to them based not only on the language of their search query, but also what’s most relevant to them in terms of geographical proximity.
It would be difficult to make something like a specific product or category page appear relevant in search results for multiple countries or geographic regions, since you don’t want to use spammy tactics on your pages that fill them with geo-specific keywords.
Instead, use geo-targeted landing pages that can rank better in international searches. You can create a landing page for each country with content and copy geared toward that audience, which will drive them to the most relevant product categories or to your catalog. This may require more effort, but it will increase your odds of appearing in organic search for customers abroad.
3. Open additional shops in multiple regions
Another approach to making your site more search and customer-friendly to a specific region is by creating multiple Shopify stores. One of the biggest challenges with payment gateways is that even if you display your products in a foreign currency, the customer is forced to checkout using the default currency of your location.
You can tackle geographic search visibility and develop a smoother checkout process by launching additional stores for the countries you really want to target.
Quad Lock Case took this approach to international sales when they expanded beyond their U.S.-based store, which originally offered global shipping. The expansion included localized versions of its online store for the U.S., Europe, Australia, and the U.K. As a result, the company saw a massive increase in sales that led to thousands of new orders from around the world.
Each online store would essentially have its own inventory, domain, backend, payment gateway with local currency, and Shopify account.
4. Make your brand recognizable
It’s easy to apply a brand to your online store, but it’s not as easy to create a brand that stands apart from the competition. When you open your store’s borders and begin shipping internationally, you’re entering a much larger and more diverse market.
Make sure your brand can withstand the competitive pressures of the global market. If the depth of your brand currently starts and ends with your logo, then find ways to build on that. Create a personality for your brand and build a story or experience around it. This greatly improves the impact it will have on your audience when they interact with you for the first time.
AholeGear is just one example of strong branding that paints a clear picture of the brand by connecting it to a certain audience type, and it has a recognizable logo that works well on apparel.
BeardBrand is also on point, taking a storytelling approach that connects the audience to a branded identity by developing the “urban beardsman.”
Mast Brothers Chocolate hand-makes chocolate in New York City, and the way they make their chocolate is very unique. They work that unique selling position into their branding with visual storytelling.
Developing a brand’s depth takes time and considerable creativity, but these examples should demonstrate that you don’t need to be flashy to be memorable or interesting to consumers. What’s necessary is a well-crafted strategy and a greater investment in time and expense. You can’t necessarily measure the return on investment with a brand strategy, but it’s a critical component for competing in saturated global markets.
5. Avoid cultural taboos
Those who have traveled abroad have probably experienced culture shock at some point. Attitudes, dialects, interactions, technologies, customs—things are different around the world. There are also distinct cultural differences. Something that might be completely acceptable in the U.S. could be taboo in another country.
Taboo slip-ups are less likely to involve your physical products than your brand’s messaging, though, how you name and position your products could potentially create issues as well.
For example, both Nike and Ben & Jerry’s had to backpedal and apologize when they named products “Black and Tan.” These companies didn’t realize that it was also the name of a violent paramilitary group that suppressed the Irish during the war for their independence in the early 1920’s.
When you open the doors to international consumers, do some research on unique product names and your messaging to ensure you won’t offend your new audience, even if unintentionally.
6. Segment and localize your ads
If you run any advertising on your social channels, now is the time to expand your audience research to discover how to reach your audience in other countries.
Don’t just add the new countries to your existing custom audience. Instead, create a new custom audience that matches the region. Designate some time to research audience segments for that region to see if there are changes in their interests and behaviors that would improve your targeting efforts.
Creating more targeted advertisements like this will improve the click-through rates on your ads. There are obvious reasons why you want to achieve this (more traffic to your store), but improved click-through rates vs. few impressions (from targeting a smaller, geo-specific region) also increases ad visibility while reducing your cost per action.
7. Be clear about delivery times
It’s safe to assume that an order shipping from California will take a little longer to reach the U.K. than it would take to reach Michigan. Many multinational ecommerce stores include general shipping information for customers, sometimes directly on the product page, with a listing of their standard delivery times for different regions and shipping options.
When you start shipping internationally, you should update this information so it’s accurate based on the carriers you use and the destinations you’ll ship to. Delivery times are never exact, but you want to set reasonable expectations for your customers to avoid backlash for longer shipping times.
8. Manage landed costs, duties, and taxes
Factoring in additional costs for international shipping is crucial. This is what is known as “landed costs,” or the total amount you pay to deliver an item to an international customer’s doorstep.
The landed cost includes your shipping costs, taxes, and duties or customs fees. You should be able to measure how your landing costs vary from region to region, because these costs can impact your customers as well as your conversions. If you quote $12.50 for shipping but there’s also a $20+ duty fee tacked onto the order, then your customer may decide to forgo buying it. If no one pays the customs fee, the item could be indefinitely held or destroyed.
Some carriers offer tools to help you calculate landed costs, so check with your shipping carrier to see how they can help you manage international shipping calculations. This may be a good idea anyhow, because depending on your volume, you may be able to negotiate better rates by expanding your market.
9. Speak their language
Depending on where you’re selling and shipping products, you can greatly increase the potential for sales by providing product descriptions and other relevant information from your store in local languages. Translating is an added expense, but it can be helpful to offer accurate, well-translated versions of your product and site pages for various languages instead of just plugging paragraphs into Google Translate and hoping for the best.
There are always translation tools that customers can use, but working with an experienced translator can help you write copy that captures the subtle nuances of the language for better conversion potential.
Translation apps are available in the Shopify App Store, or you can work with an experienced contractor from a site like Upwork for translating multi-site operations.
10. Research labeling requirements
Depending on the products you sell and the countries you sell to, there may be necessary changes to your labeling. This is most common in consumable packaged goods, such as vitamin supplements, food, and beverages.
Research the foreign marketplaces you’re entering into so you will fulfill all necessary label requirements. If changes are necessary, you’ll want to decide if it’s a small enough change to be included on all labels going forward, or if you want to use an alternate label specific to that region.
11. Handling returns
Different regions may have different requirements or legislation on how returns are handled, which can be stressful when you’re dealing with worldwide orders. Know the legislation for the region you’re targeting, as well as typical consumer behaviors in that country. For example, British shoppers return up to 15% of online purchases, but orders from Germany have return rates 3 to 4 times higher.
Update your return, exchange, and refund policies to clarify how the process works for each region.
12. Offer customer service across time zones
Since you’ll be managing customers outside of your time zone, you’ll need to consider the best way to handle customer service issues. It might be extremely frustrating for a U.K. customer who is five hours ahead to only be able to reach out to you in the late evening when they’re off work – and you’re not available when it’s convenient for them. Playing email tag in that situation could drag down the expediency of your resolution process.
To avoid upsetting international customers, look into options that will allow you to consistently offer customer service even outside of your normal business hours. This could be achieved through a contract agreement with a customer service organization, or with a virtual assistant operating in a time zone that’s the opposite of your normal business hours.
Over to you
There is tremendous potential for growth when you open your online business up to a global market, but be aware of the initial legwork involved. It may seem daunting, but once you’ve done your research and thoroughly outlined your operations, processes, and store settings, it’s comparatively smooth sailing going forward.
Have you started selling internationally? What kind of challenges did you face when you introduced international shipping? Share your stories with me in the comments below.
About the Author: Matt Orlic is the founder of Inspire Brands Group, which develops brands worldwide, designing and manufacturing products in several industries, including consumer electronics, sports equipment, toys, and sports apparel.