Going global: taking your ecommerce multinational

Going global: taking your ecommerce multinational

You’ve launched your ecommerce store, and you’re building a customer base in your home country. But as people start to notice your brand, you're seeing more visitor enquiries from international customers. The world is becoming smaller and people are prepared to look further afield for their must-have products. And if you want to hit that elusive international sweet spot in your market, you’ll want to maximise the opportunity while you can.

Written by Louise Abbott

8 min read

You’ve launched your ecommerce store, and you’re building a customer base in your home country. But as people start to notice your brand, your message gets spread across a wider audience and you’re getting more visitor enquiries from international customers. After all, the world is becoming smaller and people are prepared to look further afield for those must-have products. And if you’re about to hit that elusive sweet spot in your market, you’ll want to maximise the opportunity while you can.

Can anyone go global?

The quick answer is yes. It's not as difficult these days, particularly for online-only ecommerce businesses. Depending on your ecommerce platform - for these purposes we’re going to assume you’re on Shopify (other ecommerce platforms are of course available - Ed.) - there are likely to be some international settings built in that will enable you to sell across multiple regions.

And if you’re expanding into a country where your own native language is widely used, that makes the transition much easier.

In addition to your website platform’s support of international ecommerce (the technical and functional provision of multinational sales), there are a few other things you need to consider.

We can’t advise on individual businesses here, so we’ve highlighted some of the questions arising from conversations we have with clients when consulting on multiple region ecommerce.

Of course, if you are considering expanding into a new region, you can speak to us about the solutions available and how we’ve helped clients achieve their global ambitions.

Below you’ll find some of the questions you need to ask yourself before you launch your business to a global audience. Not all will apply to your situation, but all are worth considering so that you can implement your strategy confidently, having sourced all the information you need, either from your own research and knowledge, or through professional advisors to help you make that leap into the relatively unknown.

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1. Demand

First question - do you need to expand into another region, and is there demand for your products? Okay, that was two questions, but they kind of go hand in hand.

Are products similar to yours already available in other regions? This may be why your site is attracting traffic from global visitors. But how are these visitors responding to your site if it’s not in their native region, language or currency? If they’re just bouncing off again when they see it’s a foreign site, you might want to make your site more sticky with content that welcomes visitors from across the globe. This could be something as simple as a banner stating that you ship internationally.

Where do your current site visitors come from? Are you already attracting visitors from different regions?

Checking your Google Analytics will give you a good first indicator of the geographic location of your site visitors and customers. While your business may be established and based in the UK, you could be getting visits from Europe or from the US, but is this segment large enough to justify diversifying into an international market?

2. Competition

If there is demand, who are the competitors who may already be meeting that demand?

Do your research. Find out about who else sells products similar to yours, particularly in the region you’re exploring for expansion. How do these native merchants perform for traffic and content? What is their pricing model? Shipping and returns policies? And can you compete with them while maintaining a decent margin? How much might you need to change your website to appeal to these new customer markets and meet their expectations?

3. Audience

Your audience will be different in another region. What might your new customers expect to be done differently to how you do it now? In reality you might find that your audience and its expectations aren’t too different from your existing customer base, particularly if you’re venturing into regions that speak the same language, share similar customs and business practices.

4. Language/Translation/Customs and Context

One of the biggest barriers to expansion into other countries is language. And it’s not just a case of dropping your English content into Google Translate and pasting the French output onto your website. There are subtleties in language that need to be considered - the phrase “lost in translation” should be your number one mantra when creating content in a foreign language. Unless you can speak the language of your target region, or have the resources to get your content translated effectively, it may be best to avoid any countries where you run the risk of getting things wrong!

Pants. Let’s talk about pants, for example. Your UK customers will have a completely different expectation to their US counterparts.

But even if you do speak the lingo, you need to be aware of variations in context, spelling and grammar, and traditional or customary use of language and context. Think of all those weird colloquial sayings that make perfect sense to you - try translating them into another language and you get a garbled mess of words that sound like nonsense to foreign ears.

Getting the language right is the first step in creating trust and confidence in your new target region. Get it wrong and you risk alienating customers who were already looking to purchase your products.

5. Logistics, Shipping

Going international can be expensive for any business. Increased shipping costs will inevitably impact margin, so consider your pricing strategy for different regions. Depending on the products you sell, and the volumes at which you sell them, your warehousing and distribution needs may change, delivery timescales and expectations will need to be managed, and you’ll need to make sure you meet the requirements of any customs import and export laws for the regions you’re sending your products to and from.

Some customers will inevitably need to return products, so you need to think about how you will manage that - how easy will it be for customers to return items? Will you need a different returns policy and process? What are the legal requirements for consumer protection, product warranties etc. in your target region?

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6. Currency, Pricing, Conversion, Payment Gateways

Not all payment methods are acceptable in all countries. If your ecommerce site has its own specific payment gateway, check that it can be used without issues in your target region. Look at well known alternative payment methods, such as Apple or Google Pay, or PayPal, or localised payment gateways, like Evalon, Ingenico, Klarna, Stripe... The last thing you want is for your new target customers to reach check out only to find that they are unable to complete their transaction either in a way that’s familiar to them, or worse still, not at all.

If your region uses the same currency as your native region (e.g. France to Germany), then you don’t need to worry about conversion rates. But if you’re based in the UK and looking to expand into Europe and want to sell in Euros, you’ll need to make sure your conversion rates are fair and accurate, both for you and your customer.

Some regions have different approaches to rounding up pricing as well. In the UK we’re all familiar with the X.99 pricing model, but other countries prefer X.95 or X.50. Make sure you research what the standards and expectations are, and set your regional pricing accordingly.

If your ecommerce platform takes care of currency management (conversions, pricing conventions etc.) for you, then that’s one less thing to worry about. For example, Shopify's new multiple currencies functionality is now in beta, which will allow Shopify Plus merchants to sell in 9 different currencies depending on where the customer is located. Shopify’s multiple currency feature will let merchants create custom rounding rules for these currencies, so that prices are presented to customers in a format they expect to see.

7. Going to Market

Depending on how your ecommerce platform works, you might consider using multiple websites to serve customers in your target regions. There are pros and cons to the different approaches, and you’ll need to make sure that you are using the right domains, subdomains and URLs to serve the right content and maximise traffic opportunities.

Country code top level domains (ccTLD) can be used for geo-targeting to reach potential customers in different countries. Larger businesses tend to use this approach, and you’ll see these businesses set their websites to company.com, company.co.uk, company.de etc.. For larger global enterprises, this is often the preferred method.

Subdomains let you create separate websites within your main domain, for example fr.company.com or uk.company.com, and can be hosted on regional servers as separate websites.

Subdirectories differentiate regions at the end of the URL, such as company.com/uk or company.com/fr, can be easier to set up from within your main domain. This approach also concentrates domain authority and page rank to the main domain, and is often easier to maintain than other methods.

If you’re not sure which is the best way to set up your website for multiple regions, talk to our international ecommerce experts about how we’ve helped clients take their business into other territories.

Taking your website international means reviewing your SEO strategy. Your current approach will be aimed at your native audience’s search activity, but you need to understand how your target audience searches for products relevant to your site. You need to carry out thorough keyword research in your target regions. SEMrush, for example, lets you set the region for keyword analysis in its search tools. You’ll see some variance in terms and search volumes, so make sure you adjust your content to attract traffic using these terms.

The structure of your site pages needs consideration too. Localising URLs, titles, meta data and other elements will help Google (other search engines are available - Ed.) understand the market(s) you want to serve, and will also provide a better contextual experience for your users.

8. Customer Service, Returns, Support

Do people who buy or use your products need a good customer service process? Are there technical requirements they may need assistance with to get the full benefit of their purchase? If you need to have a customer support service, how will you manage this across different regions and timezones?

Ticketed support, live chat, email, telephone are all valid support options and allow your business to be open 24/7/365. But you do need to consider if there are any localisation requirements for these. Telephone numbers that are not local to your customer’s regions can deter use, particularly if there are concerns over cost of making an international call.

Do you need a physical address so customers can return items locally to them?

Whichever solution you use, make sure you state clearly what your service level agreement is, so your customers know they can expect a response within a certain time frame.

9. Legal

This is a biggie. You need to consider any legal compliance you may have to meet as required by the country in which you wish to sell. There will be different consumer laws and tax requirements that you need to be aware of when selling into different countries. On top of that, there are variations in data protection laws that dictate how you gather, store and use customer data, particularly sensitive data such as financial details.

Are there age restrictions on the products you sell? Alcohol is the obvious example here, with different countries and areas within those countries having their own laws surrounding the purchase and consumption of alcohol. But there are other restricted items, such as weapons, antiques, and products made or or containing certain animal derived parts.

Are you products labelled correctly for sale in other regions? Do they state ingredients in an accepted format, are your garment labels compliant with legislative requirements? Are your products manufactured to relevant health and safety standards?

Customs and excise duties will also vary between countries, as will sales taxes. Even the definition of your business status will vary from country to country, and will have different requirements placed upon it based on how it is categorised.

When it comes to the legal requirements of managing an ecommerce business in multiple countries, our advice is to seek professional guidance from a qualified international business expert.

As a general rule, you should be familiar with the legal requirements of where you are selling your goods into. Regardless of the laws in your native country, you may be running the risk of non compliance if you fail to adhere to the laws in your target market.

Conclusion

Taking your business global is a great ambition to have, and one which can be achieved with the right insight and knowledge. The myriad things you need to consider may deter some from taking such a huge step, but if you do your research and execute your plan thoroughly, the potential for growing your revenue, your brand and your business is huge.

Our advice? Start small. Pick one region that you are most familiar with, or one that bears similarities to your native region. And where possible, seek the advice of others who have experience in expanding into other regions.

And of course, speak to us! We’ve helped many clients set up and manage ecommerce site in multiple countries, and we’d love to help you too.

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