As a business owner, you may one day want to start selling your product or service overseas. Maybe you think that you've reached the limit in terms of your local client base and want to expand abroad. You may even feel like your product would be better suited to a foreign market. A British manufacturer of leather sandals, for example, might decide that the Middle East would be a far more lucrative market than the UK.
If you're confident that international expansion is the next step to take then it’s definitely time to start thinking about global e-commerce and how you can boost your online sales overseas.
According to the UK Office for National Statistics, e-commerce sales by businesses in the UK non-financial sector with 10 employees or more were £560 billion in 2017, rising from £484 billion in 2016. This year-on-year increase of 16% was the largest since 2011.
And this pattern looks set to continue. UK e-commerce exports are expected to hit £28 billion by 2020, with UK retailers predicted to enjoy a trade hike that will outperform even the US and Germany.
Testing the water
For the owner of an SME, targeting overseas markets might appear time-consuming and requiring a large budget. But you don’t need to plunge headfirst into an elaborate global e-commerce strategy. There are things you can do first to test the water.
Nowadays a number of businesses use online marketplaces such as Amazon, Etsy or Ebay for gauging overseas potential.
Using these platforms has its limitations – they charge listing fees, take a cut of your profits, and using them does little for the promotion of your brand. However you can get a good sense of whether your products will sell in certain markets and which of those markets are strongest.
Plus these platforms take the hassle out of processing your transactions and deal with constantly fluctuating foreign exchange rates.
So let’s say, for example, you wanted to test your products on the French market. Selling them on the French Amazon site (amazon.fr) would be a logical first step since you already have something of a captive audience.
It would be a mistake, though, to use English-language product descriptions for this. Competition from other brands is fierce on a site as vast as Amazon and if other brands’ product descriptions are in French, you’ll have little chance of standing out from the crowd.
Research has also shown that customers are far more likely to purchase products when the product information is in their own language. Ideally, then, you would translate your product information into French by a native translator and localisation expert.
Tracking the numbers
Obviously repeat customers will indicate whether your client base is actively growing and your brand is having an impact on the new market. This is something that can only be properly monitored over several months.
But if sales aren’t increasing you should look elsewhere. Thankfully with online selling this is fairly easy to do. If one country or area isn’t working out, you can try another. You need only one account to sell into Amazon’s UK, Spain, Germany, Italy and France sites as the company operates something called a European Unified Account.
Hopefully, over time, your online sales will be profitable enough for you to think about taking the next step.
This is where you can start up your own international e-commerce website.
There are two types of sites for any kind of ecommerce business: hosted and self-hosted. The differences between them is a whole blog topic in itself but the main difference is that a self-hosted site is one that gives you more autonomy regarding the look and feel of the website, and requires its own server – the major cost associated with self-hosting.
A hosted site is not as customizable and is owned and managed by a vendor to whom you pay a hosting fee, which you may or may not do with a self-hosted site.
Ultimately you must consider what is best for your business: short-term convenience or long-term flexibility and control.
Website domain types
Once you’ve decided on the hosting option, you have to choose your web domain type.
There are three options to consider when launching your website in another country.
The first is CcTLD – Country Code Top-Level Domain (e.g., webname.fr). Using the ccTLD indicates that you are targeting a specific country (eg .fr for France) and is the most effective at establishing trust with new web users. However, since it is, in a way, its own separate entity, it doesn’t benefit from sharing the link authority of any parent top-level domain. You’re essentially building up the link authority of these sites from scratch, making it slightly more difficult to rank.
The second option is a sub-folder (e.g., webname.com/fr). Using a sub-folder benefits from the shared link authority of the top level domain and is good for your search rankings. However it creates less trust than using a ccTLD, which may have an impact on the click-through rate.
Thirdly, there is the sub-domain (e.g., fr.webname.com) option. This approach is a good compromise if you don’t want to use the above. A sub-domain can be separately hosted in different countries, potentially boosting your ranking in that country. There is some shared link activity but not as much as with a sub-folder.
It doesn't end with the storefront
By creating a custom storefront for the country you are targeting, you are telling your overseas customers that you speak their lingo, giving them confidence in your brand. But that shouldn’t end at the transaction stage.
Going “all in” on localisation also means translating marketing and transactional emails, as well as packing slips and invoices, into the appropriate language(s).
A sustained social media presence in the necessary language will also be expected. And what happens when you have to deal with post-purchase customer queries and complaints in a foreign language? You can’t always rely on Google Translate.
In some countries you need a licence to operate an e-commerce site, while in others you only require one if you have a physical presence in that country.
Operating without the right paperwork could incur heavy fines and penalties so do your homework and find out.
Also, with the United Kingdom soon set to leave the European Union there could be changes to importing and exporting rules which you need to keep tabs on.
The payment options also need to be considered, with different countries having their preferred methods. In Japan, for example, a popular payment method is Konbini, a service that enables shoppers to order goods online then pay for them in a convenience store. Check that your potential customers won't be deterred by the standard credit card transactions wer use in the UK and US.
We'll help with your global e-commerce needs
Successful global e-commerce requires a commitment to research and cultural understanding, as well as the willingness to invest in translation and localisation services.
Mastering global e-commerce isn’t simple; there will be major challenges along the way. But it is a huge opportunity to unlock exponential growth and essential if you want to keep up with your competitors.
Wolfestone has a proven track record of helping clients take their products and services to overseas markets. We use a network of specialist translators who have experience working on localisation projects in every sector, from manufacturing to medicine, sciences to security. Among our many clients is Wish, a hugely successful online e-commerce platform.
Contact us for more information.