international ecommerce expansion

If the internet has done one thing for humanity, it’s making the world smaller. We can chat with new friends in China, watch a video posted from Senegal, or play online games with an Uruguayan, all in real time. That interconnectivity isn’t just for fun party tricks — it also has enormous impacts on retail, if you’re brave enough to tackle international ecommerce.

For ecommerce brands, global expansion seems a goal worth working towards. But as you can imagine, there are plenty of roadblocks and red tape you have to navigate around. That’s where this article comes in — below are 5 tips to help you prepare, and ultimately own, your international expansion.


1. Study Up on Your New Location

First and foremost, you have to learn all about your new market. What do you have to learn? As much as you can.

For starters, you should learn about any legal restrictions or egregious barriers. Some countries require certain licenses, others charge outlandish taxes, etc. To make matters worse, these restrictions may also be conditional based on how many items you store in a foreign warehouse or even how many employees you have. The bottom line is, you want to be aware of these before you make the decision to sell there.

You also want to learn about the culture and societal customs of the place you’re selling. This is essential for properly marketing and engaging your new customers, but it can also inspire business ideas and ways to adapt your strategy. For example, if you’re trying to sell 100% beef jerky snacks in India or adult toys in UAE, you haven’t done enough research.

Then there’s the general information about the country that’s relevant to business. What’s the standard format for addresses? What are usual working hours (and, more to the point, shopping hours)? What taxes are you liable for as an outside seller? Even basics like time zone and politics are worth double-checking.

Last, you have factors directly applicable to the retail business. What kinds of products have the most demand? Which ones can you undercut the cost? You should also research ecommerce specifics, like what’s the average wait time on shipping deliveries and how does your local competition handle returns?

The first step in succeeding in a foreign market is education. Otherwise, you’ll just be shooting in the dark.


2. Find a Niche

While knowing as much as you can about your new market will help you down the line, the immediate goal is to know enough to find your ecommerce niche. This is why researching your local competitors and shopping behavior is so crucial.

Obviously, you’ll want to look at areas in which demand is not met or where you can undercut market leader’s prices. Looking into search trends can help, and Google Trends can be filtered by location. But at some point you’ll also have to break out your calculator and do the math on how much you can sell products for — and that requires knowledge of local shipping fees, taxes, and any special laws on where/how much inventory you can store on foreign soil.


3. Determine the Best Payment Methods

One factor often overlooked when expanding internationally are payment methods. If you’ve been selling in America or Canada this whole time, you may be taking for granted the major credit card gateways and 3P methods like PayPal. But every country has its own prefered payment methods, and unless you offer those you’ll miss out on substantial business.

Luckily, this information isn’t hard to find online. To save time, you can even check out this Entrepreneur article which gives a little information on most geographic locations and their payment preferences.


4. Start Small and Scale Up

To put it bluntly, there’s a lot of risk involved in global expansion. Rather than charging into a failed venture head-first, it’s best to test the waters slowly and scale up as needed.

There are a few less-risk alternatives to starting out in a foreign country. You could first try dropshipping from local suppliers to reduce shipping charges and possibly circumvent some taxes; this can also give you some early data on which products to sell and shopping behaviors.

You can also go through a more established site like Amazon or eBay as a trial run. Again, these mitigate the risk of expansion until you have a better idea of which strategies work, or even if the expansion is worth it in the first place.


5. Create a Location-Specific Website

To be truly successful in an international market, you have to fully commit. Considering all the cultural differences from one country to another, you’ll make a stronger impact if you cater your web design and branding to individual locations.

The greatest challenge is the language barrier — you want to offer a site that’s fully translated into the native language of the country you’re breaking into. This goes beyond just text, but also other technicalities like units of measurements (no one in Europe is going to understand inches).

Likewise, you’ll want to change up your content marketing. Aside from releasing blogs and social media in the new language, you’ll also want to capitalize on that culture’s tastes. What kinds of posts get shared on social media varies by country.

You also want to account for cultural sensitivities. If you can, use photographs with local models and relevant locations. Color schemes, too, can have cultural associations, so make sure you research those. You’ll also want to audit your product selection and change your homepage recommendations based on local trends, not universal trends.


Conclusion: It’s a Small World

Despite its challenges, creating an international ecommerce brand by expanding globally can be just the thing your business needs. The fact that customer preferences change by location is a double-edged sword — you may find that there’s a much greater demand in foreign markets for your slow-moving products. You won’t know until you do a little research… and that part is risk-free.


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