5 steps to successful international ecommerce expansion

By Will Gillingham

At some point in a successful retailer’s journey, the confines of the home country can begin to look a bit snug. Products may be stockpiling, and revenue may be at a lofty, but nevertheless unmoving, plateau. Breathing room in the form of foreign lands can seem like a realistic proposition, if only anything at all was known about such a manoeuvre.

Well, for anyone looking overseas with interest, consider this your guidebook.

On 12th September, Andy Mulcahy, Strategy and Insight Director of IMRG and Elliott Jacobs, Director of Commerce Consulting EMEA, came together to discuss and plot-out a definitive path towards international expansion. In this blog, the major points of the webinar will be presented with stripped-back, concise delivery. For the full, unabridged discussion, be sure to give it a listen: ‘International eCommerce: Make your Brand a Global Success’.

Before Embarking

International expansion has the potential to seem like the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. A prize pool of $25tn dollars in ecommerce alone – it’s surely an obvious step if a retailer possesses the means to tap into global trade.

Well, maybe. But, ‘what’s important to understand is that internationalisation can be fraught with dangers’ (Jacobs). Sitting in the UK, any view to cross-border must be looked at through the encroaching fog of Brexit, which is still as ambiguous as it ever has been.

And it’s not as easy as establishing a presence in a wealthy country and reaping the rewards. In fact, ‘looking at the biggest markets and just focussing on those is a bit of a mistake’ (Mulcahy). There needs to be an assurance that your products will be well-received in the designated market, and that requires an awareness of the population: do they generally buy products similar to yours? Have they heard of your brand? Are they speaking about your brand on social media, or (a gift when deciding receptibility), is traffic from certain regions growing?

It can be a complicated process. But, there are five simple steps to take which can smooth over the tangle of issues which international expansion can create, and make the process a rewarding experience. The first of these is to know your customers.

Hand touching globe

The Five Steps

1. Customers

‘Don’t underestimate brand stories’ (Jacobs). It’s a titan in the realm of retail clichés, but also true: customers are people. They have emotions, political stances, and ethical consciences, and the latter is becoming a significant factor in the brands people are shopping with.

A brand’s ‘story’ which addresses the sociological perspective of their desired audience will have huge benefits. Nike’s recent controversial campaign is a clear example of this.

A second factor in relation to customers is how they interact over the internet. A retailer looking to move its offering abroad ‘can’t just expect to use familiar channels’ (Mulcahy) in their marketing. Google and Facebook are banned in some territories, and (perhaps a baffling fact), Amazon hasn’t yet conquered the globe. For example, Mercado Libre is the dominant ecommerce market in Mexico, and Newegg is prevalent in New Zealand.

Essentially, customers in foreign territories won’t be the same as the customers you’re familiar with. Extensive research into the people you’re trying to connect with as a brand will have to be conducted before a move overseas.

Woman carrying shopping

2. Market

The whirring gears that make up a national marketplace differ by country. Competitors will change depending on location, and economic events could help or hinder a move at any given time. ‘It’s important to understand the local nuances’ (Jacobs). Even minor factors like search engine keywords can impact potential revenue if left unrecognised: in German, ‘official website’ is frequently searched for, while in Spain, ‘best price’ is a shopper’s search of choice.

The larger picture is also important. The uncertain economic state in the UK has caused the euro to increase in value against the pound, meaning Europe is currently an attractive option for UK retailers in particular. However, India and China notoriously discourage foreign traders, with India currently debating placing limitations on outside retailers.

Looking at how the economic engine in any given country runs is a must to the aspiring emigrant. As Jacobs states, ‘Macro and micro economic events might make it harder to move abroad, but they could also be an opportunity.’

3. People

That is, staff. The people engineering your current course. The people you’re trusting to help you navigate across the sea. Are these people experts in the country you’re headed towards? Because if not, you don’t have the right team. Yet.

‘Entering foreign markets can be a huge strain on your resources’ (Jacobs), and may require agency support. You need an intimate, working knowledge of the market. Whether it be third-party support, in-house specialists, or a support team in the country itself, one of these boxes has to be ticked for cross-border ecommerce.

‘Translating using software alone will likely present an issue’ (Mulcahy). The translated wording may be flawless, but the semantics will not be (for example, ‘pants’ has two different meanings in the UK and the US, and translation software won’t identify these). A knowledgeable, native team is a must.

Staff sitting at a table

4. Process

Your entire customer journey needs to be mapped for the cross-border shopper, and this goes further than stylising your website to fit the foreign market. Payment, delivery, and returns options also need to not only be considered, but diligently devised.

‘Delivery is an important conversion rate optimisation opportunity’ (Jacobs). Delivery speeds and expectations fluctuate from country to country, but of note is the Benelux region: those customers expect 24-hour delivery (much as we do in the UK), but the relatively small market has meant that merchants haven’t been able to meet those expectations. Delivery is an imperfect science on the continent, and retailers have an immediate opportunity to gain the upper hand in this area.

Payment methods is another significant area which will require research. Our British leaning towards cards isn’t reciprocated elsewhere in the world, and even in Europe, how customers pay varies considerably from country to country: bank transfers, open invoices, and even cash are the dominant methods of payment in other territories. ‘You have to understand the payments which people are using before you establish, or you’re guaranteed a high checkout abandonment’ (Mulcahy).

If the backbone to your operation is firmly intact, then the only issue left to contend with is the tsunamic influx of customers to your website, and that’s where the final step comes in.

5. Technology

There is one question alone to ask yourself at this final stage: ‘Can your current ecommerce platform adequately support your international expansion plans?’ (Jacobs). A website which grinds to a halt under strain is a website which will produce no conversion. If an overhaul is required, then ‘running multiple sites from a single instance is far more efficient than running multiple platforms, multiple catalogues, multiple databases’ (Jacobs).

In essence, should the previous four steps have been undertaken, the engine driving your brand needs to be powerful enough to reflect the probably surge in interest which your research has pointed towards.

And once that’s been seen to, it’s time to set sail.

Data on a screen

A Shout from the Pier

‘Going international presents a literal world of opportunities’ (Jacobs), and it’s up to you to grasp as many (or few) of these as your brand can stretch to.

Just remember that ‘you’ll need to replicate your expansion process in every market’ (Mulcahy); ‘each country should be treated as a sub-project’ (Jacobs). You need to find the niche which your brand can slot into; the reason customers will turn to you instead of their domestic outlets. Perhaps a ‘Made in Britain’ label wouldn’t go amiss in markets where shoppers are receptive to such things.

But on the whole, exhaustive research and a healthy dose of ambition is all it takes to step out into the world. To those inspired to do so: happy travels!

Listen to the full webinar here: International eCommerce: Make your Brand a Global Success

For more from both Elliott Jacobs and Andy Mulcahy, be sure to follow them on LinkedIn.

Will Gillingham, Content Executive, IMRG

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