5 tips for online retailers to successfully trade cross-border

By Georges Berzgal

If you’ve ever tried rolling out cross-border strategy, you’ll know how complex it can be. It takes the seamless integration of people, processes and technology, and also an in-depth understanding of consumer behaviour, culture and customs at a localised level.

The good news is that shoppers will gladly purchase items outside their own country, as long as the price of both product and shipping is right.

This article reveals some of the lessons from our ‘2017 Global Ecommerce Report’, and offers five ways that online retailers can successfully trade cross-border.

Cross-border trading for online retailers

93% of retailers will offer cross-border shopping by the end of 2018, according to a new study, representing a potential 50% increase in cross-border retailers in just one year.

This is an unprecedented opportunity for online retail companies to accelerate their revenue, but they must take time to understand key insights if they are to avoid pitfalls and deliver a smooth buyer journey for shoppers in new territories.

The cosmopolitan cross-border shopper

Today’s online shoppers are cosmopolitan consumers happy to look overseas for a brand they cannot get at home and to find a good deal, reveals the study, with 70% of consumers now shopping cross-border. Taken country by country, Australia and Hong Kong show the highest propensity for cross-border shopping with both showing 88% of shoppers buying online outside their own markets. This is closely followed by consumers in Canada at 82%, and buyers from India and Mexico both at 79%.

The research tracks elements of buyer behaviour year-on-year, and found the propensity to shop around the world is evolving into a common consumer behaviour. Since last year, there has been a significant leap identified in Asia Pacific markets in particular shopping outside their countries, with India’s cross-border buyer numbers increasing by 30% since last year, China by 20% and South Korea by 15%.

Almost half the retailers surveyed for the report were hesitant when it came to entering new geographies, but growth markets present untapped potential for cross-border online retail. Retailers will benefit from creating a presence in markets showing signs of growth, as well as in already-established online retail markets.

Reasons consumers gave for shopping cross-border include looking for a better price, given as a preference by 50% of shoppers; seeking improved quality, cited by 33%; or because they prefer the greater selection of products, according to 30%.  However, the motivations vary by markets and shoppers in India and China, for example, are especially looking for quality, at 63% and 60% respectively. Australia and Mexico are more likely to shop overseas based on price, at 64% and 62% respectively.

Product preferences

When it comes to the kind of products shoppers consider buying cross-border, clothing is the key category for 52% of shoppers questioned, with 39% citing electronics and 36% looking for books, music and media. However, it pays to know your markets, as these trends differ from country to country: in India, for example, consumers are twice as interested in buying electronic goods overseas as the rest of the world.

Marketplaces fuelling cross-border buying

Online marketplaces are clearly influencing the increase in cross-border purchasing, bringing a world of virtual storefronts to the consumer’s doorstep. Globally, their popularity has overtaken that of retailers’ own websites, with consumers spending most of their cross-border shopping time (62%) on marketplaces for cross-border shopping, as opposed to 38% of their time on retailers’ own websites. Taken by country, shoppers in Japan spend 76% of their cross-border shopping time on marketplaces, followed by China (69%) and India (68%).

Key drivers for shopping cross-border

The study also reveals insight into the factors encouraging buyers to shop online outside their own markets. 37% of respondents said they shop cross-border if the payment methods suit them; 37% do so if offered vouchers or discounts; 36%  if given the opportunity of parcel tracking; and 34% if there is a clear and easy returns process. There were some regional nuances here, with most shoppers in India preferring an easy returns process above all other options for example, but the results are largely reflective of sentiment across all regions. 

Shipping is a differentiator in the customer experience

There are various business practices which companies can adopt to minimise the impact of returns on their ecommerce business, including creating transparent shipping policies; enabling collections and returns across different channels (in-store, for example); and helping shoppers at the point of sale with very clear product information and images.

Providing a simple, seamless returns process is fundamental to delivering a positive customer experience, but this can be complex and costly for retailers to provide, especially when it comes to cross-border purchases.

Platforms and partners can make this easy for retailers through cost-effective logistics, permitting customers to return items easily without undue financial burden for retailers. Returns platforms can provide detailed tracking, customer support and a seamless returns process through emerging platforms and technologies like Amazon Alexa, Facebook Messenger, chatbots and Google Home, as well as established digital channels like email and SMS.

Five steps to cross-border online retail success

Almost half the online shoppers surveyed globally reported frustration with everything from shipping, to returns, to lost products and miscalculated duties and taxes during the 2016 holiday shopping season. What’s worse is that the number of unhappy online holiday shoppers increased year-over-year in every single one of the 12 major markets surveyed.

Shoppers in Asia Pacific – particularly India (73%), Hong Kong (69%) China (64%) and South Korea (58%) – reported the most challenges. Getting your cross-border strategy right is crucial to your business’s reputation, performance and even its future position in the global ecommerce landscape.

Here are five steps to follow, based on consumer feedback in the study, which will position your business to take advantage of the tremendous opportunities offered by cross-border online retail:

  1. Act globally but be aware of local preferences: Research preferences within those markets you want to enter: are certain markets likely to prefer your products to other markets? For example, the study finds that clothing, books, music, media and electronics are the top 3 categories Canadians are most interested in purchasing outside their own markets, whereas shoppers in Australia preferred to buy media outside their own country, with clothing a close second
  2. Marketplaces are key: Go to where your customers are by securing a marketplace presence in addition to your own website: British brands such as ASOS and Waitrose have an online presence on Tmall, which helps to boost their sales in China
  3. Remember that Logistics plays a key part in the user experience: Provide a selection of different shipping options and prices and remember that high shipping costs are a deterrent to cross-border purchasing. The Pitney Bowes study found that three-quarters of consumers prefer free shipping with a longer delivery time, rather than faster delivery at a cost.  Ensure visibility with tracking options, empowering your consumers and delivering an improved customer experience
  4. Localise the payment experience: Research preferred payment options in those markets you want to reach and offer them on your site – consider Alipay for China and SOFORT for Germany, for example. Consider offering E wallet payments if you don’t already: this is the first year in the study in which E wallets are preferred over Credit cards as a means for purchasing cross border.  Offer consumers the ability to pay duties and taxes at the check-out so the experience end-to-end is hassle-free.
  5. Think brand and price:  Although many cross-border sales are driven by brand preference and search for quality, research shows that price is equally important, as are promotions (e.g. free shipping above certain spending thresholds).


Download the 2017 Global Ecommerce Report for insight and opinion from 1,200 retailers across eight countries, and from 12,000 consumers in 12 global markets.

The report offers an in-depth view into current behaviours and trends in global online retail, and is unique in comparing retailers’ and brands’ priorities vs. global customers’ expectations.


By Georges Berzgal, Vice President EMEA, Global Ecommerce, Pitney Bowes

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