This article was written by Kayleigh Alexandra from Microstartups.org
Ecommerce is almost-infinitely scalable, which is one of the many reasons why it’s so consistently appealing to modern entrepreneurs. You can start with the most basic storefront, build a brand, expand your range, and start moving into new markets without fundamentally altering your approach or needing to radically overhaul your operation — at least, in principle.
In practice, though, it’s far from easy to start selling internationally (typically to European buyers, but potentially to other parts of the world as well). It’s sadly not as simple as marketing your website in other countries, taking orders, putting items in a box, slapping on a label, and dropping it off at a depot — you need to be fully prepared.
So if you want to move in that direction, how can you overcome this particular challenge? What do you need to do to boost your chance of succeeding? Let’s go through it:
Research the markets you’re targeting
Entering a market you don’t understand is a fast way to take a major financial hit. It doesn’t matter how successful you’ve been so far, because every country has distinct cultural and linguistic elements, established businesses, and plenty of unique factors (including climate, architecture, and disposable income level) that can hamper your efforts.
That’s why you must carefully — painstakingly — research every fresh market you want to enter. Review comparable companies and products with influence there. Carry out keyword research. Learn about the local language, and to what extent it will affect your ability to showcase your products (is English a second language there, or will you need translations?).
Even the smallest cultural blunder (regardless of intent) can prove disastrous and earn you a lot of negative publicity. To give you an example of the level of detail you should ultimately achieve, I suggest taking a close look at this guide to entering the French market. Ecommerce doesn’t require you to set up an office where you’re selling, but you do need to be aware of tax issues.
Estimate the profit margins you’ll achieve
Ecommerce often has thin margins as it is, and when you factor in the cost of overseas shipping (once lessened somewhat to make the pricing viable for consumers), you’ll find it even harder to come away with a significant profit. To improve your chances, take the time to run through a clear and pragmatic estimate of your potential profit margins.
You’ll find this list of export pricing factors quite useful, but be mindful to take the costs specific to ecommerce into account as well. For instance, which aspects of your operation will you handle manually, and which parts will you trust to automation? If you have just one site live and ranking in various locations and/or languages, it’ll be imperative that it stays up while receiving traffic from several countries, meaning you’ll need excellent hosting.
And if you have several different versions of your site to cater to the different markets, you’ll need to put a lot of work into keeping the quality high (particularly when it comes to translations, since a slight mistranslation can lead to a product being completely misinterpreted). If you’ll be doing it yourself, consider the value of your time. Before you proceed, make sure you’re confident that the expansion will actually benefit you in the long run.
Ensure that your ecommerce CMS is suitable
Your ecommerce CMS (or content management system) is the foundation of your store. It determines how you can update the content, how stable and smooth the site’s performance is, and what features and functions you can use (or provide to your customers). It also hugely affects your chances of turning your store into a flourishing international operation.
If you already have a store, then do some investigating and read about what it can offer you for international expansion. Some selling platforms have native options for providing translated interfaces, but automated translation tends to be questionable. And while it’s easy to build a second store no matter which platform you use, you likely won’t want that — you’ll want (if anything) variations on your current store, which is a rarer option.
In truth, if you want to keep one store running as a flexible cross-market option, you may need to move to the more expensive enterprise level. Depending on your platform, you may be able to do just that without moving altogether: a user of one of Shopify’s basic tiers, for instance, can upgrade to a global ecommerce solution without losing any data, gaining various export-friendly options as well as access to an international partner network. Drupal is another CMS that’s popular due to its robust mutability when it comes to global trading — but you will need to find a suitable developer!
Get some in-depth expert advice
Once you have detailed market research and some idea of profitability under your belt, and you’ve confirmed that your CMS is export-viable (or moved to a more suitable system), you might want to get started — but don’t jump the gun. So much goes into exporting internationally that you oughtn’t simply assume that you have everything you need.
Really, the best thing you can do is seek out some expert advice on the intricacies of the process. Run through everything you’ve done to that point — all the information you’ve collected, and all the necessities you’ve ticked off — and see what they make of your plan.
You’ll no doubt discover that there are various things you overlooked, but that’s alright. No one begins as an expert, and plenty of ecommerce sellers avoid international sales altogether because it’s quite intimidating in prospect. Just lean on those who’ve been there and done it all before, learn as much as you can, and see how far you can take it. Good luck.