Ten top tips on internationalising your e-commerce operations

1. Start slow – if you can!

There’s a steep learning curve to selling internationally. If you are not already trading across borders then try to expand slowly, starting with just a few products to one country then scaling up gradually. That way you can learn the ropes at a manageable rate.

If you are one of the many who get into international trade accidentally – the orders just start coming in – consider scaling back, or at least avoid expanding further, until you feel comfortable with everything you need to know and do.

2. Get your priorities right – face the early challenges

There’s huge potential with international ecommerce, and it’s easy to get carried away with the tide and muddle through fulfilling orders without really addressing the difficulties. Those early problems can come back and bite you later!

So grasp the nettle early on. What are the first problems you see emerging? Perhaps the first customer return is tortuous – that might be a sign of things to come. Or a few buyers get confused about customs duty – is there something you can do to help educate them? Give these problems some thought when they are small, and they might never get any bigger.

3 & 4 Centralise your inventory management AND Use marketplace management tools to expand

Most ecommerce SMEs have a multichannel approach, selling on multiple marketplaces and their own websites. That’s already complicated, and selling internationally multiplies the complexity further.

So a single inventory management system is a must-have for multichannel, multinational selling – not something to avoid due to the cost, or effort of learning how to use it! A good system not only helps avoid risks such as overselling stock, but also makes it much easier to expand to new channels. A single item in inventory can be relatively easily pushed out to many channels and countries.

Some of the best known solutions in the UK are eSellerPro, ChannelAdvisor and Linnworks, but there are many to choose from. The selection process itself takes a significant investment of time and should be taken slowly. A full listing of the available tools, with reviews, can be seen at http://www.webretailer.com/categories/marketplace-management.asp?category=13#profiles

5. Look outside Amazon and eBay

In the UK, Amazon and eBay are hugely dominant. That’s not the case everywhere in the world, and you may find good opportunities elsewhere – instead of, or in addition to, those big marketplaces.

For example, TradeMe is the dominant marketplace in New Zealand, and Allegro is the top site for selling in Poland. Alibaba rules the roost in China. Depending on the products you sell, those countries and marketplaces could be very lucrative for you.

It’s also worth thinking about niche marketplaces that cover specific product types. The largest of those is Etsy, specialising in handmade goods, but there are many others, particularly in the US. The good niche marketplaces have a very loyal and active community of buyers, even though their number will be much lower than eBay or Amazon. It might be difficult to find software support for the niche sites but if the opportunity is big enough getting your own integration developed is a possibility.

6. Research carriers and fulfilment

Processing international orders is not the same as processing domestic orders. There are different shipping options, customs paperwork, prohibited items, VAT considerations and more.

Do your initial research and map out a process to follow, even if it’s just a temporary one that keeps orders moving while you research further and gain experience.

Outsourcing fulfillment is also an option. It’s an additional cost for each order, but savings can come from lower staffing and storage needs – stock needs space, and processing orders is labour-intensive. If someone else operating at a larger scale does it for you, you can benefit from their greater efficiency. The best known provider is Amazon FBA, but there are many others. There’s a selection here http://www.webretailer.com/categories/shipping-fulfillment.asp?category=181#profiles

7. Think about returns logistics and refunds

Handling returns can be a fraught process for buyer and seller alike. A bad returns experience will turn off a buyer forever, and potentially cause wider damage from bad reviews, negative feedback, or chat on social media.

But it can also be an opportunity to show off your customer service, and that’s the kind of thing that today’s ecommerce customer remembers and – sometimes – raves about. The perceived failure of receiving a return can potentially be turned right around into a success, and win a loyal customer who will also recommend you to others.

Internationally, the return logistics are even more of a challenge. Consider how you can handle international returns while keeping the customer on your side. If your items are low-value, for example, you might decide to refund before the buyer returns the item, or even allow them to keep it. The customer will be happier, and you avoid the time and expense or processing the return.

8. Consider customer service – automate or outsource?

International customer service might need to handle different languages, timezones and expectations.

If you can’t provide native-language customer service in the buyer’s own timezone, you might want to consider outsourcing customer service altogether. You can use a third-party provider such as Genie & the Geek or 2ndOffice for that, and also look into software such as ReplyManager which sends intelligent automatic replies to keep the customer informed until you follow up with a manual response.

9. Be prepared for mistrust and protect your reputation

International customers can have different expectations to domestic ones. They might be used to a different speed and quality of service when they buy domestically, and sometimes don’t even realise they have placed an international order!

There can also be an element of nervousness and mistrust. A small delay in replying to a customer service email, error in parcel tracking or delivery hiccup can make buyers panic and assume that they are a victim of a long-distance rip-off. Go the extra mile to give the buyer confidence before and during the purchase, and throughout delivery – whenever possible.

My own research shows positive feedback for international eBay sellers is consistently lower, albeit only slightly (http://www.webretailer.com/lean-commerce/ebay-sellers-cross-border-trade/). Don’t be disappointed if your overall reputation is not as polished as you are used to with domestic buyers. Manage any negative marketplace feedback actively, to stay well clear of any penalties.

10. Be pragmatic about getting outside help

International selling is not just a matter of scaling-up domestic ecommerce. There are new challenges in many areas including legal compliance, shipping, customer service, languages, software and more.

There are sources for research and advice, such as Open to Export and my own website, but don’t rule out paying for a consultant who can help find the right answers for you a lot more quickly. You can also consider outsourcing parts of your operations such as fulfillment or customer service.

The opportunity is huge, but there are others who have walked the path before you. Getting help in areas where you wouldn’t previously have considered it could mean taking advantage of the potential, and reaping the rewards, a lot more quickly.

Learn more about international e-commerce by watching Open to Export’s free webinar series below, or visiting their feature page:

Webinar 1 of 3 | Going international via online marketplaces


Webinar 2 of 3 | Taking your website & digital marketing global


Webinar 3 of 3 | Top ten tips for internationalising your e-commerce operations


Export Action Plan