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Ecommerce Growth

International eCommerce Expansion: 15 Commonly-missed Action Items

eCommerce businesses will eventually need to expand beyond home ground. Here's a list of commonly missed considerations to make the first step possible.

International eCommerce Expansion: 15 Commonly-missed Action Items

It’s now a well-known fact that Covid-19 set in motion a burgeoning movement for global eCommerce. 

According to Morgan Stanley, the global market has the potential to grow up to $5.4 trillion by 2026. 

It’s undeniably a heartening picture. However, it’s also riddled with increasing complexity. 

Competition is continuously on the rise and technology is evolving at high speed. Combined with laws and regulations and heightened need for marketing strategy, global expansion will get more challenging. 

However, businesses will need to expand elsewhere as they reach their full potential on the home ground. 

So we decided to create a list of global eCommerce expansion action items that may be easily overlooked in the pursuit of more important to-dos.  

1. Target high-potential growth regions in the beginning 

It’s tempting to hit as many regions as possible at one go, when you’re attempting global expansion. 

However, this could be problematic for a number of reasons including not finding the right market fit, making misjudgments about your target audience etc. 

This is why figuring out the markets that would be most aligned with selling the products you’ve got to offer is vital. 

When it comes to high-growth regions, China, US and UK followed by some parts of the APAC region have been seeing a lot of eCommerce mileage. 

But according to Statista, multiple countries in Asia showed the highest growth in eCommerce sales in 2022.  

Given the varying forecasts, it may be necessary for you to leave generalizations aside and target high-potential growth regions based on the following:

  • Which countries/ regions show high potential for growth in your category/segment while also needing relatively less paperwork to start off?
  • What are your specific reasons for picking a specific region to grow in? (For example, if an eCommerce business is planning to expand to China, their reasons may be that the country has more than 800 million internet users and that their Government has incorporated policies for eCommerce in their 5-year plans)
  • What products are you offering, and how do they align with the regions in your list? (Look at customer behavior and preferences such as digital adoption, cultural leanings etc. to draw conclusions.)
  • What do the demographics in the regions you’re planning to expand say about consumer behavior there? (For example, do most people belong to the working class and would rather opt for products that are of great quality but priced nominally?)
  • Are you working with a fulfillment/logistics partner in certain regions, and would testing based on their working insights be more helpful?
  • Are you already operating certain non-transactional sites for certain regions, using which you could gather data on user behavior and trends?
  • How common are omnichannel experiences in the specific regions you’re considering expanding to? (Omnichannel experience considerations are typically more prevalent in regions that have already undergone a significant market transformation.)
Test and optimize thoroughly if you’re planning to build targeted websites for each region. This will offer more data on how to proceed on next steps. 
international ecommerce expansion convertcart

2. Customize big picture brand strategy for each region

The numbers are here to prove that cross-border eCommerce is on a steady rise. 

According to Statista, whereas 2015 showed a 15% cross-border eCommerce share, in 2022, it seems to have risen to 22%. 

The numbers indicate one thing clearly - for eCommerce expansion, you’ll need a sturdy cross-border strategy. 

Here are some pointers you’ll need to remember while tweaking your brand strategy for each new region:

  • DO NOT assume the ramp-up period will be the same as it took in your local region 
  • DO NOT hope to maintain the same price across all the regions you decide to move into 
  • DO NOT think the same messaging across digital channels will serve all the regions equally well

An important thing to remember while creating a cross-border eCommerce strategy is that prices, laws, regulations, cultural tastes andbuying behavior would differ across regions. 

So what you’ll essentially need is a larger blueprint of a brand-based strategy backed by versions for each region informed by trends revealed by data, cultural

insights, eCommerce adoption and how the category is doing in that region (based on what competitor data throws up). 

While incorporating the elements for a larger brand-based cross border strategy, here are a few considerations that can help:

  • Why should buyers choose your brand and product instead of your local competition there when you cross over?
  • Is your product generally more suited to a dynamic market? (typically a dynamic market is where innovation is high, and customers are willing to experiment with their buying choices)
  • How would you differentiate your brand and product(s)? 
  • How would you sum up your branding and create a backbone for it while working with cultural translators from different regions?

Once your larger brand strategy is in place, you may want to narrow down to a specific and actionable strategy for each region.

Make sure to find the answers to the following when you go about that process:

  • What kind of buyer are you trying to target and what is their online spend like?
  • What kind of pricing strategy would work for the category and product you’ve got to offer?
  • How can you tune in to the established business practices of that particular region and make sure your audience trusts your brand?
  • What kind of a local expert would be ideal to build your brand in a particular region?
  • What kind of technological tweaks would you need to make the first steps of expansion possible?
Hire an industry insider from the region you’re trying to expand to, to offer more insights and provide guidance. Alternatively, look at existing collaborators and partners who can potentially take on this role. 

3. Communicate the brand message really well

How well your brand and its products come across to potential cross-border buying audiences, is fundamental to your overall success.

And this is why you will need to put time and work into strengthening your brand personality and consequent messaging.

You may want to equally prioritize the way you bring out the uniqueness of your products. 

Obviously, the limitations in creating a more localized branding strategy are fewer.

In trying to strengthen the way your brand comes across to a cross-border audience you’ll have to look at several factors such as customs, values, preferences and familiarity with your product & category. 

To sharpen the central messaging around your brand, consider how you’ll accomplish the following while entering a new region:

  • How would your brand and products solve customer life problems in a specific region?
  • What is that ONE reason why your audience would emotionally connect to your brand as compared to those by competitors?
  • What of your existing brand promises (eg. excellent customer support, 100% sustainable ingredients) can you leverage there? 
  • What kind of business partnerships can you enter into, to solidify your brand’s presence in a specific cross-border region?
  • How effectively is the USP of different products coming through, across marketing channels? 
  • Would it be a good idea to do a test launch of certain products first before doing a full launch?
Leverage your brand to build communities in foreign markets is often an early key to later success. (Sephora, the beauty brand, has taken this approach consistently across the countries it has launched.)
Looking for a breakthrough in the way you do eCommerce marketing? Read eCommerce marketing strategy: 12 questions founders should ask themselves

4. Know cultural specifics to know your target audience

Cultural habits and patterns may superficially seem only collective in nature.

In reality, they run deep for the individual and often influence how their purchasing behavior is shaped.

This is why for a brand that’s attempting to attract customers across borders, cultural awareness is so significant. 

Here are a few questions to consider as you try aligning your eCommerce business to a region’s culture-driven nuances:

  • How are colors, shapes and symbols used in the market(s) you are aiming to enter?
  • Which eCommerce marketplace does your target audience prefer buying from and why?
  • Would it make sense to hire a local expert to guide your brand on language, habits, culturally driven buying behavior etc.?
  • Are there any buying behavior patterns of your target audience that you need to be specifically aware of? (for example, in the Middle East, using COD is a thing). 
  • What kind of products have not been aligned with the region’s religious and cultural ethics? 
  • What cultural connections can you draw between your product offerings and occasions celebrated in that specific region?

First launch in a particular city within a country and then start spreading out. This will give you time to ramp up based on cultural quirks and gaps. 

international ecommerce target audience convertcart

5. Get a clear view of region-specific challenges

From the way everyday eCommerce business gets done to how deliveries are fulfilled and laws are established, every region has a different set of challenges. 

And when a cross-border business is looking to expand, these challenges can arise unexpectedly.

Unless of course a business prepares for these contingencies.

Let’s take a look at the main areas in which region-specific challenges occur; and questions you may need to consider to negotiate them. 

Language

- Can your current browser-based translator or translation software- in-use support the language of the region you plan to expand to?

- How would you look at translating your business content for new audiences? Would it make sense to start with only the most relevant content and then take a phased approach?

- Would you consider machine translation tools or translation management technology? (the latter combines human translation with automation of non-linguistic aspects)

- Would taking a phased approach to translation be more strategic? (since it’s eCommerce, you may want to translate your transaction-related pages first as well as pages that help establishing trust in the business)

Laws

- What is the nature of privacy legislation in the region(s) you’re intending to move your business into?

- What are the associated laws and regulations around cybercrime in those regions

- What kinds of regulations exist around consumer protection?

- What are the existing laws around electronic commerce? 

- What provisions exist for cross-border eCommerce in trade agreements specific to those regions?

Logistics

- How much control do your shipping partners have over your delivery fulfillment?

- Do you have enough carrier options to compare and come to a decision?

- What kind of delivery method mix would work for a specific region as compared to another? 

- What warehousing options do you have if you don’t want to maintain separate warehouses in the newly expanded locations?

Setting up a trustworthy system of vendors and partners can help you penetrate non-regional markets despite obvious roadblocks. 
international ecommerce expansion challenges convertcart

6. Learn which pricing strategy will work best

Deciding how to price your products in a new region you expand to can be considerably difficult. 

On an external note, you’ll have to keep an eye on cultural idiosyncrasies, compliance issues, currency ups and downs and much more.

For example, Japan has high internet penetration, much of the population is influenced by buying trends and most people also have decent buying power.

However, COVID-19 made it imperative for many brands to go online if they wanted to survive and Japan’s overall eCommerce spending increased. 

The elderly population especially was seen spending a lot more, as was proved by the credit card usage habits of 10 million credit card holders. 

On the internal side, you’ll have to strike an alignment with your own company goals, values, vision and brand positioning

For example, if you’re building up a product that’s not mass-market produced, it’ll be justified for you to price it at a premium. 

It’s likely that every region will demand a different pricing strategy, whether it is penetration pricing, value pricing or psychological pricing.

For example, if you’re expanding to a market that already has some exposure to sustainable products, then it’d make sense to apply value-based pricing to your own sustainable brand. 

No matter which strategy you ultimately employ, here are a few questions to ask while you navigate this tricky subject:

  • What kind of overall costs would you incur as a business if you have to operate in a specific region? (Pay attention to development, production, packaging, distribution, marketing and regulatory taxes)
  • What pricing strategy have competitors in the region taken and why? What does it reflect on people’s buying behavior?
  • What is your target audience willing to pay for products in the category you operate? Would value-adds convince them to pay more? 
  • What about the region’s distinct cultural idiosyncrasies impact on how people perceive product pricing?
  • How many distribution channels would you realistically need in the region? (The more there are, the more expensive it gets)
  • Are there laws or regulations that have a natural bearing on prices going up? 
No matter which strategy you adopt, align your prices across channels. Seeing price variations across channels can create distrust in early potential buyers. 
international ecommerce pricing strategy convertcart

7. Pick acquisition channels smartly

The repeatable steps you take to help your cross-border customers take notice of your brand and products, are vital.

This will decide your bottom line and profits over a period of time.

While customer acquisition is essentially tricky in any market, in a cross-border context, it is even more so. 

The idea is to pick those channels that’ll give quick dividends - you can always expand to other channels as you go along. 

Here are some questions you would want to ask while figuring out your customer acquisition strategy in foreign markets. 

  • Which channels should you immediately target and why? (For obvious reasons, digital acquisition plays a huge role in international eCommerce whether you’re a D2C brand or not. Focus on social media, organic search and display ads.)
  • What kind of customer support should you provide at the touchpoints? (Alongside marketing, you’ll need to ensure you have top-notch customer support solutions. For example, you must mpower your live chat feature with content suggestions, appropriate sections from FAQ as well as helpful human interactions.)
  • How fast should you scale your featured categories to attract customers in new regions? (This would depend on a number of factors including the data you’ve observed from existing players and competitors who launched in those parts newly. Look closely at customer preferences & behavior of the region you’re targeting to see which categories will fly the fastest.)
  • What kind of a role would you have social media play at the onset? (Considering there’s both organic and paid forms of social media, find out what kind of mix would work to create more brand awareness, product awareness and eventually have customers convert.)
While market penetration and customer attention are important aspects to focus on, don’t forget product development and innovation. 
We think you'll find this really relevant: The Founder's Guide to Customer Journey Map (eCommerce)

8. Choose an international eCommerce marketplace to sell on first

While entering an away from homeground region, it can be tempting to do the selling all on your own.

However, it might be challenging to get a foothold with customers - because for all practical purposes, they won’t know about your brand and trust could become an issue even if you do everything right (including marketing). 

One way out is to choose a suitable international eCommerce marketplace to work with, in the regions you’re choosing to expand in.

Even if your long-term plan is to do most of the transactional heavy-lifting through your eCommerce website, first steps with a well-known eCommerce marketplace can be helpful. 

  • How well-known is the marketplace in the category you’re trying to expand in? Or, could there be a competitor that’ll bring you better visibility in the said category?
  • How easy do sellers find it to sell their products on this marketplace? (If there are challenges, what are they and would they be as relevant for your business?)
  • Would the fees charged by the marketplace be feasible alongside other expansion costs?
  • Which marketplaces are your competitors in that region preferring and why?
  • Does the marketplace feature multiple pricing plans for you to test the new ground? (eBay, for example, features a flexible pricing structure, making it easy for various kinds of businesses to survive)
  • Does the marketplace make it more seamless to enter a region that’s otherwise tough to penetrate? 
  • Which marketplace fulfills the delivery expectations of the region you’re considering, the best?
Find a marketplace that highlights your product category and also has a good run with customer loyalty. Look for features like easy setup, customizable listing options and excellent seller services. 
international ecommerce expansion marketplace convertcart

9. Prioritize on creating an experience beyond the website

When International Post Corporation did a survey across 40 countries, they found almost one-third of the respondents had shopped more from international retailers in 2020. 

If that’s not enough, 51% of them also said that they were planning to increase their cross-border purchases in the next few years. 

This is significant in many different ways, and one of them is what a business can offer to their international or cross-border customers. 

At Convertcart, we’ve seen it’s essential for businesses to start creating experiences beyond a great website. 

One way to do this is to start thinking along the lines of omnichannel. 

Here are a bunch of questions that’ll help you foster your CX efforts beyond your eCommerce website. 

  • How robustly can you incorporate AI to boost suggestions and recommendations across channels? 
  • How deeply are you invested in language localization across channels? (Identifying the most common touchpoints and making them accessible in terms of a specific language can be the first step)
  • Can you offer the BOPIS arrangement to cross-border customers if you’ve just opened a physical store in that region?
  • Similarly, how do you plan to handle returns if you allow customers to drop items off at your cross-border stores?
  • How are you planning to use your channels to offer immediate incentives to new international customers? (For example, something like free shipping might not grab attention in a domestic setup, but in an international one would be highly attractive)
  • Do you see value in creating an app that helps your international customers get a better sense of your brand and products? (Shein, for example, began as a Chinese B2C brand but spread out for a global reach eventually. In 2021, Shein app downloads grew by 190 million)
The website is just one piece of the puzzle. Figure out how you can create heightened experiences through emails, offers, returns and brand collaborations. 

10. Introduce precise translations for high visibility content

Familiarity is a big consideration when it comes to cross-border customers relying on a new brand.

And as basic as it may seem, language brings a sense of familiarity instantly. 

No matter how good your brand is and how authentic your product offerings are, potential customers are likely to avoid buying if they don’t find you transacting in their chosen language. 

Here are a few questions you may want to keep in mind while toying with the idea of translations while you expand:

  • If you’re planning to sell through an eCommerce marketplace platform, does it feature the language(s) you’re trying to sell in?
  • What parts of your website should you translate right away and why? (It’s best to focus on high visibility content from the get-go. Think product listings, product pages, descriptions, customer support and FAQ sections etc.)
  • Should you consider a mix of machine-led translation and human translation services? (It’s a good idea to do this because invariably some content is more technical than the rest. What’s more emotion-led is best translated by an effective human translator. You could also consider post-translation edits to be done by a human editor.)
  • What feature would you need to signal to Google that there are various international versions of your main eCommerce website available? (This attribute is called ‘hreflang’. To optimize your international SEO targeting, you’ll need to feature hreflang tags.)
  • As a business owner what can you do to make your international translations more effective? (Make it as accessible for the translator as possible - offer a content style guide, highlight a series of brand terms that will need to be consistently translated etc.)
Pay special attention to site navigation, product descriptions and return/refund policies. A cross-border audience would expect these to be translated into their language. 
international ecommerce content translation convertcart

11. Consider using the MVP approach for new markets

The minimum viable product approach can lessen the impact of challenges on your new business.

By now, the world has seen a number of well-established global brands emerge from first being MVPs (think Amazon, think Groupon). 

When you’re trying to test cross-border markets, this approach can help you derive data, insights and early adopters without the need for a huge budget. Here are some questions to consider:

  • Is your business idea or the products you’re offering really unique? (If you can make do with an eCommerce website like everyone else, you might not need an MVP after all.)
  • What product features would you need to incorporate for set up? (Focus on reliability, usability and UX to give you the answer, which will also depend on the category you’re playing in and the kind of work competitors are doing.)
  • What would tell you the MVP is ready to be launched and marketed? (Ensure your ERP and MVP integrate. Plus, your basic storefront functionalities are in place, which would include guided search, product catalog and reorder capabilities.)
Focus on the prototype phase to test out assumptions and biases before you actually look at launching the MVP. 

12. Create the right kind of incentives that’ll drive sales

Apart from a great brand and great product, eCommerce success in a region away from your home ground depends on incentives. 

The more you incentivize purchases for early adopters, the more they are likely to return for purchases AND talk about your business.

Here are a few aspects to consider while deciding on incentives:

  • Apart from increased sales, what other outcomes are you looking for? (In an international context, sales isn’t the only important context. There are other factors like increased trust that can in fact lead to better sales.)
  • What are the possible incentives you can offer to customers apart from an obvious price advantage? (Apart from free shipping or low cost shipping and discounts, you could incentivize reviews, repeat orders and even referrals.)
  • Which other stakeholders apart from customers are you willing to offer incentives to? (Think about fulfillment partners or local stakeholders who are being instrumental to your business success in new regions.)
Every region’s buying behavior is different. When you align your incentives with a specific buying behavior, sales are bound to move up. For example, if you know your cross-border audience uses social media frequently to shop, you may want to make more of your shoppable posts carry spot discounts across those channels. 
international ecommerce buyer incentives convertcart

13. Bring targeted mobile commerce to the forefront

Mobile commerce is on an unprecedented rise and the numbers are telling.

According to Salecycle, online traffic for global eCommerce on mobile seems to be 2.47 times higher than on desktop. 

Many top brands like Walmart that have a considerable share in eCommerce, are seeing the value of making the mobile experience more enriching. For a brand that’s moving into new regions, the following considerations may be helpful:

  • What can you do to make mobile shopping more attractive in the regions you expand to? (Highlight certain categories based on user behavior and data. Alter checkout services based on user preferences.)
  • Which aspects of your storefront can be immediately improved to make mobile shopping more pleasing? (Focus on specifics like navigation, effectiveness of CTA buttons, landing pages and product pages.)
  • What apart from a mobile storefront can you incorporate to enhance the overall mobile experience? (For example, can you create an app that features some value-add features that mimic an in-store experience?)
Using a content integration tool that looks into analytics, translations and personalization can heighten the global mobile commerce experience. 
Love what you're reading? We think you'll love this too: Science-backed Mobile Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO) Ideas

14. Activate only trusted payment methods for each region

Many eCommerce businesses think a plethora of payment options and methods is what draws customers in.

The reality is that in newer regions where a brand has not been a player so far, potential customers are more interested in knowing you can offer them trusted payment methods. 

Here are some questions to ask while you’re negotiating this topic. 

  • How can you find out what potential customers in the new regions consider as trusted  payment methods? (A combination of market research and IP address recognition data should reveal the answer.)
  • Should you consider offering varied financing options as well? (It’s always a good idea to. Notice which options are preferred especially for products with higher valuation.)
  • What challenges should you set out to resolve immediately? (Anything that may have to do with possibilities of fraud or false declines will need attention. Working with an in-country payment processor can be helpful.)
  • Is there a way to decide on which payment gateway you should use? (One of the simplest ways to decide on a gateway is to see how many countries/regions it already services. Going with a well-known gateway will prevent you from having to make a switch when you expand further.)
Partner with expert payment providers who already have a view of the markets you’re planning to set foot on. 
international ecommerce payment methods convertcart

15. Get an understanding of international post-sales issues

The ideal scenario is where a cross-border shopper decides to convert, receives their product and feels fulfilled with it.

However, just like this isn’t true with every domestic sale, it isn’t the case with many international sales too. 

If you’re deciding to expand your eCommerce business to cross-border locations, asking the following questions on post-sales issues might help. 

  • What are the most typical post-sales issues in international eCommerce? (Lost merchandise, delayed exchanges and customer service glitches are all common.)
  • Can efficient inventory management software resolve some of the return and exchange related problems? (Local warehousing eventually becomes an essential ingredient for better turnaround times.)
  • What can potentially help you handle after-sales issues? (An integrated AI based tool that can address multiple factors such as analytics, automatic returns handling, incident management and customer service can be helpful.)
Focus on providing timely notifications to relay order status, status around exchanges and returns and available customer support options. 
Worried about eCommerce returns? Read Reduce eCommerce Returns with Intelligent UX (+ Smart Handling ideas)
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