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How today’s merchants are mastering cross-border ecommerce

Updated: Aug 15, 2018

Originally posted on

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What if the best opportunities for digital merchants to win sales were far beyond the realms of their own backyards?

Although the rise of cross-border ecommerce isn’t breaking news, the rate at which consumers are going global in pursuit of products is staggering.

Sure, given the rapid rise of ecommerce giants such as Amazon and Alibaba, it’s no secret that the public is more comfortable than ever with the concept of shopping online.

But as noted by data from Pitney Bowes, the majority of e-shoppers aren’t letting borders stop them from scoring a deal. In fact, 70 percent of consumers already make at least one international purchase each year.

And according to DHL’s report The 21st Century Spice Trade, that trend only looks to tick upward. Cross-border ecommerce is predicted to grow at double the rate of domestic ecommerce.

The reason behind this sudden growth? Consumers are citing better offers, terms, and product availability as their top motivations for looking beyond domestic merchants.

📷Credit: dhl

The writing is on the wall for merchants of all shapes and sizes. Global ecommerce is becoming less of an exception to the rule and more of an expectation.

Tackling the challenges of going global

Of course, selling across borders comes with its own set of challenges. These hurdles often keep would-be global ecommerce success stories from achieving rapid growth.

Beyond trust issues regarding foreign merchants, three common challenges and plague storefronts taking their wares overseas:

  • The language barrier. Browser-based translators can be clunky at best. Meanwhile, the time and resources necessary to translate a site and storefront into multiple languages can be a major headache.

  • Currency concerns. In addition to the ability to accept a particular foreign currency, there’s also the issue of unexpected shipping costs. Yes, the very same phenomenon that accounts for over a quarter of all cases of shopping cart abandonment.

  • Poorly targeted marketing. Just look at the reason why so many businesses fail in Asia as a shining example of why one-size-fits-all marketing messages don’t work to win sales. Localization demands nuance.

And the importance of that marketing piece can’t be overstated, as noted by Emil Stickland of Thrive Digital.

“It is important that your branding is in line with your market, as well as staying true to your brand message,” Stickland recently wrote. “Many companies keep a consistent look and feel across all international sites.”

📷Credit: amazon

Stickland further notes that giants such as Amazon are prime examples of consistent marketing, publishing a site that looks similar in the UK as it does in the US. Meanwhile, changes in marketing might be necessary for Asia or Africa. This is illustrated by the likes of TaoBao and AliExpress, both owned by Alibaba but targeting the Chinese and US markets, respectively.

But this point about marketing also clues us in on exactly how merchants can overcome these same challenges.

That is, planning out which territories they want to tackle first. Once you know where you want to sell, incrementally fine-tuning your storefront and marketing accordingly becomes exponentially easier.

How to make cross-border ecommerce work

Over-expansion is the not-so-silent killer of so many businesses, and the same rules apply to ecommerce merchants looking to go global. Effective expansion requires both an understanding of local laws and whether or not distribution is realistic in a new region.

Take the challenge of tackling shipping costs, for example.

Shipping remains one of the most overlooked aspects of overseas expansion, serving as a thorn in the side of many merchants. But Shep Hyken of Shephard Presentations asserts that shipping challenges can be toppled simply by examining the presences of other successful merchants in the region.

“The opportunities are there for the retailer who figures it out,” Hyken recently proclaimed. “Just study what other retailers have done and you’ll start to get the blueprint you need to expand internationally.”

The takeaway? You can’t just blindly jump into territories that aren’t buying, nor should you focus on countries that haven’t warmed up to cross-border ecommerce in the first place. You need to know what works for your particular niche and other successful merchants in that region as well.

For example, consider territories such as China, Singapore, Australia, and Canada, which are noted as being home to the most eager international buyers. Unless you have interest elsewhere based on your internal data, these should be the areas of interest for the bulk of budding merchants out there.

In short, figuring out whether or not you’ll succeed in a particular territory boils down to planning.

Coming up with a cross-border plan

Start by looking at your own numbers. Where are your international visitors coming from, for example? Does that data overlap with any of the territories that are already embracing cross-border buying? If not, is that traffic significant enough to consider expansion regardless?

Once you have some territories in mind, merchants are tasked with doing their homework. Some key points to consider when researching a new territory include:

  • Understanding whether competing brands in that region are selling their wares via third-party platforms like Amazon, Alibaba, TMall, or eBay

  • Soliciting feedback from flesh-and-blood people from that region, which can be done in the form of surveys or, ideally, an in-person visit to your market of interest

  • Communicating with other merchants or relevant agencies who’ve succeeded in the area

And regarding the last point, you’d do well to take note of which currencies, marketing messages, and language solutions are currently driving the most success.

Merchants also have more flexibility than ever when it comes to flipping the switch on their storefronts for foreign shoppers. Better ecommerce platforms allow merchants to create territory-specific versions of their sites, allowing you to localize the language, currency and shipping solutions for international buyers. The end result is a storefront that’s tailored to local shoppers without as much technical legwork.

Overseas expansion doesn’t have to be a pipe dream

The ability to switch on a storefront to address currency, language, and shipping concerns is a game-changer for merchants on the fence about expansion. This simply leaves the task of researching territories and marketing to them accordingly.

Global ecommerce represents a major window of opportunity for merchants out there willing to take the leap. Given the resources and tools available, doing so is arguably easier than ever.


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