Achieve World Domination: Develop Your Cross-Border E-Commerce Strategy


There are many opportunities for online retailers in the connected age.  The whole world can browse your catalogue at the click of a button.  If you can take a payment and fulfill the order, then you can reach a truly global audience.  And yet, developing a strategy to sell effectively into different international marketplaces requires planning and thought.

The bad news is, there is no silver-bullet.  But do not despair!  You can draw on a wealth of experience, to help you find the path to success.

The reason many brands find international expansion attractive is that new markets present an avenue for significant growth.  For UK companies, markets like the USA (over 190 million) and China (over 400 million) offer massive opportunities to increase their customer base.  Testing online helps establish demand and market maturity before making a bigger commitment, such as opening physical stores.  For many brands, online has become the proving ground before launching a more integrated multi-channel strategy.

When operating in new markets, predicting customer expectations can prove even more challenging than usual.  For example: around 75% of online transactions in the UK are via credit or debit card, in Germany this figure is closer to 25%, while bank transfer and cash on delivery remain popular.

Potential customers will only complete a purchase if they are comfortable with the overall shopping experience.  As a new, yet to be discovered brand it can be difficult to build trust if you are not presenting a familiar format.

Before You Get Started

The first thing you have to understand is where you fit within the market.  Do you have a viable proposition, which means someone in a different country will pick your product ahead of the market leader?  If you have existing data that backs this up, that’s a great place to start.  A review of your current website analytics might include visitors from other countries.  One way of testing how successful you could be is by using a marketplace (think eBay or Amazon).  This allows you to enter a new market without a significant investment or potentially risking your brand name.  While margins are often sacrificed, it is a great way of exploring unchartered territories.

Golden Rule 1 – Employ Natives

Working with native speakers, expatriates or migrants will give you valuable insight in many areas vital to your strategy.  There is the initial problem of translation.  While there are many professional services available, having a native speaker on hand to validate the accuracy is prudent.  Aside from language and grammar differences, you must also consider the social angle. Local customs are hard to research if you don’t know what you are looking for.  For example, the British idea of “bonfire night” (a typically wet, cold evening in November) is a very different from a summer gathering, on the beach in California (picture a driftwood pyre and scantily clad twenty-somethings, playing guitars).

A native can help you navigate the potential minefield where an automated translation service could fail.  They will also provide an understanding of how your potential customers want to shop and can be a great first step to providing local language customer service.  Nothing makes someone feel safer (and likely to make a repeat purchase) than a familiar tone of voice at the end of the telephone or email.

Golden Rule 2 – Work With Partners

Believe it or not, you are not the first person who has come up with the idea to sell into another country.  There is a multitude of local partners who will be on hand to offer outsourced services to help along the way.  This is a great way to solve some common challenges – in-country distribution or warehousing spring to mind.  Developing a relationship with a service provider is an excellent way to learn.  When you achieve scale and your own solution becomes more cost effective, you can take the service back in-house.  A partnership does not have to be forever.  Learning from experts who already know the market can be priceless.

Selecting the right partner can make or break your cross-border e-commerce strategy. Getting a feel for whom you are working with, and their fit to your business is important.  Visiting their operation is a must.  You cannot beat a face-to-face meeting, with a chance to witness the operations and understand how a working relationship would develop.  Customer testimonials will validate your choice – hence, be sure you speak to as many incumbent customers as you can.  Online search is a poor man’s research tool and will rarely tell the whole story.

Golden Rule 3 – Measure, Compare, And Improve

The third rule for cross-border e-commerce success is equally relevant for any online or digital project.  It is often overlooked, yet so important, that it is worth including in this list.  Using data to measure what your customers are doing, testing the performance of page load times and mapping the online experience should be at the heart of all you do.

Start by measuring performance.  Page load time is directly proportional to conversion – those who advance from browser to buyer.  Slow websites are the first barrier to purchase that you have to eliminate.  This becomes a little more complicated when you are selling into a new geography, because you need to measure the customer experience from that location.  The good news is there are plenty of technology solutions to help measure performance accurately.

A/B split testing should also be high on your list of priorities.  The ability to perform tests and select the most desirable outcome, enables you to make the right decision every time.  With data as your weapon, you no longer need to rely on opinion.  With every change, you can be sure that you did it for an informed reason, and that you can measure the results to prove your investment.  Do not be afraid to roll back if the original out-performs the change.

The Customer Is STILL Always Right

No matter where your journey takes you, one thing remains constant.  You need to deliver a customer-centric solution.  Taking a step back and putting yourself in the customer’s shoes has never been more critical, because, in this case, they are probably wearing a different type of shoe than you would usually be used to.  Take website design in the Far East and the Western world, for example.  We are used to uncluttered, minimal design, and plenty of white space.  If you take a look at some of China’s most popular e-commerce sites (Taobab.com, for example), the layout is very different.  To a European, it looks untidy and busy with a huge range of products displayed on the main page.  For that audience, it works and it is what they expect.

In the initial phases of your international project, be prepared to forget a lot of what you know or assume. Be ready to discard the rules you have followed so far and learn again.  Some decisions may seem to contradict what you thought you knew, but that is okay.  Remember, you are a pioneer, heading out on a journey to conquer unknown lands beyond the horizon.