How to optimize your e-commerce website for international sales

Ben Steadman

E-commerce businesses face unique challenges when selling products internationally. There are fundamental differences in your offering that you need to consider in different territories such as pricing, currency and available payment options, as well as cultural differences and sensitivities. But even more than that, target audiences across countries and regions behave differently and have different wants and needs, so you must position your USPs differently.

Here are some of the main issues e-commerce retailers face when doing business across borders, as well as strategies for meeting these challenges.

Brand perception and trust

Not surprisingly, customers in a retailer’s home country often have a more positive brand perception and higher level of trust in the business than customers in other countries. So one challenge is convincing cross-border customers that your business is just as reliable and trustworthy as competitors that are located in their home country.

An outdoor brand that’s well-known outside the UK and is the #1 outdoor brand in its home country has much lower brand recognition in the UK, where they are primarily known by expats. They are positioning themselves and promoting their USPs differently in the UK and other international markets in order to compete with better-known outdoor brands in these countries.

Many cosmetics customers look for product validation and safety from a government agency like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US. Testing revealed that many US customers of a UK-based cosmetics retailer were looking for validation from a similar UK government agency before purchasing. However, some of these customers did view the fact that the cosmetics were manufactured in the UK as a trust signal, believing they would have less additives and be of higher quality.

Local languages and spelling

Obviously, your website’s content must be translated into the languages commonly used in countries where you want to do business. This includes your homepage, product description pages, FAQs and checkout basket.

You must also tweak the spelling of certain words, especially for US and UK audiences (e.g., behaviour vs. behavior, customise vs. customize). Anything that makes it appear that you haven’t considered the territory you are selling to can deligitimise your offering and damage trust and assurance for a potential buyer.

Shipping, returns and taxes

You should offer shipping and delivery options that are tailored to each region, considering factors such as delivery timeframes, shipping costs and local carriers. Clearly communicate your shipping, delivery and return policies to customers in different regions, as well as any international tax considerations.

A UK jeweler faced challenges in selling to US customers who were concerned about long shipping times and their ability to return items they didn’t want. Any unanswered questions about where a delivery is coming from (and where it might have to go back to) can create doubt and hesitation before a purchase is complete. This can be true especially if people are worried that they aren’t even seeing the final cost to them due to import taxes, VAT, etc.).

Even as a retailer based in the UK, you don’t have to look to far afield to see this in action. We saw this first-hand with a UK-based online golf equipment retailer with stores and strong brand awareness in Northern Ireland. Their customers who lived in Northern Ireland would only buy if they could use click and collect due to courier restrictions between the UK and Northern Ireland. If they wanted the item delivered to their home, they wouldn’t even consider this retailer as an option.

Currency and pricing

Prices should be displayed in the local currency and competitive in local markets. Don’t force customers to worry about currency exchange in order to make a purchase. Not localizing prices forces customers to think and work it out for themselves, which eats away at the time and energy they have to complete the task at hand. Consider factors like purchasing power and local economic conditions when setting prices in different countries and regions.

Payment methods and finance providers

Determine the most popular payment methods in each region and make sure your website supports them so you can provide a seamless checkout experience. These include credit and debit cards, digital wallets, and alternative methods such as WeChat.

A UK-based online cosmetics retailer thought that Chinese students living in the UK would want to use WeChat as a payment option so they included this on their website. But they discovered that these students actually wanted to make purchases using British pounds because they had plenty of British currency in their bank accounts since this is a requirement for obtaining a UK student visa.

After testing USP bars, a UK-based online clothing retailer found success when they localised their USP messaging to emphasize the most popular finance provider in different regions. In the UK this was Clearpay but on Dutch and Belgian websites it was Klarna.

In some regions such as the UK, we also see that showing payment provider icons helps build trust. But in other regions, it makes no difference. We have seen this first-hand recently in the Jewelry industry.

Regulations and compliance

It’s important to understand and comply with local laws and regulations related to e-commerce. These include data privacy, consumer protection and taxation laws. For example, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) covers information privacy in the EU and the European Economic Area, but not in other parts of the world, where different regulations may cover data privacy.

And some states in the US require certain product disclosures, such as the California AB 1200 Disclosures required by the California Safer Food Packaging and Cookware Act.

Website and product features

Some website features are more popular in certain countries and regions than others. A manufacturer of outdoor cooking equipment learned that customers in the US are more likely than UK customers to use the store locator feature. Through moderated user interviews we understood this to be because they want to visit retail stores and actually see the product for themselves.

US customers also told us that they typically have large outdoor spaces at home so they want to see how the product will fit in their outdoor setups and compare it to different solutions.. Meanwhile, climate conditions also became an important factor as portability tended to be a more important feature to UK customer due to unpredictable weather. Highlighting this as a feature to UK customers yielded more success than highlighting it to US customers.

Influencer power

Many e-commerce brands use influencers, such as entertainers and other celebrities, on their websites as a form of social proof. But popular influencers in one country may not be so well-recognized in other regions. For example, a UK jewelry retailer uses a British TV personality and singer as an influencer for their brand. This celebrity is well-known in the UK but not in the US, where her social influence is much less.

Market research is key

Every market will have a different competitive landscape so you must analyze regional competitors to know how to position your USPs against them. Then be sure to view your results as a whole, as well as by specific regions, so you can keep iterating to get everything right.

There aren’t any easy short cuts to optimising your e-commerce website for international sales. You must get your fundamentals right for the market and then use research to understand who your audience is and how their online behaviour, preferences and brand perceptions are both different and the same. Then tailor your site experience to best meet their needs.

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