How to Optimize Your International Ecommerce Customer Experience

By Jon MacDonald
11 minute read | Last Updated: June 28, 2016

The question is not if you should make your store visible to shoppers in other countries. Rather, it is whether or not you want to make it easy for them to buy from you.

On November 11, 2015, one of the world’s largest international ecommerce companies, Alibaba, recorded $14.3 billion in online sales. That’s not the annual revenue, mind you, but the total for just one day – a Chinese celebration known as “Singles Day.”

The first billion was generated in eight minutes.

Have you yet established an international presence for your company? In a way, that’s a trick question – because any business with a website is already displaying their goods and services globally. Your site’s homepage can be viewed by a shopper in Paris as easily as it can by someone in Portland.

The primary question is not one of whether you should make your store visible to shoppers in other countries. Rather, your decisions affect how you choose to present yourself to foreign visitors and whether or not you want to make it easy for them to buy from you.

Let’s look at three primary considerations any company considering international ecommerce activity must address.

Screenshot from the Alibaba.com homepage - International Ecommerce

Screenshot from the Alibaba.com homepage

International Ecommerce: Logistics as Customer Experience (CX)

Chances are good that you’re already receiving international traffic to your website, and that some of that traffic consists of potential customers. Once you’ve determined you want to actively pursue orders from abroad, you’ll need to consider certain barriers: language differences, payment methods, shipping logistics, and such.

Decide how to present an international ecommerce website presence

Your first critical decision is concerned with how to present the products you want to sell. You have three primary choices:

  • You can use your current .com domain and create subdomains for each country or common-language region (Example: italy.myproduct.com)
  • You can use your current .com domain, use folders to house country or region-specific webpages (Example: myproduct.com/italy/)
  • You can create a separate website on a country-level domain (Example: myproduct.it)

While this is primarily a technical decision, remember to keep customer experience (CX) as a primary factor in your decision. Visitors should feel comfortable and safe on your website. Shopping with you should be easy and enjoyable.

Utilize localized third-party sites to test the waters

To participate in China’s multibillion-dollar Singles Days sale, many brands simply offered their products via Alibaba. Why fight the giant when you don’t have to?

Selling by way of an already localized third-party site can be an excellent way to get your feet wet in international ecommerce marketing. There’s much to learn, and the associated risks aren’t nearly as great.

You can use someone else’s website to test the waters and get a feeling for how much demand there is for your products within the region that site serves. And the third-party sites will often have most of the logistics, such as shipping, worked out for you.

Consider the CX of international ecommerce shipping

Shipping costs are one of the primary barriers to international ecommerce.

Time to delivery and landed price are crucial factors every customer will consider when it’s time to check out. Failing to properly address the effect of shipping on total price is a common contributing factor to shopping cart abandonment.

Failing to address the effect of shipping on total price contributes to shopping cart abandonment. Click To Tweet

You’ll want to get advice and bids from shippers that serve the regions you want to service. The variables are many – product type, weight, dimensions, and durability, for instance. Perhaps you will want to ship in bulk to a fulfillment facility in-country.

Do the legwork for the customer; make the process smooth and easy to understand. At checkout time, there should be no surprises or lurking questions. Just make sure the information you collect is sufficient for the localized address.

To make a real splash online, offer free international shipping, or even a flat rate. That will lower your margin and/or push your listed prices up, but customers will appreciate that you’ve considered how they will get your products, and they aren’t left to figure that out on their own.

You won’t be able to accurately predict profit and break-even volume until you’ve accounted for every factor involved in fulfillment. Here are two helpful websites:

  • The UPS TradeAbility International Tools page is an excellent resource for getting started with landed cost estimates as well as the licensing and regulation requirements you will need to consider.
  • The Pitney Bowes Global Trade Solutions website provides information on import duty and taxes. Accurate costing data is essential to arriving at your estimated ROI.

Enlisting the help of an established seller can get your goods to market quickly and provide an excellent mentoring/learning situation in the process.

Pitney Bowes offers a turnkey approach to global ecommerce via their Borderfree Retail solution. CDS Global is another provider of international ecommerce services. And, of course, don’t overlook the potential of sites like Alibaba and Amazon as entry-level options.

A screenshot from Pitney Bowes’ Borderfree page - International Ecommerce

A screenshot from Pitney Bowes’ Borderfree page

Consider the payment methods you will accept

As with shipping, don’t put this burden on the customer. Once you’ve identified the countries you want to target, find out which methods of payment are most popular there. Not only do many of your potential customers not speak English, many of them don’t like using a credit card for payment either.

Your online presence should always be geared towards one person: the customer. Make sure visitors are able to choose the currency they want to use and the payment method they most trust.

Your online presence should always be geared towards one person: the customer. Click To Tweet

In France, for instance, Carte Blue debit cards are preferred. The Netherlands likes iDEAL. Finland, Sweden, and Germany prefer bank transfers. Japanese consumers are okay with credit cards, but many prefer using Konbinis. Alipay is the go-to method for Chinese buyers.

To optimize your international ecommerce sales, know the customer’s preference and offer it.

To optimize your international ecommerce sales, know the customer’s preference and offer it. Click To Tweet

Offering the best international ecommerce CX

Take care of the “big rocks” first. Make the overarching decisions that will affect many smaller decisions.

  • Determine the type of online presence you will use
  • Get a firm grip on the total (landed) shipping expenses
  • Find out which payment methods are most popular with the customer segments you will market to and get registered to use them

At The Good, we often find that clients want to agonize over the finer and more technical points – how to deal with translations, whether or not to place a country flag on the site, whether to use a drop-down box or tabs for country selection, and such – before making those initial choices.

A top-down approach to planning helps ensure you don’t waste time worrying about things of little or no final significance.

Here’s an example: You can put considerable thought and debate into how the visitor will choose which translation he or she prefers. Depending on the type of website presence you select, though, it may be possible to simply have the visitor automatically redirected to the appropriate page. In that case, the selection tool issue becomes a moot point.

International Ecommerce: Localization and Cultural Considerations

The issues we have been speaking of are often treated under the broad banner of “localization.” In order to differentiate between the components you have no control over, though, and the things you can influence, let’s talk about localization and personalization separately.

For our purposes, then, “localization” is concerned with cultural and national differences. It is that subset of issues that can catch you completely off guard if you don’t do your homework. For instance, a “cookie” in the USA is known as a “biscuit” in Europe. Not only is that a critical distinction for labeling, but the SEO ramifications are huge.

It’s not only important to deliver your content in the language of the customer (localization), for example, but to go beyond that and understand the nuances of the language (personalization).

How to celebrate Black Friday year-round

Imagine the impact on consumer retail marketing success if a foreign supplier decided to enter the U.S. market but didn’t know about Black Friday. Would that seller miss out on a huge opportunity?

The same could happen to you in your international ecommerce ambitions. Here are just a few of the special holidays and events well-known in the countries where they’re celebrated, but little-known in the U.S.A.:

  • Australia – Click Frenzy
  • Canada – Boxing Day
  • China – Singles Day
  • Egypt – Coptic Christmas
  • France – Les Soldes
  • Hong Kong – Lunar New Year
  • India – Great Online Shopping Festival
  • Poland – Women’s Day
  • South Korea – Pepero Day
  • Venezuela – Carnival

That’s just 10 of the dozens of similar celebrations that take place month after month. And while they may not all stir up the buying frenzy you’re used to on Black Friday, the smart marketer will determine the nature of the upticks they do produce and see how to leverage them for increased sales.

The abundance of festivals, combined with the opportunities available in disparate climates and the seasonal reversal between the northern and southern hemispheres, opens doors you may have never considered.

Little things can make a big difference

A website one person considers attractive and high-end may look ugly and low-class to another viewer. Cultural differences play a huge part in how we perceive a company’s online presence.

Cultural differences play a huge part in how we perceive a company’s online presence. Click To Tweet

Here’s a look at part of the home page for Amazon’s Chinese site, for instance. What do you think? Much, much different from the US version of the site!

Amazon's Chinese Site - International Ecommerce

Amazon’s Chinese Site

Here are three websites that highlight topics related to country-specific celebrations and cultural preferences:

  • PayPal Passport – Basic data on consumer purchasing trends, customs, and shipping
  • The CIA World Factbook – This is a huge repository of information on the countries of the world
  • Time and Date – An exhaustive list of countries and holidays in those countries

The more you know about a country and its people, the more capable you are of presenting your products in the best way and at the right time.

In the next section, let’s drill down to take a closer look at the interaction between your online presence and the people you want to convert into paying customers.

International Ecommerce: Personalization Considerations

Every sale begins and ends with the customer.

In a way, consumers everywhere behave similarly. We want the best product at the best price and on the best terms. And, normally, we want quick delivery.

Your website must acknowledge those common desires and show prospective buyers why you are the best choice. You also need to convince them that your website is a safe place to do business.

The following list is representative of the kinds of things customers want to see, no matter which country they call home. Some of these points have been mentioned or alluded to earlier, but they’re important enough to warrant being mentioned again:

  • Display all sizes and measurements in the proper localized format
  • Design your site to “feel local” – like shopping at a familiar store
  • Don’t rely on a direct translation, make your content sound like the customer speaks
  • Study local sites to get a better understanding of what customers expect
  • Provide customer service options in the ways most acceptable to the customer
  • Make sure the potential customers trust and have access to your payment options
  • Use fresh data for customer identification and customer persona establishment
  • Remember to run sales campaigns that account for local traditions and celebrations

Before doing anything or deciding anything pertaining to your international ecommerce strategy, begin with listening and learning. Find out who is currently successful in your chosen market and dissect their online presence to ascertain why their efforts are attracting and converting visitors.

International Ecommerce CX: Wrapping It Up

There’s an old saying that’s become a reality in the Internet Age: “The world is your oyster.” For most companies, expanding sales efforts to the global arena makes good business sense.

Remember, though, that launching a successful marketing campaign in your own backyard certainly informs your efforts elsewhere, but it doesn’t guarantee success. A strategy that works in the United States may fail miserably in Brazil or China.

Each region and culture must be looked at from a local perspective.

Build your international ecommerce website to speak directly to the customers it will serve, make it easy for visitors to navigate the site and enter an order, streamline the checkout procedure to make shipping costs and delivery times clear, accept payment in the secure method the customer finds most agreeable, then test every phase of the process to be sure it performs according to plan.

Your website is already being visited by online shoppers from outside your geographical borders. Why not go ahead and open the door for them?