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Why your international e-commerce strategy isn’t working (and how to fix it)

Maybe you started on Etsy or Ebay, on Depop or Amazon.

Your “store”—which, on one of these marketplace platforms, isn’t entirely yours—took off. You decided to think about switching to a more personnalisable CMS, one where you would be able to deploy a marketing strategy 100% adapted to your brand. You’re now using a more professional e-commerce CMS, like BigCommerce, WordPress’s WooCommerce, or Shopify. There are a lot of others, in this category, too – and you’re in luck, no matter which one you’ve chosen for your shop, because Weglot is compatible with all of them.

There are a number of things you have to start taking into consideration when you open an independent online store. From generating traffic, to making sure your products are well-indexed on search engines, to deciding for yourself which payment-processing and CRM systems to use… If you’ve already taken the plunge and set up your own webstore, but are disappointed with the results so far, there are a few things you might be overlooking-or that you could simply be looking at with a sharper eye.

1. You may be lacking in the localization department…

Localization (which you may sometimes see written as “l10n”) is part of the larger process of internationalization (also frequently abbreviated as “i18n”). “Internationalization” refers to the overall process of making your business accessible to customers in different countries; each new country constitutes a step requiring “localization,” or specific adaptation to that country’s culture, language, logistics system, and geographical context.

Localization (which you may sometimes see written as “l10n”) is part of the larger process of internationalization (also frequently abbreviated as “i18n”). “Internationalization” refers to the overall process of making your business accessible to customers in different countries; each new country constitutes a step requiring “localization,” or specific adaptation to that country’s culture, language, logistics system, and geographical context.

Targeting multiple international markets will therefore require you to localize to each of them. Since every country and culture—and, thus, every market—is different, the steps to localization don’t always look exactly the same. However, they generally consist of the following general principles, which you can then adapt to each particular context.

Localizing your website: the first big step

As an e-merchant, it should be fairly obvious that localizing your business for international customers means, first and foremost, giving them access to your storefront—which, for you, is your website. 

localizing website illustration

Website localization includes, in most cases, adapting all of the following to the target audience: visuals, text, product choices, and checkout options, such as currency, tax additions, and shipping details (availability of shipping locations, estimated shipping times for each one, and corresponding fees/rates). 

While it may seem most important, technically speaking, to focus on the practical, logistical elements of localization—i.e. the latter two big categories mentioned above, product choices and checkout options—it’s probably even more crucial not to forget that visitors to your site won’t even make it to the stages of product-choice and checkout if they are driven away, upon arrival on your site, by unadapted visuals and text

Common Sense Advisory, a Cambridge, MA-based internationalization consulting firm, published a research paper on international e-commerce, and web browsing more generally, very aptly titled “Can’t Read, Won’t Buy”; this speaks directly to the sheer necessity of translating your site content if you want to sell abroad. 55% of worldwide shoppers significantly prefer buying products that are listed on sites in their own language; that’s a lot of potential customers you’d be losing if you neglected to translate your site into the appropriate language for your target markets. (Lucky for you, Weglot can help with that.)

Communication-by-country

Communication goes beyond the text on your site. You interact with your customers via a variety of channels: emails, social media pages, paid ads. . . the list goes on. The important takeaway is, you need to understand which channels are the most popular in each of your target markets—and get good at using them.

We can look at online advertising as an example: in Europe and North America, Facebook and Google Ads constitute two of digital marketers’ go-to tools, since both of these sites are fairly ubiquitous on these two continents. 

But an e-merchant starting out in, say, Germany or Canada would have to drastically adapt their social and search-engine ad strategy if they decided to launch in, say, China—where neither Google nor Facebook is readily accessible to most web-surfers. 

international social media illustration

WeChat is, fairly undeniably, king of the Chinese social media—and now, even search engine—landscape, and salespeople often advertise via local consumers’ direct message inboxes on WeChat. This strategy would sound almost invasive if you applied it to the European market, where getting an ad on Facebook Messenger would seem totally out of place; it’s just one more thing to take into consideration when figuring out how best to drive traffic to your site within new consumer pools.

2. …and in the logistics department.

Adapting your logistical capabilities to new markets can be a daunting task. Starting out small, you may be handling shipping on your own and using part of your budget or revenue to cover the costs of international distribution via the likes of UPS or DHL. 

Once you have established a steady client base in a faraway country, however, you might start to find these costs adding up faster than you can process your orders. This is the stage when you’ll start thinking about outsourcing your shipping and fulfillment—and, perhaps, even budgeting for space in a warehouse local to your new market hub, so your customers can receive their orders quickly and hassle-free.

Ultimately, boosting your logistical capabilities to an international scale follows the same logic as adapting your online presence and marketing strategies to new markets: you need to localize. This can mean partnering with local fulfillment companies, or the local arm of a worldwide fulfillment company, like FedEx; the real trick lies in choosing your partners wisely. 

You want to make sure that whatever shipping and fulfillment solution you choose takes into account any shipping costs, customs fees, and taxes for your e-customers at checkout, and follows through with deliveries on-time and with professionalism so that your overall brand experience isn’t compromised for the customer.

3. Your customer experience isn’t up to par.

One country or regional society’s perception of what constitutes « premium » is generally very different than others’. As one of the surest ways to distinguish yourself from existing, established competitors on new markets is by beating them at their own service game, you’re going to need to look at what kind of supplementary services customers in each of your new markets expect following, or surrounding, e-commerce purchases – and how you can exceed their expectations.

We’ve already mentioned China as a forerunner in the e-commerce market, in both the domains of marketplaces and individual brand sites. And, as the WeChat marketing example brings to light, there are some significant particularities to the Chinese online sales ecosystem.

One phenomenon of Chinese e-shopping that frequently evades incoming Western retailers, for example, consists of what anglophones often refer to as a “click-and-collect” experience—or “online-to-offline”/”O2O” in e-commerce jargon. 

Offering an O2O experience in China—where buyers can order an item online and pick it up in a brick-and-mortar store—is the next frontier for local businesses, and should also be on the radar of international sellers looking to expand to China. Alibaba, one of the forerunners in the “New Retail” department, has opened 150 “omnichannel supermarkets”, under the franchise name Hema, where customers can enhance their entire in-store shopping experience with their phones—from scanning item QR codes to get immediate information about each product beamed into the palm of their hand, to ordering home delivery and paying for it, all within the Alibaba app.

Alibaba also isn’t the only mega-retailer in China to have started embracing omnicanality; JD.com, one of Alibaba’s primary competitors, recently opened its first several 7Fresh supermarket franchises—and they’ve been a huge success. Like in Hema, customers can scan their way through their entire shopping process and even leave the store unencumbered by grocery bags, go home and wait for near-immediate delivery.

JD 7Fresh supermarket omnichannel in China
Customers can scan any 7Fresh product QR code in their JD app, then scan the nearest screen to be shown a full dossier of information about the nutritional values, origin, and usage recommendations for the item. Source: https://techcrunch.com/2018/11/15/jd-7fresh-supermarket/

Moral of the story: get informed about what constitutes the top-tier type of shopping experience in every new market you’ve set yourself up to enter, before launching yourself into the challenge. This runs in the same vein as localizing your web presence and logistics capabilities—but has directly to do with the customer.

You may be surprised by the extras and features you’ll be more or less expected to offer—and, especially in contexts such as the Chinese one, where opening a physical store is the logical next step to opening an online one, you’ll want to factor the extra costs of improving your local offer into your long-term business plan.

4. You’re a little afraid of the robots.

Yes, we’ve established in previous articles that no, the robots have not, in fact, won—at least in the field of translation. That said, in translation and in other aspects of today’s international landscape, having a robot as a helping hand is undeniably advantageous. 

During your beginning stages of e-commerce activity, it’s okay if you don’t yet have a significant enough client base for task automation to be a profitable investment. If you’ve been paying attention to the processes we’ve already gone over, however—platform choice, site and strategy localization, logistical adaptations—you’re probably already on track to acquire a new set of customers in your target market, and you should prepare for the volume of these tasks to increase accordingly in the near future.

Websites that localize to a customer’s preferred language and currency with the click of a button, instant product info via in-store mobile scans, fulfillment services that can deliver in a day or less: if there’s one overarching theme in the e-commerce trends we’ve looked at so far, it’s speed, even immediacy.  

So it may very well be time to cede—at least a little bit—to the robots, and automate your workflow. There are software solutions out there for streamlining just about every aspect of your business—from paychecks to payment systems, from international tax calculation to translation management.

Learn before you launch.

There are tons of resources out there to help you improve your localization strategy and internationalize step-by-step, locale-by-locale.

Of course, the best way to go about localizing is to do tons of research: make sure you know…

  • What language and media you should be communicating in within each new market,
  • The logistical lay of the land in your new market(s)—and what shipping, fulfillment, and international payment partners are the best-adapted to it, what your new customers’ expectations are for a premium experience (and how you can conform to them),
  • What your new customers’ expectations are for a premium experience (and how you can conform to them),
  • And what elements of your workflow you can automate, without compromising on your service and product quality.

By scaling smart and approaching each new locale with tact, you may be surprised to find that localization won’t force you to break the bank, and you’ll even be creating value for your worldwide customers.

About the author
Madeleine Leddy

Junior Content Marketing Manager @ Weglot.

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