Ten things to consider
If you are considering selling internationally over the internet, then congratulations on making a great business decision. Done right, online retail can be a fulfilling and lucrative option for sole traders and micro-enterprises, just as much as for big brands. Whatever your circumstances, this article will summarise ten things you need to consider if you are starting out in online retail.
1. Make a plan
You may already have a business idea and a business plan, and perhaps also some personal experience gained through selling your products and services in online marketplaces or face to face. If you don’t, start out by building up your experience in your domestic market and getting a solid business plan together.
2. Get customer feedback
If you are a start-up, you may not have had many customers yet. Contact them, either directly or through social media, and ask them how satisfied they are with your product or service and whether you can publish their testimonial on your site. This will reassure your future customers that although you may be new to the international market, you deliver on your promises and this results in satisfied customers.
3. Start local, aim global
If you are new to selling online, consider launching your business in your own country or economic area a month or two earlier than going international. This pilot or ‘test run’ will allow you to smooth out any teething problems and perhaps gain valuable customer feedback before promoting yourself to the rest of the world.
4. Identify your international market
You don’t need to trade with every single country on earth. In fact, there may be good reasons to limit things.
Ask yourself whether your product or service will appeal to people in particular countries. There is no reason not to allow people in equatorial nations to purchase from your ski store, but it’s unlikely that most of your customers will be from those regions.
If you are selling physical products (as opposed to digital products), investigate the cost, speed, and reliability of shipping services to all countries and regions.
Exchange rates can work both for and against you. It is sensible to keep an eye on these, but for simplicity’s sake you just need to make sure your products are priced at a level which covers the expected variation. Ensure that your profit margin after all taxes and fees is high enough to compensate for changes.
5. Remember that your site is your brand
Use your own website (ideally not a marketplace shop), and link it to carefully chosen social media. Keep your website and social media profiles current and accurate at all times. Daily reviews and updates may be necessary, so make this part of your routine. Social media updates will help keep things current too. If you sell jewellery or clothing, for example, start up and maintain an Instagram or Twitter profile, and ask your customers to send you pictures of them wearing your articles. Once you have gained a following, you could consider running competitions or offering discount coupons for your social media followers.
6. Adapt to your chosen markets
When selling online, language is critical. Do you speak Spanish well enough to deal with a customer query or complaint? Can you hire someone who does? If the answer to both is no, it may not be such a good idea to start trading in Spanish-speaking countries.
Be aware of subtler language differences too. An American retailer of ‘color cosmetics’ might not be so prominent in search results for British or Australian customers, who would search for ‘colour cosmetics.’
A list of differences between British and American English can be found at http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/words/british-and-american-terms.
Cultural differences can also be a challenge. Your products or services may be very relevant in some regions, but not so relevant in others. There may be a huge gap in the market in one country, but not in the country next door. So, do your homework.
7. Clarify your international business operations
Weigh up all the available options in terms of shipping services (including insurance), payment options, accounting, business insurance, and dealing with returns. You may not take the same approach as for domestic customers, so it is worthwhile comparing the options.
Some e-commerce sites (such as Amazon Marketplace) offer remote inventory management. This means sending your goods off and the site will pack and dispatch them for you, for a fee.
8. Stay legal, stay safe
Wherever you are based, you should follow the law. Save yourself a headache and make sure your business is compliant from the outset. Note that individual states in the US may have their own laws on certain matters.
For example, appropriate labelling of your products is a legal requirement for many categories. Packaged food must be labelled with nutrition information, although countries may differ in the specifics.
Some items, such as certain plant products or volatile liquids, are restricted by postal services. If you are selling products in any of these restricted categories, calculate whether international trade is feasible and, if so, whether your profits will be high enough to justify the additional expense.
9. Do the paperwork
Obviously, taxation is inevitable. International trade makes this more complicated, and additional duties and customs will be incurred. Essentially, you need to keep detailed records of everything.
Also, check your country’s regulations on retaining business records. Are digital invoices and receipts acceptable? Even if they are, are you confident that you can digitally archive your material for the amount of time required?
10. Keep your customers coming back for more
If you are selling online internationally, describe your items as accurately as possible and always answer customer queries promptly. If you don’t describe things properly, you may well find yourself shelling out for costly return postage. Your reputation could take a hit too. Consumers have the right to a full refund if a product or service is not as described, and the onus is on you, the seller, to portray your products honestly.
Repeat custom is more likely in certain product categories than others, but in all categories repeat custom is decidedly a good thing, and therefore you should aim to get it. It’s unlikely that your home-based bath oil business will take over your local high street any time soon, but perhaps you can access a far bigger global audience who appreciates the love and care that goes into your products, and also tells their friends in Alaska that your bath oils are the best. Didn’t we say that selling internationally online was fulfilling? There’s nothing better than an email from a customer telling you that you have the best example of that product they have ever experienced. We wish you the very best of luck with your ventures!