How to grow internationally using e-commerce

Wed 20 Mar 2024
Posted by: Richard Cree
Ecommerce Boom

Start small, put customers first, be prepared to make affordable mistakes and try to learn quickly from those mistakes. These were some of the tips offered by founders of businesses using e-commerce to grow internationally at a webinar run yesterday (19 March) by the Institute of Export & International Trade (IOE&IT) and the E-Commerce Trade Commission (E-CTC).

The recording for that webinar can be found here.

Part of events celebrating the inaugural E-Commerce Week, the webinar was hosted by IOE&IT executive editor Will Barns-Graham, and featured panellists including Barry Tong, founder of Stephensons Online, Fraser Smeaton, co-founder of Morphsuits, Kostas Rossoglou from Shopify and Sam Hodgkins, a customs and trade expert from IOE&IT.

Smeaton told the webinar that, having initially underestimated the size of the UK market for his company’s one-piece fancy dress costumes, the business set itself up for international sales from day one.

“We thought we’d exhaust the UK quickly and had to go global from day one. Turned out there was more of a market in the UK than we expected, but we set up 3PL for shipping, used Facebook ads and set up a basic website to process orders and payment. It was just enough to get going.”

Smeaton’s advice to others was to just experiment on a small scale, so you aren’t risking much if you make a mistake.

“Try things cheaply and quickly, so if you make a mistake, you can come back from it easily. And each time you try something make sure you learn, especially from mistakes.”

Kostas Rossoglou, director of international public policy and government affairs at Shopify, echoed this point on experimentation, telling webinar attendees that, with so many different options open to businesses looking to use e-commerce to go global, “UK businesses should experiment and look for a solution that meets their needs”.

He added that there was a huge amount of support available from platforms such as Shopify, who can assist with everything a business needs to set up an online store in several overseas markets.

“Going online is challenging in itself, let alone starting to think about online exports. In some ways selling is easier with a physical store. Online, you have to think about how you get your business noticed and how you build trust with customers.”

He added that, while there are lots of great technology platforms and solutions on offer, it could be confusing for some business owners to integrate them all into a coherent and effective solution.

He also highlighted another potential barrier that can arise in selling online in countries with different language and culture: the need to internationalise website and marketplace content often means more than just a straight translation of existing content. 

For Tong, regardless of the market you are operating in, the focus should always be the same, single question – what do customers want to know. Keeping in mind the needs of the customers is paramount, he said, including thinking about what they want when they come to your website.

“People get scared of terms like SEO, but really all it is about is thinking like a customer and understanding what search terms they’ll use. Deliver content as a customer and not as a brand. Make images as nice as possible, and make the listing as relevant to customer needs as you can.”

Face up to the complex, but don’t fear it

International trade can be complex, said Tong, with complications likely to arise on the way. At the same time, he said, they are not insurmountable, and there is no reason to be scared of it. He cited the example of Brexit:

“Just as Brexit meant that most of our competitors were running away from Europe, we took the decision to run towards it. We just dealt with the inevitable delays, even when it might have been quicker to swim the products across the Channel.

“Depending on what you are selling, compliance and regulation is often complex. But help is at hand through organisations like IOE&IT, and also through the e-commerce platforms like Shopify, Amazon and Walmart, which all have lots of resources to help.”

Tong explains that this support and advice is one reason to consider using e-commerce marketplaces for international trade, although he made the decision based on a pragmatic cost analysis.

“I went the marketplace route because, although it is expensive, it is also expensive to get traffic to a website. We pay a commission when we have sold a product, rather than paying to attract customers at the start of the process.” 

Know your marketplace

Smeaton added that since the emergence of Amazon, his business had focused on that as a key platform. It’s a recipe for success he suggests for others. Smeaton’s business is now, he says, fully aligned with Amazon at all points of the customer journey.

For her part, Hodgkins offered a detailed presentation on some of the major issues and considerations would-be exporters need to focus on, from starting with an export and e-commerce strategy to really knowing their product and understanding the needs of the customers in markets they were going to sell to.

But, even for businesses looking to outsource all the logistics and customs processes, she advocated some familiarity with the basics of how trade and customs work. There is value, she explained, in understanding things such as Incoterms and customs declarations.

While there is no guarantee of success, Hodgkins explained that the best way to put yourself and your business in a position to succeed is to make sure you have a grasp of all the relevant information needed for a successful declaration.

Questions with answers

Asked to identify trends in e-commerce for 2024, Shopify’s Rossoglou highlighted technological trends including the drive to omnichannel marketing and the increasing importance of social commerce, where once pure play social media channels are now, increasingly, also becoming e-commerce marketplaces.

This last trend was picked up by Tong, who highlighted the rise of TikTok as an important sales channel.

“From a platforms perspective, it’s worth remembering there was this big thing called eBay and then this little fish called Amazon came along and started doing everything it was doing. Now there is Tik Tok, which brings the power of Amazon and that of social media together.”

There were also questions about the importance of customer reviews. A top tip offered here by Smeaton is that reviews from one country are equally relevant in other markets and reviews from existing customers can be used to help build confidence when you expand into new markets. But Tong also suggested businesses don’t need to focus on them too much.

“My advice is to not get too worked up about them. You can’t ask for them and they’re just there. I would take the time to worry more about content, visibility and getting to the top of the most relevant search terms.”

There was also agreement between Smeaton and Tong that the UK needs to sign more free trade agreements, and that the government should do all it can to remove all barriers to trade in as many markets as possible around the world.