This article was published before we became the Chartered Institute of Export & International Trade on 10 July 2024, and this is reflected in references to our old brand and name. For more information about us becoming Chartered, visit our dedicated webpage on the change here.

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For many micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) looking to export, it’s likely that ecommerce marketplaces will form part of their strategy.

Sites such as eBay, Amazon or Alibaba can provide instant access to millions of customers around the world, giving small businesses the chance to compete with much larger players. 

Some of these marketplaces are hugely competitive, so how can you ensure your product will reach your intended audience and how can you achieve stand out and appeal to the right customers? This guide, from the Institute of Export & International Trade (IOE&IT), provides some tips. 

1. Identify which marketplace is right for you

While we can all name a few major players, there are more than 450 different online marketplaces, so it’s important to find the ones that will work best for your product.

Horizontal marketplaces, such as Amazon and eBay, offer huge reach, but you’ll need to work harder to make your product stand out to get noticed. Vertical marketplaces may be smaller in scale but are more targeted in terms of the types of customers they attract, so this may appeal more for specialist businesses or niche products. 

Which option is right for you will depend in part on whether you are a brand selling directly to end-consumers or a reseller, selling multiple products you have sourced from elsewhere. Pricing and a global reach are likely to be important factors for the latter, while for brand owners reaching a targeted audience may be more important. Marketplaces tend to have relatively low set-up costs, so you could identify a few and see what works best. 

2. Give your product the wow factor

Making use of visual media, such as demo videos and virtual reality, can help customers choose your product over another. It’s possible, for instance, to show people what an item of clothing might look on them. 

Ensure your product shots are effective, with a clear background and suitable lighting levels. Mobile phone cameras are fine in terms of quality, while apps can also help correct any issues. An effective checkout process is also important, and make sure you offer a wide range of payment options. 

While your product will be listed on a marketplace, there’s nothing to stop you using other means to drive traffic to it. Sponsored advertising slots on the site itself can give it additional prominence, while you can also generate interest through social media, and direct people to the marketplace to make a purchase. 

3. Leverage global shopping days 

Building campaigns around specific days can give you a series of regular one-off events throughout the year and make sure that there’s always something coming up that might give you a sales boost. Examples of possible days include Mother’s Day and Father’s Day (and remember they are on different dates in different countries), White Day in Japan (14 March), Black Friday and Cyber Monday in the US and UK, Click Frenzy in Australia (14-16 November), Christmas and other religious festivities, such as Diwali, and Singles Day in China (11 November).

Adopting a global approach also means you can create all-year-round interest in a seasonal product, as some part of the world will always be in or around a particular season.

4. Localise and optimise your listings

It’s important to remember that while marketplaces such as Amazon will have a potential reach of millions of people, listings must be localised and optimised for a particular region if they are to appeal to specific customers. 

Localised means using the potential customers’ language and many marketplaces now offer translation services. Optimised here may mean investing in services such as sponsored ads, and keywords and phrases for pay-per-click marketing campaigns. 

5. Consider your margins

Make sure you understand the full costs of selling a product overseas. Factor in costs such as shipping, insurance and customs processes, and remember that when you’re selling through a marketplace the site itself will also take a commission on each sale. 

6. Think about fulfilment

Anyone selling a product to an overseas customer needs to consider how they will fulfil that order. Options here include physically posting a product out to customers using a postal or delivery service, having some kind of presence in that country, where inventory can be stored, or using a fulfilment service provided by a marketplace. 

As a general rule, it’s a good idea to be as close to customers as possible. Where goods are stored in the destination country as part of a 3rd Party Logistics (3PL) arrangement, exporters will trigger sales tax obligations, which can significantly differ from country to country.

For anyone selling to the EU, for example, they are dealing with 27 member states and there are beneficial VAT regimes that mean companies only need to be registered in one European country rather than all the member states they sell into. The US also has a complex tax regime, due to the federal make up of the country. If you have customers there, it’s important to look into this before considering storing inventory in the US.  

Delivery times are something else to think about, as many customers now expect a frictionless and quality experience, with items delivered quickly. You’ll have to think about how long customers are prepared to wait; something that may be determined by the type of product in question. 

Some marketplaces will offer an express delivery service but, as always, this will come at a cost. Many buyers will be prepared to wait for a product they feel is of high quality, and British brands are often seen in this way.  

7. Devise a returns policy

Another thing to think about is how to handle returns. In some countries, it’s quite common to order multiple products and send all but one back, so you need an efficient way of dealing with this. 

It’s also important to demonstrate concern for the environment; a local centre will be more sustainable than sending products in and out of the UK multiple times, while recyclable packaging materials are essential. Having strong environmental credentials will also help you stand out in a crowded marketplace, so make sure you shout about it. 

8. Encourage positive reviews

Where you have a satisfied customer, asking them to leave a review can work wonders. Not only does this demonstrate another customer is happy with the product and service they have received, it can also provide further feedback on anything that could be improved. 

With many people wary of buying over the internet, reviews can give other potential buyers reassurance that they are dealing with a reputable company. 

9. Track your metrics

This is something that businesses don’t do enough. Monitor the click-through rates for items, where customers come from and how many visits end in a complete checkout and result in a sale. This can help you identify what is working well and what isn’t, and where you are potentially losing customers along the process. This is even more important if you are trying to assess which platform to use and have your product up on several at the same time. 

10. Product Compliance 

One of the most important considerations for selling online to consumers in other countries is to ensure that your products are compliant in terms of safety regulations and labelling requirements. These will depend on the type of product and the country they are being exported to. 

Author: Susan Roe, IOE&IT academy trade and customs specialist