Everything You Need To Know for International Ecommerce Expansion

July 11, 2022
by
Rhys Williams

Everything You Need To Know for International Ecommerce Expansion

July 11, 2022
by
Rhys Williams
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If you’ve built up a strong brand online, you might be considering the possibility of international expansion. 

But what does it take to sell your products in markets, languages, and currencies very different from those you’re used to? What could your international ecommerce growth look like? Is your business ready to take this on?

In this guide, we’ll walk you through the process of taking your brand international. Including what this entails, what brands are best suited to global expansion, and some best practices as you make the leap.

Try out the links below to jump ahead to what interests you most: 

Let’s get started!

First: What is international ecommerce (or global ecommerce)?

International ecommerce—sometimes called global ecommerce—means what you’d expect: taking your existing online brand and using it to sell overseas. 

Because you’re already based online as a scaling ecommerce business, it’s much easier to sell internationally. There isn’t the same investment and long lead time required by brick-and-mortar stores. You can relatively quickly expand into international markets by expanding and localizing your online presence. It might not be as simple as a click of a button, but with the right SEO, localization research, and brand strategy considerations, you can develop a serious international operation in short order. 

To make your international ecommerce expansion successful, you will have to make some decisions about how to best set up your site to accommodate visitors speaking different languages, display prices in local currencies, and ensure the look and feel of your site design appeals to the culture of the country you’re targeting. 

Like many successful international ecommerce businesses, Edgard & Cooper, a Belgium-based online pet food company, has a drop-down menu on arrival that allows shoppers to select their language and displays minimum orders for international customers: 

Edgard & Cooper's international ecommerce store
Credit: Edgard & Cooper


Overall, a successful transition to international ecommerce is typically considered complete when an ecommerce brand has: 

  • A localized site with translations of pages, local time and date settings, displays local pricing, and multilingual SEO.
  • A wide choice of payment methods that mean customers around the world can pay in their currency or digital wallet of choice.
  • A robust but flexible commerce platform that can facilitate payments in multiple currencies and support content in multiple languages.

And your transition to international ecommerce can be phased! You can do certain aspects of global expansion ahead of going all in, which can be helpful as you determine if it’s for you.

But why are so many scaling brands altering their online presence to expand in this way? Is international ecommerce for everyone? Is it worth the initial investment? The current stats indicate it’s here to stay…

International ecommerce growth stats

Fueled by the boom in online shopping during the pandemic, ecommerce has grown massively over the last few years. Even though the boom has subsided slightly, global ecommerce growth continues to be strong and is set to top $5 trillion in sales for the first time in 2022.

What’s more, the growth is not confined to US domestic markets, internationally, the pattern has been the same, with China and the UK leading the way. Latin America and Southeast Asia have also recorded strong growth and are expected to continue to expand by as much as 17 and 20 percent over the next five years.

International ecommerce growth stats

In particular, Morgan Stanley estimates that the electronics vertical is set to grow from 38% of retail sales to 45% of global retail sales, with beauty, apparel, and grocery also growing from an international lens too.

Your brand can take advantage of this growth. And if you’re thinking about the possibilities, your competitors will be too. 

Your goal will be to get there first

Alongside scaling your general ecommerce operations—it takes research, adaptation to local conditions, and extensive planning to make international ecommerce expansion work. Here, we’ve put together a comprehensive overview to help you get started. 

But before you dive in full on…

Is international ecommerce right for you?

If you’re at a certain stage of growth as an online brand, you’ve likely wondered “Can any ecommerce brand sell internationally?”

If you have a product that there’s a market for, have the ability to ship it cheaply, have the commerce functionality to accommodate international marketing and payments, and have a team capable of building a brand across borders, then there’s no reason why you can’t succeed with international ecommerce.

Even though it’s more straightforward to set up your website with alternate languages and currencies than it is to build an entirely new store in an overseas territory, it doesn’t mean that global ecommerce is going to work for everyone. 

Competition is stiff, especially when you’ll be going head to head with brands based in the country you’re seeking to expand into, with all the local know-how and customer loyalty that brings with it.  

To take advantage of the growth in international markets you’ll need to:

  • Have the ability to ship internationally and remain competitive. If you have to pay huge fees to fulfill orders your margins will suffer and you won’t be able to stay the course. You need to understand if you can remain profitable with international commerce.
  • Be confident you’ll be able to build your brand internationally. This means outstanding marketing and online content in what is likely not the first language for many people in your business.
  • Have a flexible site/storefront. Your website will need to be agile and adaptable to take account of language, currency, and cultural variation. If you have a site that can be translated into local languages and display pricing in different currencies without a substantial redesign, you’ll be much better able to launch into new markets and provide the same customer experience as you do for your domestic site visitors. 

You also need to match your products with your prospective markets. Not all international markets are the same, and what sells well online in one country may end up sitting on your warehouse shelves in another. Overall, make sure you do your research before allocating budget to marketing and translation costs. 

Developing a clear international selling strategy

So if thorough preparation is the key to success, what are the tools, tactics, and strategies you’ll need to succeed with international ecommerce? 

Thoroughly research international markets

Besides looking into the logistics, market research, and local regulations of selling internationally (and within your vertical), you’ll also need to develop a marketing plan for the international regions you now sell within, develop the capacity to handle international transactions, and create an SEO strategy. 

There are several tools available that can help you with these considerations—and leveraging them will allow you to move into global markets with a lighter footprint than businesses who need to set up a real-world store every time they enter a new territory. Below is an overview of a few of them.

Set up international ecommerce transactions 

There is no one-size-fits-all here. The methods of payment that predominate in the US (namely, credit cards) are far from dominant elsewhere. So you’ll need an international payment gateway that’s flexible enough to accommodate your international customers’ payment method of choice

You’ll already have a payment gateway set up to handle your existing transactions, but if you’re expanding to other countries you’ll need a payment gateway that’s capable of handling transactions in multiple currencies and payment methods.

Some of the best available are:

  • Paypal - The name recognition of PayPal, and its international reach, make it a trusted choice for customers and retailers alike. It provides great security features and its multiple local funding options mean you might be able to sidestep opening up accounts in overseas territories.
  • Stripe - This flexible payment platform has been adopted by some of the world’s biggest brands. Its API allows for multiple integration methods, as well as being responsive to mobile and deliverable in your app. It supports methods such as Alipay (very popular in China), Google Pay, Apple Pay, and many more. It is available in 36 countries.
  • Verifone - Since acquiring 2Checkout, Verifone offers enhanced global ecommerce payment services and is available in over 200 countries and territories across the world. They support all major (and several minor) currencies and also offer flexible API integration. 
  • Adyen - With a focus on creating a seamless cross-channel experience, Adyen provides your customers with the ability to make payments across on and offline touchpoints. It also provides you with rich customer data and insights, and partners with multiple international payment services like Alipay, Oney (popular in France), BLIK (a dominant mobile payment method in Poland), and Boleto (Brazil) as well as Google Pay, Apple Pay, and Visa. 

#cta-visual-fe#<cta-title>Start building your store with Frontend<cta-title>See how Shogun Frontend can help you deliver elevated shopping and speed. Learn more

Consider international SEO (from keyword research to domain structure)

The starting point for how you position your content to reach an international audience has to be your website. 

The first thing you should do is research your target market to find out if there is enough keyword volume for you to chase. This is an important step, you might be surprised to find the applicable keywords for your products attract little interest, in which case a rethink about the countries you’re considering might be in order. 

Consider international SEO

A good place to start is Google Analytics, it can show you where in the world your visitors are coming from and so give you an idea of the countries where you’ll have the biggest chance of success. You can divide your visitors by demographics with the segmentation feature, or filter by visitor country to see where your traffic is coming from.

SEMrush has 140+ geodatabases. All you have to do to see how a keyword is performing in a given location is select it from the dropdown menu in the search bar and type your keyword. 

SEMrush also has an international SEO research facility. It allows you to set up a project to track how your keywords are ranking within a specified location. In the same project you can also track mentions of your (and other) brands in a specific country.

SEMrush has produced a full rundown on how to set up a project for an international audience.

Ahrefs has a similar function in its Keyword Explorer, where you can filter keyword results by country from a dropdown menu, or see a geographic breakdown of results by scrolling down the page.

From there, take this opportunity to align your previous market research with your SEO research. That is—do the two match up? 

For example, if you find there’s a big online audience for your products in Belgium, but the costs of shipping your goods to Europe are prohibitively expensive, you should rethink your international ecommerce strategy.

A word of caution: don’t rely on software alone to find your customers. It’s worth investing in local marketers to join your team who speak the language and are familiar with the nuances and cultural peculiarities of your target country. 

The wealth of experience local marketers can bring will be far more valuable to you than what you can find online.

Domain, sub-domain, or subfolder?

When you’re setting up to target an international audience, one of the main things you’ll need to decide on is what kind of domain you’re going to use for your site. There are four options here:

  •  Purchase ccTLDs (country code top-level domains) - This is the gold standard for international SEO. search engines can instantly recognize that a site that ends with a country-specific domain (.co.uk or .de for example) is targeted at, and relevant to, people in that country. Having a ccTLD will automatically boost your rankings, all things being equal. 

But this might not be an option for you at the outset. Having separate ccTDLs for each country you’re operating in means in effect running separate websites. The authority and link equity you’ve built up on your original site are not carried over to your sister site so you’ll need to build it from scratch. That means a lot of extra work and may require separate marketing and even developer teams.  

  • Create a subdomain - This is where you develop a subsection of your existing site to target a specific country (uk.example.com or fr.example.com). You can assign country-specific IP addresses for each subdomain while your site is still largely manageable as one single entity.

Although setting up a subdomain still requires expanded tech support, you’ll need to build up the SEO authority of the pages on your subdomain separately from your main site. 

  • Create a subdirectory - This is probably the best approach if you’re just dipping your toe in the international ecommerce waters to start. A subdirectory address would look like www.example.com/uk. With subdirectories, you can section off the part of your site that’s aimed at an international audience, use geo-targeting, and use the authority of your existing site to help your SEO.

#cta-paragraph-pb#The drawback of this approach is that search engines will not automatically recognize your subdirectory as being aimed at country-specific searches, so you’ll need to rely on a finely-honed keyword targeting strategy to reach your customers. However, the lower level of technical support required by you and your ecommerce team initially makes it a worthwhile tradeoff for those at the start of their international expansion.

If you do go for a subdirectory approach, make sure you display a country/language selector on all pages to catch visitors who land on the "wrong" version of their site. This ensures that visitors always have the ability to select their region and/or language of choice.

Localized versions of a page - You can set up multiple versions of your pages for speakers of different languages. You can also set up country-specific versions of languages spoken in several countries (for example, Spanish: Mexico, Spain, etc.).

These pages need to be linked together ‘bidirectionally’ (so you can follow the link forwards and back). This is to stop someone arbitrarily naming a page as a translation of one of your pages and linking to it. 

You should also add  hreflang tag attributes (also referred to as rel="alternate" hreflang="x") which tell Google which language you are using on a specific page, so the search engine can serve that result to users searching in that language.

If you want a deep dive into the more technical aspects of setting your site up to reach customers internationally, including how Google copes with sites in different languages and translations of pages, Google has produced this thorough guide

Ensure seamless international shipping

The problem of how to get your products into the hands of customers who may be thousands of miles away from where it’s manufactured can be one of the main stumbling blocks to international ecommerce expansion. 

Ensure seamless international shipping

So before you launch in a new market, there are two main things to consider:

  • Shipping costs - Can you fulfill orders and still provide value for your customers? Think about whether to partner with a local fulfillment company or if you can take advantage of third-party logistics companies. 3PL companies will be able to offer special deals to ecommerce businesses that make it financially viable to ship internationally. 
  • Shipping times - Can you fulfill orders in a cost-efficient and timely manner? Working this out will take some research into customer preferences in local markets. Shipping times will vary according to the size, weight, and amount of goods you have to send, and just as in the US, delivery time expectations vary by type of goods sold as well as the country your customers are based in.

How international ecommerce platforms can help

There are several platforms and pieces of software that can make it much easier to operate across borders and languages. Clever use of these will give you an edge in global ecommerce.

Shopify

Shopify’s sheer size and popularity make it very suitable for international ecommerce. You can set up customized storefronts for the countries you're targeting and use multiple languages. It also supports shipping to a large number of countries and can process payments in over 100 currencies. 

  • Shopify Payments allows you to display and take payments in local currencies and settle payments in your own currency. It also offers protection against fraud and chargebacks, letting you be more confident in your revenue from international sales.
  • Shopify Markets has centralized international selling tools for merchants so you can sell internationally from one store. They're constantly introducing new functionality to help merchants manage and expand their global sales.

WooCommerce

If your site is built on WordPress, WooCommerce is a great tool for selling internationally. Its popularity, and the open-source nature of its codebase, means that there are lots of add-ons to make it customizable to international conditions. It integrates with several major payment gateways, making it very useful for online brands seeking to offer a range of payment options for customers around the world. 

Five best practices for your international ecommerce expansion

As we’ve covered, it’s far easier for online stores to sell internationally than for brick and mortar shops, but serving customers across borders over the internet brings its own challenges. 

Here are our top five best practices to set you up for success:

1. Get your localization right

Localization means making sure your site is appropriate for the country you’re selling to. While this is often boiled down to translating your marketing copy throughout the site—you actually need to research the culture of your potential customers and tailor all aspects of your site to a given location. The images, offers—even the color scheme of your site—should be culturally appropriate and take account of local holidays and customs. 

Some best practices for localization strategy are:

  • Work with a linguistic partner (called language service providers or LSPs)
  • Develop a solid translations workflow - When you change or update your content you need a way of ensuring the translated versions are kept in-sync with origin content (most likely English)
  • Make sure your translations are high quality - This usually involves a mix of human and hybrid translations
  • Use Multilingual SEO - Carefully research keywords, translate metadata, use the correct hreflang tags, etc.
  • Use Translation technology - There are several plugins, APIs, proxies, and connectors that can help.

You also need your site to display prices in local currency and ensure time and date settings are set to the destination country, not your own. 

Some of the best translation/localization tools available are:

These are powerful tools that can help your translation and localization workflows, but having someone on your team with local knowledge will give you a more authentic brand voice, too. 

2. Enable mobile and alternate payment options

Credit card payments are the default method of paying for goods and services online in the US. But this is not the case in every country, and even in the US, digital wallets are making up an increasing proportion of online transactions. A study by Worldpay found that globally, digital wallets accounted for 44.5 percent of online payments in 2020, in China, the figure was 72.1 percent. With the trend toward mobile-first shopping set to continue, digital wallets are projected to dominate global ecommerce in the near future, making up more than 50 percent of transactions by 2024 according to Worldpay. 

Future-proof your international ecommerce ambitions by integrating alternatives to credit and debit cards into your site.

3. Decide if you want to hold local currency or exchange it at the point of sale

If your customers are paying in their local currencies, you need to work out the best way to receive funds. You might have costs that you need to pay in the local currency, in which case it could be wise to hold some funds locally. You may also want to maximize your revenue by getting the best exchange rate, which will be provided by banks rather than payment processors. 

But holding foreign currency will require a local bank account, which in turn may require a more substantial business presence than it makes sense for you to set up.

It’s much more straightforward to set up conversion at the point of sale (through a payment service like PayPal), but the exchange rate will be worse and you’ll lose out again if you need to re-convert back into local currency. 

Carefully research your options to find out which method will be best for your international ecommerce business. 

4. Ensure you understand and account for local taxes and regulations

This is an important part of your research: When you set your international prices, you need to be aware of the local taxes and duties you’ll need to pay. These vary substantially from one country to another, so make sure you consult with a local expert who can guide you. 

You should also be aware of privacy and data security regulations, for example, you need to be GDPR compliant if you’re operating in an EU country—many other countries have also adopted GDPR. 

5. Make sure your payments system is secure and protects against fraud

Your payment gateway needs to be PCI compliant—if you’re using a big brand option like PayPay or Stripe it will be—but if you’re using more niche services to process alternative payment methods or smaller currencies, you need to provide your customers with peace of mind when checking out on your site. 

The PCI Security Standards Council can help you design and implement payment processes that meet the requirements.

Fraud can also be a bigger concern when operating overseas, make sure you partner with a payment processing service that offers protection against fraud, and arm yourself with local knowledge about the market you’re working in.

Provide outstanding experiences, wherever your customers are based

Whether your customers are a few miles down the road, or on the other side of the world, they still expect a seamless, beautiful, and fast experience when they’re visiting your site. 

If you’re building your site to be flexible enough to handle international ecommerce, explore the possibility of using a headless architecture and a flexible frontend platform with Shogun Frontend. 

#cta-visual-fe#<cta-title>Create an incredible, high-performing ecommerce experience<cta-title>See how Shogun Frontend can help you deliver elevated shopping and speed. Learn more

Rhys Williams

Rhys is a writer specializing in enterprise software, ecommerce, and SaaS. He describes himself as a geek and a wordsmith and relishes making complex, technical topics come to life in easy-to-understand web copy.