International eCommerce: New Frontiers

It seems like a long time ago when I had a conversation with a colleague about the big question of the day,  ‘do you think clothes will ever sell online?’  A few years later I’m listening to my tired boss tell me about a client he had call him at 2am asking  ‘why haven’t we sold a dress in the last ten minutes?’  At that point selling thousands of items a day became the norm.  Today the big question for me has become – how can this work effectively on a global scale?

The rise of eCommerce has been incredible.  For those on the front line it has been hard won with difficult lessons learnt along the way.  In the early days questions regarding key issues such as marketing, returns and conversion rates would only become clear after a prolonged commitment to testing out new ideas.  With a consolidated local market of online retailers and customers, margins are now less of an unknown quantity and once again eCommerce is taking bold steps into new markets.

The international shoppers that flock to London every year show us that luxury retail is well known here as a trusted benchmark.  This comes along with a strong heritage of world class service that has consistently delivered for generations. I asked Jenny Parker, co-founder of Country Attire, what is it that international customers find so appealing? “I think what makes British style attractive to overseas consumers is that the British are perceived to be the epitome of quality whilst at the same time it is accessible, easy to emulate and aspire to. The Brits are like Magpies, we go around the world and adopt looks, products and services as our own, quite often putting the British quirky essence into the overall style. The overarching theme is that British quality is still an international benchmark which should be guarded and nurtured.”  Country Attire’s recognition that British style is one of GB’s leading exports is reflected by their commitment to offer free delivery across the globe.

Establishing a demand overseas is a great feeling, but one that is tempered by the enduring question, will it be worth it?  Working out the potential costs, time and energy often begins with understanding international payment and fulfilment in relation to your business.  Knowing when to include third parties is often the key to making this process run smoothly.  I asked John Ashton, Head of Multi Channel Retail at Clarks if it was always necessary to use third parties overseas for international eCommerce. “I think it depends where. Europe & the US is very doable from the UK if you can expand your team and include local language specialists and include some form of local fulfilment option in the US.  Most of Europe is possible to fulfill from the UK although not necessarily desirable.  Asia & Middle East always requires 3rd party help due to restrictions in selling and complex supply chain models and to deal with local payment, returns and delivery methods. Every country is different, even in Europe each country interprets data protection laws differently for instance”.

The rewards of a successful international campaign can be astronomical, but this can come at the price of sustained commitment.  You can a/b test your web design for each country or use a personalised content delivery system for your visitors, as long as you can still work to a worthwhile margin or hold out for a forecasted return, as did most of our current eCommerce winners at sometime or another. Darryl Adie, Managing Director of Ampersand highlights the issue of finding a balance. “Even though many eCommerce platforms have in-built functionality specifically allowing rapid international expansion, it’s not as simple as flicking a switch. For example, many retailers think that accepting credit cards and PayPal is enough, but this isn’t always the case.  German shoppers prefer to use ELV bank transfers, while Japanese buyers prefer to pay cash on delivery. Retailers also need to consider whether their logistics infrastructure allows them to offer competitive delivery times in a commercially viable way.  If not, then unless selling something truly unique, the expansion might not be worth the cost.”

It is impossible to be all things to all people, but a strong confident brand with excellent customer service can help online shoppers do things differently, with them enjoying the experience in the process.  In the earliest days of eCommerce those with any interest in buying or selling online knew that one day, like traditional retail itself,  it would become unstoppable.  If you’ve ever found yourself on Oxford Street in the middle of Summer, the scale of international consumption is self evident, along with the growing online export figures reported annually.  The question of significant investment and change can successfully challenge the logistical barriers to this market, leaving the true test of international expansion to refocus on the appeal of your brand and product on the world stage.

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