Cross-border ecommerce is growing like never before. Consumers now have access to brands from around the world, and merchants have the opportunity to expand internationally in a way that in the past would have been unthinkable. In 2020, cross-border ecommerce saw double digit growth with over 55% of consumers saying they made a purchase with an international merchant that year.
With so much growth in the market, it’s unsurprising that many Shopify merchants are looking at how they can improve their international sales strategy. However entering these new markets undoubtedly presents challenges, as merchants are required to navigate international restrictions, shipping costs, and more. Add to that competing with brands already based domestically in the markets they’re considering, it can become overwhelming very quickly.
The challenges facing cross-border ecommerce
So what are the challenges that ecommerce merchants face when developing into new international markets? According to Statista, their primary concerns are as follows:
Logistics is clearly a major barrier in growing internationally, given that five out of the top eight challenges are related to shipping and fulfillment. It’s unsurprising also to see that merchants find it tricky to manage customer expectations around cross-border sales, or being able to provide the same customer experience as they do for their domestic market. Thankfully, solving these issues is possible without causing disruption to the day-to-day domestic operations of ecommerce merchants.
Challenge #1 - Shipping and Fulfillment
Whether it’s ensuring compliance with international restrictions, or navigating cross-border returns, it comes as no surprise that international logistics are a major challenge for Shopify merchants looking to expand into new markets.
Start small, investigate fully, expand later
If you are just starting to look into international development then the first step in ensuring your store can successfully manage international logistics is to identify a couple of markets then expand from there into more complex markets. Particularly if you don't share a common language, as this will further complicate research and communication with relevant market authorities. Fully investigate shipping restrictions, customs details, and any additional taxes and fees that international shipments typically incur. From there, you can create an internal guide for that market which can provide your team with all the knowledge they need to navigate order fulfillment.
Make use of Ecommerce Automation
Processing order information especially for shipping labels can become muddled at the best of times even with domestic orders. With international orders, you have the added difficulty of different countries with different address formats and zipcodes that you won’t recognize mistakes with easily. By implementing ecommerce automation to manage order processing you’ll be able to ensure that shipping labels are correct, making it easier for your fulfillment team. If compliance is a concern you can also create rules to automatically generate any required paperwork and customs declarations, and select the most appropriate shipping service.
Consider a 3PL/Shopify Fulfillment Network
Adding international orders into your operations can make it difficult to manage resources when it comes to fulfillment. In this case, it can help to explore third party logistics (3PL) partners to take some of the pressure off your in-house team. Depending on the type of 3PL partner, they can look after warehousing for international orders at the most appropriate location for easy shipments, shipping and courier services, or returns processing. If you want an end-to-end solution and you’re a Shopify merchant based in the US or Canada then you can also take advantage of the Shopify Fulfillment Network which has the ability to fulfill international orders. You can use this route to test new international markets without the need for significant investment in in-house fulfillment.
Offer detailed Order Tracking
Tracking deliveries can be a challenge even domestically for ecommerce merchants, so it’s no surprise that it’s cited as a challenge for international orders also. The best way to combat this is by investing in detailed tracking - this will be useful for both your in-house customer service team as well as your international customers. For customers, ordering from abroad can be seen as a bit of a risk compared to ordering something domestically as it often takes longer and can be subject to more complications. Detailed real-time tracking gives them peace of mind, and also can reduce the number of enquiries your team receives about order status. However when a customer does get in touch about an order, your team will have more accurate information to work with and can pursue any issues that arise faster.
Challenge #2 - Customer Experience
The customer experience is paramount to any ecommerce business. After all, it’s the customers who make your store a success. Everything from your branding to your products to your marketing is all designed with them in mind, but it can be tricky to adapt this for an international market and give international customers the same level of experience as your domestic audience.
Localize your site for new markets
Localization is crucial to the success of your international development strategy and to the impact of your customer experience. There are two ways in which you can localize your store - language, and currency. 75% of customers prefer to shop in their native language, and 59% say they very rarely shop with English-only stores. Using translation tools can leave the customer feeling nervous about whether or not the information they’ve translated is accurate. Moreover, 98% of shoppers prefer to be able to browse and pay in their local currency, and 33% say they’ll abandon a purchase if the price is listed only in USD. Therefore localizing your store will make the customer feel more confident in their purchase, removing the frustration of trying to work out exactly what translated details may mean, and making rough estimates on what they’ll end up paying.
Personalize communication for your international customers
It’s important for international customers to receive as close to the same experience as possible to your domestic customers. This ensures they don’t feel like they get a second-rate service just because they’re ordering from a different country. One of the easiest ways to make customers feel valued is through personalization. This is true across the board with ecommerce, however especially for international customers there are ways you can personalize your communications to add to their experience. For example tailoring your email schedule to suit different timezones, or offering discounts to customers in a market that is celebrating a regional holiday.
Provide a memorable unboxing experience
Once a customer places an order, you need to prove to them that it was worth taking what they perceive as a risk. It’s a risk because they’re often paying more for delivery than they would a domestic brand, as well as potential fees and customs charges plus they’re often waiting longer to receive their order. The best way you can ensure that your international customers have a positive perception of your brand is to provide them with a memorable unboxing experience. Whether you’re managing orders in-house or through a service such as the Shopify Fulfillment Network, you can still provide your international customers with extra touches that make the experience special. For example using branded packaging, colored or printed tissue paper, different types of protective packing etc. You can then also include thank you notes, stickers, or even small bonus gifts. If you want to go a step further, you can personalize the thank you note or packaging depending on which market it’s going to - for example if you’re entering the French market your thank you note could be in French or at the very least say “Merci” instead of “Thank You”.
Challenge #3 - Managing Expectations
Until a market grows large enough to warrant setting up a regional office and warehouse, you are undoubtedly going to have to manage the expectations of customers ordering from overseas. Shipments won’t arrive as fast, the costs will be more expensive, there may be additional fees, and some products may be subject to restrictions. However, if you provide your customers with the information they need clearly and communicate on a regular basis, you’ll be able to manage those expectations and keep them satisfied.
The best way to communicate international order information to customers is to display it clearly throughout key pages on your site. The first step is in having an easy-to-find international section as part of your FAQ. You want to include all details they’ll want to know including:
- Destinations you ship to
- Couriers and services available
- Costs for services or highlighting that you calculate costs at checkout based on weight and destination
- Which additional fees are covered, and which they’ll be required to pay themselves
- How long order processing and dispatch will take
- Rough estimates for delivery times
- International returns process
- How to get in touch with your customer care team
Once you have an info-packed FAQ, you need to display links to this information on other pages so customers know to check this before placing an order. Options include displaying information to the customer depending on their geo-IP location such as a banner directing them to the specific section of the FAQ. You should also have a “Shipping and Returns” tab on product pages, with links directing customers to relevant information about international shipping. The more information you can give them ahead of placing an order, the easier it will be to manage their expectations.
Self-Service Customer Care
A key issue for many merchants going global is how they’ll manage customer care for international customers. After all, you’ll be in a different timezone and your customers will send enquiries at times where your team isn’t online. This further delays the response time, and can be frustrating for the customer. The easiest way to mitigate this is to provide plenty of self-service customer care options. 69% of customers say they try to solve a problem themselves before resorting to contacting customer service, so by offering self-service options they can find the information they need faster than they’d get it by contacting your team. You can offer these options in a few different ways; offering real-time tracking, automating common enquiry responses, and an easily searchable FAQ.
Post-purchase is one of the most important phases of the customer journey. This is when the real nerves begin for many international customers; they’ve taken what they perceive as a risk knowing that the shipping might take a while compared to domestic brands, and that things could go wrong in the delivery process. That’s why it’s crucial that your store stays in regular communication with the customer beyond the basic transactional emails they’d typically receive. Bolster your international transactional post-purchase flow by adding a couple of extra emails.
Once the order has shipped, provide them with extra information about the courier, tracking, and links to information about international orders.
When the shipment is still in process, send an additional email letting them know the package is still on its way, with the most up to date tracking information.
- Once the package has arrived, send an email with details of how to get in touch with your customer care team if there are any issues with their order as well as details of your international returns process.
You should also consider creating separate email strategies for each market you enter, in order to tailor the number of emails and the content to what information they’ll require.
Launching your brand into new markets can be great for your Shopify store - opening your products and brand up to new audiences, and growing your sales beyond the confines of your own borders. It isn’t without its challenges, however with the right strategy and consideration for both logistics and the customer experience you can ensure your store sees success in new global markets.