Strategies for growing your ecommerce sales: interview with Mark Ellis

eCommerce is said to be growing 250% faster than traditional retail. The number of digital buyers across the globe is on the increase. According to Econsultancy, 45% of global shoppers buy goods from overseas stores.

Overall eCommerce growth is steady and is rising more quickly than UK domestic sales. In fact, the UK makes up less than 10% of the current global eCommerce market. What does this mean?

A UK online seller who is truly making the most of the global marketplace and the cross-border opportunity should see more like 40% of their orders coming from abroad and just 60% from the domestic market.

Take ASOS as an example: a UK retailer that has become a global business with over 60% of its business coming from abroad. This was achieved through offering a fully localised buying experience to their key international markets.

According to IMRG, international eCommerce for UK retailers will have grown to GBP 28 bn by 2020. If you haven’t started selling your product internationally, you may now feel tempted to do so.

But you may ask…

  • … why, how and what to sell internationally?
  • … how to market your products on foreign markets?
  • … what are common mistakes made by retailers selling abroad?

To answer these questions, we talked to Mark Ellis, the eCommerce Sales & Marketing Director at Webinterpret.

Interview with Mark Ellis

mark ellis international online sales

Mark Ellis, the eCommerce Sales & Marketing Director at Webinterpret

First things first: why sell internationally?

Mark: Buyers all over the world are looking for both products that aren’t available in their domestic market and products at the right price, regardless of where they are sourced. It’s now not unusual to be able to buy abroad and find the same product cheaper than you can find it domestically, even when shipping is included.

This is especially true inside Europe but also outside in markets such as China and the US. The only thing buyers usually have to accommodate is increased shipping times. However, even this barrier is becoming blurred as retailers start to store inventory in local markets.

By opening up to the international market in the right way, you put your products in front of, literally, hundreds of millions of new potential buyers. Potentially, products they either can’t get or at prices they can’t find domestically.

You may not be aware of the potential outside your domestic market until you actually start selling internationally.

The potential the global marketplace offers does sound impressive. So how to sell internationally?

Mark: The best place to start is to get your shipping prices correct. Finding out what can and can’t be shipped at a reasonable price is the starting point for knowing what products to cross border tradeoffer. What we have seen at Webinterpret is that if the shipping price is too high compared to the product price it’s not likely to sell. You should also think about how much of the shipping cost you can put into your product price.

After this there are two main approaches. If you know a country where your products are either unique or competitive, you can start by opening up an online store in that country and invest in local marketing.

The alternative is to start testing in multiple markets at once by listing your items internationally on marketplaces. The obvious ones are eBay and Amazon but there are others. This means you don’t have to invest huge amounts in marketing in multiple countries but can still see what sells where and use that as a basis for deciding which markets to really focus on.

With both approaches, fully localising your products and / or website is fundamentally important if you want to get the best results. This means making sure your prices are converted, shipping is set properly, sizes are converted and of course your products are in the buyer’s local language.

You may not be aware of the potential outside your domestic market until you actually start selling internationally.

It is essential that you localise your store. Overcoming the language barrier must be the most important factor here?

Mark: Languages are pretty important when it comes to selling internationally. Buyers tend to search in their own language and if your products are in English, they simply won’t be found. Buyers also just prefer to purchase in their own language.

A couple of years ago the Common Sense Advisory ran some research showing that buyers spend over 72% of their web browsing on local language sites. Over half are more concerned about the language than the product price and again over 70% are more likely to make a purchase in their own language.

As the buyer goes through the purchase journey, they are faced with other hurdles. If your products are in British pounds, they have to convert to their own currency. If you sell shoes, they have to do a conversion for sizes. They have to work out if they can get the product cheaper when considering shipping and so on.

Localisation is about overcoming these barriers for the buyer so that purchasing is a straightforward process.

When it comes to overcoming the language barrier, translating all your listings must be quite costly, though?

Mark: It can be. You can use a translation company, a translation tool Google/Bing Translate or a CBT partner. If you want to choose human translation, it may be indeed costly. If you consider a product has on average 100 words and these are translated at a reasonable cost of 10 cents/pence per word, it’s 10 euros/pounds per product. 1,000 products is 10,000 euros/pounds and then to 4 countries, you’re looking around 40k for your catalogue.

start selling internationally expert interviewThen consider most products have a lifespan of 70 – 90 days and even with a good translation partner, you’re paying a lot every quarter to keep your products up to date. For some businesses this may make sense, but for most it’s a challenge to be profitable this way.

Many people are put off by machine translation because of their experience with the standard translation tools. True … these are not the best at translating products. However, it’s not because they don’t translate well but because they don’t understand context.

Machine translation works well for many online sellers where there is a good eCommerce-orientated translation tool. In our case we have developed a machine translation system that takes into account, among other things, which category the product is in, what is and what is not a brand name and what are good keywords that buyers would search for.

It also holds a separate human translated memory for item specifics so these are always translated well. Having translated and listed tens of millions of products means the machine has been able to learn what is a good translation and what is bad and also what keywords help it get found in searches.

Many people are put off by machine translation because of their experience with the standard translation tools. But machine translation works well for many online sellers where there is a good eCommerce-orientated translation tool.

Another significant factor behind online sales success is marketing. Which marketing channels would you recommend for international eCommerce?

Mark: Indeed, marketing is an integral part of online sales success both domestically and internationally. You need to drive traffic to your website, otherwise it is unlikely that the millions of foreign buyers will find your store.

international online shopIf you sell on foreign markets it pays to think and act local. For instance, consider localised SEO. Ask the right questions, such as Is the same search engine used in this location?. Of course, there is always Google, but it does not mean that other search engines should be overlooked. Take the Chinese Baidu or the Russian Yandex as an example: in these markets they are much bigger than Google.

Country-specific knowledge will also help you to come up with a reliable marketing strategy. As mentioned earlier, though, marketplaces play a role here. In this context the likes of eBay and Amazon can be considered marketing channels.

What sells well internationally?

Mark: If it can ship, has the right price and is localised then it can sell internationally. There is no clear pattern regarding individual products, they can sell if they are set up to be enticing to buyers. When you look at the data though some top categories do stand out. These include Fashion and Clothes, Shoes & Accessories, Health & Beauty and Vehicle Parts.

How are UK sellers doing when it comes to international sales?

Mark: UK sellers are doing very well. Many of our clients see their revenue increase significantly when starting to sell cross border. It’s the one action a seller can take to add percentage points, sometimes double digit, to their revenue if they weren’t actively selling internationally before. With the current exchange rate into Europe and US, UK products are also even more competitive than they were so it’s a really good time for British retailers to start.

 If it can ship, has the right price and is localised then it can sell internationally.

What are common mistakes made by retailers selling abroad?

Mark: Thinking that international buyers will accept less than domestic customers. In most countries eCommerce is established and buyers expect a certain level of service. Not providing a good quality of service is as damaging internationally as it is domestically.

Also, at the risk of repeating myself, getting the shipping prices wrong and setting shipping times to a standard, let’s say 2 weeks, when in reality the item can be there in 2 – 3 days, both these things can put buyers off immediately, even if they are at the end of the purchase journey.

opening worldwide ecommerce

Where do you see international eCommerce in five years’ time?

Mark: Becoming more and more a standard part of online trade. A forecast done by OC&C with Google predicted that by 2020 international trade will on average comprise 40% of all online sales made from UK retailers and I go along with that.

Following quickly behind this will be an adaptation of the advanced tools and techniques used on domestic markets, such as price analysis and personalisation, to the cross border trade market. But this will be a symptom of international becoming an extension of domestic, i.e. normal.

In the 5 years and beyond timescales we’ll be looking more towards what are now growing markets.

In the 5 years and beyond timescales we’ll be looking more towards what are now growing markets which still feel a little too challenging to the majority of European retailers, such as Brazil and of course China. We’ll see continued growth in CBT as these markets and others become more open and mature.


Further Reading & Other Sources

Facts most online sellers didn’t know about eBay: interview with A. Figas
Customer experience is key to long-term business success: interview with Dennis Otto
The future of international sales on Amazon: interview with M. Wejtko
Sell globally with your webstore: interview with A. Borgstrom & F. Richardson
How to address the actual needs of global online sellers: interview with M. Kostykowski

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