How to take your eCommerce business to the world

Online selling opens a small business up to the entire world. If you’re ready to make the leap to overseas markets, here’s what you need to know.

Today, the ease with which a small business in Australia can access international markets is unprecedented. With global eCommerce sales projected by Statista to hit US$4.8 trillion in 2021 (a 209% jump from 2017’s $2.3 trillion tally) and an estimated 1.66 billion people already shopping online, there’s a pretty big pie out there to take a slice from.

But how do you know if your small business is ready to take on the world? With millions of eCommerce sites to compete with and hundreds of international markets to consider, where do you start?

Where to sell

For many business owners, markets like the US, UK, NZ and Canada might seem like the most obvious regions to expand into. English speaking and with broad cultural similarities to Australia, our familiarity with these countries makes selling there seem a realistic prospect. That may be true, but why limit your potential? From a numbers perspective, major emerging markets China and India each boast a population of over one billion people who are embracing online shopping. Likewise, there are hundreds of millions of potential online shoppers across south east Asia

Chinese and SE Asian markets in particular see Australia’s strict health and safety regulations as a plus, giving us a reputation as a trustworthy source of products. China and India are huge, fast-growing markets, however to really capitalise on the latter you may need to consider offering cash-on-delivery: figures show this to be the preferred payment method for around 60% of shoppers there.

So size isn’t everything. It could be better for your business to tackle a small, eager market than a large, disinterested one. Although, the type of products you sell may dictate the markets you pursue. A manufacturer of snowboarding equipment may get some residual sales from Indonesians who take an annual trip to the snow, but the bulk of their marketing focus is likely to be on markets where winter activities are more prevalent (even if Switzerland has a population 30 times less than Indonesia).

Another factor to consider is the openness of international markets—check to see if the types of goods you sell are subject to tariffs. This could put you at a competitive disadvantage and it may not be worth putting energy into markets where you can’t compete on a level playing field. Conversely, Australia’s free trade agreements with countries like Japan, South Korea and China can help businesses break into overseas markets. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has a Free Trade Agreement Portal to help businesses work out how they can take advantage of such agreements.

Selling to international markets is often easier through a well-known online global marketplace such as eBay or Amazon. The level of traffic on these platforms and the trust consumers have in them can help you crack new territory. Bear in mind that some countries have their own specific mega eCommerce sites to consider, such as Rakuten in Japan, and, in China, and Alibaba.

When to sell

Turn low season into high season

For retailers who experience seasonal ebbs and flows in sales, the beauty of eCommerce is the ability to tap into foreign markets to help sell year-round. Consider the swimwear designer who finds sales inevitably tapering off in autumn. Such brands can then turn their marketing attentions to the northern hemisphere to shore up sales in Australia’s low season… after all, it’s always warm somewhere.

Target peak shopping dates

Get to know the markets you’re targeting and learn about any celebrations and holidays that might provide opportunities or challenges. Christmas, of course, is a peak sales period in many Western markets, while occasions such as Mother’s and Father’s day are celebrated internationally, although the date varies in different regions.

Chinese New Year is widely celebrated around the world. Thailand, for instance, has the largest Chinese population outside China. It’s a public holiday there and in other markets including Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The festival of Diwali originated in India and Nepal and is a busy shopping period in countries that celebrate it

Online shopping events

Like Australia’s Click Frenzy, many countries have events where consumers are lured by deals and discounts to shop online en masse. The very Chinese phenomenon of Singles Day on November 11 is the biggest such event in the world.

In the US, Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, has long marked the unofficial start of the Christmas selling period. It’s now joined by Cyber Monday, three days later, with its focus on ecommerce. GSS, or Great Singapore Sale, lasts from June to August, while MYCyberSale in Malaysia takes place over five days.

What to sell

Know what’s allowed

Every country has restrictions in place limiting the type of goods that can be imported. Often these are fairly obvious: anyone trading in things like weapons, explosives, animals, tobacco or alcohol should be well aware of any compliance issues. But a jewellery maker may not know that Saudi customs prohibits the importation of pearls. Even a single ingredient can make a product unsuitable for sale in some places (Mountain Dew is banned in over 100 countries due to the use of a certain oil).

Consider religious sensitivities

There are other considerations to ensure your product is right for foreign markets. In 2011 an Australian brand sparked fierce protests in India after showing at Australian Fashion Week. The collection, depicting Hindu deities Lakshmi and Krishna on swimwear, caused outrage halfway across the planet. The collection never saw the light of day after production was halted, but it’s a sound lesson in cultural sensitivities. In a globalised world, reputations can be tarnished from afar.

Understand cultural quirks

Unfortunately, steering away from religion and politics isn’t 100% fool proof. Cultural misinterpretation can happen when you least expect it. For instance, in Ethiopia, high levels of illiteracy means packaging often depicts the product inside—so consumers found it rather alarming to see pictures of an infant on US baby food labels.

Lost in translation

Language can present unforeseen challenges. Consider Clairol’s attempts to sell the Mist Stick curling iron in Germany, only to learn “mist” translates as slang for manure. And Mitsubishi’s venerable Pajero 4WD is re-badged in many Spanish-speaking markets—the original name being rather insulting when translated.

Ultimately, however, the benefits for a small business to sell to international markets usually outweigh the risks. Like any venture in business, it’s better not to jump in headfirst. Take time to do your homework and prepare the groundwork for success.

Ready to take on the world?

Read our Insights paper on the Australian small businesses that have gone global and begin charting your route there.

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