Having an online store means anyone in the world can visit your website and see your goods. However, a nice online offering does not automatically mean your business is geared to servicing export sales, or even that your website is attractive to potential customers in other countries.
The first step to any import export venture is getting your import export license.
Assuming you are registered for imports and exports, let’s look at 5 effective ways to optimise your website for international online sales, and take your business to a new level.
1. Be targeted
Generally speaking, it’s not practical to go from a local client base to a worldwide market in one go. Your first step is to choose a country, or area, that makes sense for your product in terms of logistics and market preference. Focus on establishing a market there before expanding your reach further.
Countries that make the most sense to target:
- Are in a similar time zone (for customer service practicality).
- Are English speaking, or speak a language you know.
- Have a culture in line with your product.
- Have no or manageable laws, taxes, and restrictions regarding your product.
2. Fill a gap in the market
Use Google Trends to look at where the most interest in your product lies geographically.
Also use Google’s Market Finder to determine whether there is potential for international online sales in terms of client base for your product in your target country. The platform gives you recommendations on various markets based on your industry and current online offering, as well as an indication of the competition you’ll have with search engine advertising.
Even if your type of product is very popular in your target country, it can be that the market is quite saturated. Do thorough market research on existing offerings to identify what sets you apart from the competition.
Bear in mind there may already be some international interest in your product offering that you’re not tapping into. It is easy to determine whether this is true and where the interest is coming from by looking at your web traffic according to geographical location on Google Analytics. The countries that generate the most traffic on your website are the ones where you can expect the most international online sales potential.
3. Research compliance
You don’t want to market your goods to a new country and generate international online sales only to discover that delivery is a tax, legal or logistical nightmare.
Speak to freight and clearing agents about the delivery and import tax realities you’re facing. Most customs authorities post information like duties, restrictions, and permit requirements online, so you can do some research of your own as well.
Be realistic about how much trouble your client will go to for the sake of your product. If they require a special permit, or the import tax on your product is very high in their country, how easy would it be for them to find a local supplier instead?
Look into what trade agreement South Africa has with your target country. You may be able to spare your clients the cost of import duty by providing a certificate of origin with orders. This makes you much more competitive in the global market compared to suppliers who’s goods incur full duty.
If, despite compliance challenges, you are certain your product will be successful once it enters the new market, investigate the legal requirements of handling the import formalities yourself and distributing a product that is already cleared by their customs authority. This can be difficult because South African legislation prohibits the payment of import VAT in a different country. You may therefore need to have registered operations set up in the country of import to also be the importer on record.
4. Be appropriate, relatable, and relevant
You may be eager to advertise your website in the new market as-is and see how it goes, but this would be a waste of your marketing budget if your site is not relatable to your foreign users. Updates you’ll need to make include:
- Translating some or all your online content to the relevant language.
- Showing pricing in the relevant currency. Consider using an e-commerce system that adapts for different currencies. Saving your customer the effort of exchange rate calculations makes it more likely they’ll buy.
- Showing product data and measurements in the relevant units.
- Showing telephone numbers and addresses in the international format.
- Ensuring industry jargon and product terminology is in line with what your target market uses.
- Checking that colloquialisms, references and jokes on your site are appropriate to the new audience’s culture.
This practice is called localisation. Learn from other websites that target your intended market. Or even better, get a business connection or a localisation consultant from that culture to review your content.
5. Have an international customer service plan
You’ll have to deliver what you sell, so it’s all good to have a well translated and localised site, but what happens when your new clients contact you? Will you or someone else in your company be able to understand and react to their queries professionally in their language over email, or by phone?
Consider your entire sales, order, and supply chain experience form the foreign client’s point of view.
- How will you interact with them?
- Can your payment solution handle international online sales transactions?
- Can your freight or courier provider deliver within a reasonable time?
- Who will carry the cost of shipping?
- What happens if your client is unhappy with their order? Is it worth your while to send a replacement, or will you do an international refund payment?
- What if your product comes with a maintenance guarantee? Can you honour the guarantee across borders? If not, how will you relay this to the client?
- If you run out of stock and are pressed for time, can your supplier deliver to your client directly?
By taking the time to properly adapt your website for international online sales, reviewing your sales process, and checking your fulfilment chain, you’ll be setting up your business for export success.
About the author
Frieda-Marié de Jager
With a degree in design from CPUT, Frieda-Marié started her career in digital and content marketing in 2013. Since joining Import Export License in 2019, she’s created several e-books, guides, blog posts, and newsletters on international trade. On weekends you can find her building Lego with the family, walking her beagle, or whipping up a storm in the kitchen.