How to handle international expansion as an e-commerce business

Even when you're only competing within your home country, there’s a lot to consider when running an e-commerce business. That can multiply tenfold when you decide to expand internationally. Many companies can't handle it because they ignore one vital factor or another, but we want to ensure you not only survive, but thrive around the world.

As you grow more comfortable running your e-commerce business in your home country, you may wonder if it’s time to shift your focus abroad and start expanding internationally. Since your business is based online, there shouldn’t be much issue with selling products internationally, right? You could send a message to a different country in one second, after all, so how much harder could it be to sell products?
As it turns out, there’s a lot more to expanding internationally as an e-commerce business than you might think. You’ll have to take a very close look at the ins and outs of your business, ensuring every bit of your company’s structure is ready to cater to a whole new market. They’ll likely use a different type of money, speak another language, and have different laws and customs, all of which you’ll need to consider before selling outside your borders.


What to consider before expanding abroad
Conducting a full review of an e-commerce business to prep for expanding internationally can seem overwhelming.
After all, you’re looking at production and marketing teams, customer service staff, accountants, and more—all at once. They’ll all need training and/or new coworkers to help them deal with the transition to a new, international market.
That leads to another question, too: What will you teach your team as you train them? What do you need your new staff members to accomplish? It can be daunting, but you’ll be able to make more confident decisions as you assess your business and commit to adjustments.


Before you even announce the intention to your whole staff, you need to be honest with yourself: Is global expansion actually the right move for your e-commerce business?
In other words, is the decision to go global based on a real demand you know you can fulfil? Or is it based on the desire to feel larger and more powerful? Is it a measured step in your company’s development, or a gamble you’re relying on to save it? Is there anything to be gained from selling to the global market, or do you only need your local customers?
This reflection is essential, as an expansion your company doesn’t need or isn’t prepared for, could shut down your business entirely.
However, if you know it could benefit your company, you have the money for it, and you have (or could hire) the necessary staff, there’s no reason you shouldn’t start planning. Don’t have certain answers to those questions? Start the research and testing process to help you figure them out.


To sell to international markets, of course, you’ll have to know which ones you want to sell to. You might not have an exact idea of this yet, so it’s worth studying all the potential countries you could see your product succeeding in.
Selling a new kind of sunscreen? Go ahead and cross Finland off your shortlist, but keep Brazil and Spain in mind. Want to sell some advanced camping equipment? Pick countries known for their natural beauty and active outdoor communities. Things like hygienic supplies, basic clothes, and other essential items, however, can be sold anywhere your budget will allow.
In turn, you’ll have to study what competition you may have in that market. Is there a local brand already satisfying a need for what you offer? Is there a place for a product like yours in their society and culture? Has someone tried selling something similar there in the past?
Along with answering those questions, you’ll have to do a thorough review of your potential new market’s commerce laws. Is there an incentive to build your factory in their borders instead of shipping from the original? Are there taxes on international goods that may be applied to you? What proceedings does your company have to go through before being legally cleared to sell?
Yes, it’s a lot of questions at once, but that just begins to scratch the surface of what you need to learn. It’s a new country, after all, and a new set of international commerce laws on top of that. There’s a reason expanding internationally into global markets can take years for a company.


As you follow the line of thinking from earlier, you’ll want to make a note of the products you can offer, or would like to offer, to your new customer base.
To answer this question, you have to simultaneously figure out another issue we’ll discuss later: shipping costs. Will you ship fully assembled products to stores, or will you ship parts to a factory you’ve set up elsewhere? Will you need new packing and shipping materials to help your products make the journey abroad? You’ll also have to consider commerce fees, along with taxes your new customers may pay, to figure out how to reasonably price your products.
In determining those prices, you’ll then be able to figure out what is and isn’t feasible to sell in your new market.
In turn, if you find there are empty spaces in your inventory, consider making new products that are exclusive (and catered) to your new market! This tactic has a purpose beyond filling shelf space, too, allowing people to get more comfortable with you if done right.
See, as your new customers encounter your unfamiliar brand, seeing products with familiar shapes, components, or names will make them trust in you more from the start. Along with that, if you have those products made with locally sourced materials in a nearby factory, it could save you more money, and allow for higher-quality products, than shipping from home.

Yuqo quotesBe honest with yourself: Is global expansion actually the right move for your e-commerce business?



With your new products considered and conceived, it’s time to prepare your website for global expansion. This involves multiple phases of enhancements, including translating website copy, creating new blog content, and figuring out payment processing.


Now, if you’re expanding internationally from the US to Canada or the UK, there isn’t much translation to worry about. If you’re based in the Netherlands and want to start selling to Japan, however, it’s time to hire some translators. You want your new customers to understand you, after all, so just sticking with your native tongue won’t do.
It’s also worth noting that certain texts may be physically longer or shorter when written in a different language. The language may even be read in a different direction than your own. All that considered, you’ll want to have your web designers make a new version of your site that accommodates the translated text. We suggest having a visible mini-menu on your homepage that allows visitors to switch between different languages.


As you translate the actual website copy, you’ll also want to make sure you have translated versions of your previous blog posts prepared. You’ll write original content for your new market, too, but a blog already filled with content will be more appealing than 2–3 posts.
In the process, you’ll also want to make sure the content you’re putting on the translated blog is relevant to your new market. If a post of yours only focuses on a product unavailable to them, for example, don’t bother with it. As an alternative, you may want to write a similar post about a product they will be able to get.
Lastly, make sure you’re not using idioms or local expressions in blog content you intend to have translated. The meanings get lost in translation, and the resulting content is nonsensical.


With everyone able to enjoy your website, you’ll want to be ready to process their payments when they buy your goods. This will be a logistical hurdle, mainly involving a collaborative effort with your accountants, the government of the country you’re expanding into, and perhaps a payment processing company already equipped for international transactions.



Since you’re already sitting down with your accounting team, take time to figure out the shipping and handling costs. involved when expanding internationally. You’ll also need to involve your shipping company of choice in this discussion and consider how your factory needs to be staffed and paid to handle the new work.
For the sake of transparency and smooth transactions, have this figured out before you officially open your online store.


Knowing you’re ready for new customers to buy your products, it’s time to polish your social media presence and attract them to your site!
Now, depending on your target country, you may not have to do too much to get your accounts ready for your new audience. If the culture is similar, and most people understand your native language, just make sure to create posts related to the new country you’re selling to.
If you have barriers to cross, though, we suggest hiring social media experts who are from where you’re expanding into. Not only will they have the best command over their country’s language, but they’ll also have a deep knowledge of its culture and practices. They can then use that deep knowledge to create informed and engaging content for your target audience.


As you’re putting the new website together, picking products to sell, and beefing up your social media, you’ll have one more thing to consider: your brand’s image. While you’ll want to maintain the nuts and bolts of it so people know you’re the same company, you’ll also want to optimise it to fit nicely within your new market.
Sticking out is nice as a company, yes, but there are good ways and bad ways to do it. When expanding internationally, standing above the crowd as a reliable and conscious contributor to your new market is good! Being an obviously unfamiliar and stubborn presence, however, can garner negative attention that leads to resentment of your brand.
The trick, in short, is maintaining your core identity while making it clear you respect, understand and appreciate your new customers.


Expanding internationally: case studies
To cap off our discussion, let’s take a look at a couple of major companies who thrive after expanding internationally. Neither are e-commerce brands at their core, but they each utilised some of the key strategies we discussed.


To start, there are few companies better at creating products for new markets than Dunkin’ Donuts. In their China locations, for instance, you can find doughnuts topped with dry pork and seaweed. India’s stores offer saffron icing and pistachios, Japan’s have a mochi doughnut made of glutinous rice, and the United Arab Emirates’ have a variety with date syrup!
Overall, the Dunkin’ experience offers different flavours in every country. At their core, however, they’re known around the world as a quick and simple doughnut shop for regular working people.


Speaking of core identity, Red Bull is perhaps the grandmaster of staying true to its image. It’s sold all around the world, but no matter where you go, you’ll always see that iconic red logo on that equally iconic silver can.
As they began sponsoring extreme sports events and similar ventures around the world, this continuity across markets meant people were able to recognise them everywhere. It stood out even more in the US, where most energy drinks typically come in massive cans with loud, aggressive designs. By sticking with moderate sizes and simple yet eye-grabbing and consistent packaging, it established itself a singular force, not just another competitor.
This commitment to image, as some marketing experts will tell you, has been the key to their global success.


Do what's right for your e-commerce business
After reading this, you may feel your e-commerce business is more ready than ever to start expanding internationally. Knowledge is indeed power, but, remember, that will only help you when the time and circumstances are right. Take time to think about whether you’d fit in certain international markets, and tread carefully as you make changes to your business.
Rather than a gamble that could leave you on the ground, international expansion should be a reasoned, beneficial step forward for you and all your employees. If you walk with steady confidence, you’ll go farther than you could ever imagine.