Selling abroad: Go global with your online marketplace business

If you’re already established in the UK, go international to grow your online business.

If you trade through online marketplaces, such as eBay, Rakuten and Amazon, you’ll know these platforms offer access to a mass market audience. They also include tools and resources that make selling your products much easier.

But if your business currently only sells to UK customers, now is the time to consider expanding into the international market. Because these platforms also make it easy to reach customers around the world.

For example, eBay says it has over 18 million UK buyers. But go global and eBay claims 177 million active buyers worldwide. Selling overseas, then, expands your marketplace over nine times on eBay alone. It’s a similar story on other platforms. China’s Alibaba, for example, says it has 601 million active buyers.

177 million

the number of active buyers worldwide on eBay

It’s about quality and quantity

International expansion isn’t just about increasing the size of your potential customer base, but also the quality. For example, many businesses specialise in products that have a seasonal element to them. These could be summer sportswear or gear for coping with the winter weather. By selling all around the world, you can make sure there’s always a market for your goods.

Similarly, many businesses are keen to target customers in particular high-growth developing markets. The online platforms can help here too. For example, in Brazil, MercadoLivre is one of the most visited sites in the country. Meanwhile Alibaba represents an opportunity for you to establish yourself in China.

But selling internationally is much more than opening up your domestic listing to a platform’s international audience.  

To really take advantage of the international opportunity, you’ll need to work to overcome the possible hurdles of selling overseas.

Royal Mail has helped us to compete as a business in a number of ways. One of those is through the reliability of its international delivery options, which enables us to maintain really high levels of feedback.

Stephen, World of Books
Screenshot of Stephen from World of Books

Do your market research

Rather than selling to the whole world, you need to concentrate on the markets where your product is likely to do well. That means carefully investigating target markets and the likely demand for your product.

That might mean doing business through a marketplace that has especially good reach in your chosen territory, such as in France. Or it might mean tailoring your offer for the market in question. For example, listing in the local language on the eBay or Amazon sites of a particular country.

Check out prices, taxes and delivery options

Pricing and accountancy is another potential challenge. You’ll want to quote prices in the local currency, but you’ll also need to ensure you’re complying with local regulation on sales tax and other levies. Coping with the ins and outs of other countries’ tax systems may require professional guidance.

Then there’s the challenge of fulfilment: getting your goods to an international customer base. You’ll need to investigate the best way to distribute. That might be direct or through a UK-based fulfilment centre, for example. Consider things like network reach, delivery speeds, returns services and, of course, pricing. You’ll need to talk to postal services companies to weigh up your best options.

Remember too that you’ll need more stock if your exports take off. Managing inventory when you’re selling across multiple outlets can be a real challenge. You don’t want to be left with excess stock, but you also need to be sure you can fulfil customers’ orders quickly.

Royal Mail deliver for us to 100 countries. I would recommend Royal Mail for quality of service, reliability and value for money.

David, Deciem
Cardboard boxes packaged up for sending

Prepare for cultural differences

Don’t be surprised by cultural differences, particularly if you’ve only ever dealt with British customers. One common observation when UK companies begin to sell overseas, especially in certain European markets, is that customers there are much less shy about complaining. You’ll need robust customer service processes to ensure such problems don’t get out of hand.

But don’t be put off. The international opportunities on offer are too large for a marketplace-based business to ignore. Plus, many hurdles can be overcome by automated tools. These are sometimes offered by the marketplaces themselves. Others might be available through your delivery partners.

For example, see what data you can find on particular markets from delivery providers or specialist market research providers such as Terapeak. Tools such as Selling Manager Pro can help you manage your inventory. It may even pay to work with an online selling consultant that specialises in international sales such as WebInterpret or InterCultural Elements.

Start small but seize the opportunity

If in doubt, start slowly. Target one particular overseas market, or only open up certain product categories for international sale. That way you can identify and iron out problems that are specific to your business without being overwhelmed by them.

However, you do it, seize the opportunity. Just as marketplaces have enabled the smallest business to have a successful web presence, so they can help you compete overseas. The world really can be in the palm of your hand.

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