This article is by Trevor Ginn. Trevor runs UK-based business Hello Baby, selling baby, toddler and nursery products worldwide through several online marketplaces and his own store.
At Hello Baby we’ve been selling online since 2007. We started on eBay, then Amazon soon afterwards, so multi-channel selling has been important for us since the start.
We started selling internationally in our first year, taking advantage of eBay’s international availability option. That’s the easiest way to get started with cross-border trade. Since then, we’ve grown our international sales steadily.
Today, we regularly sell to 34 countries around the world including the United States, Australia, France and Japan. Wherever the buyers are, if they want to buy from us then I am happy to sell to them.
But I’m always on the lookout for new channels – countries and marketplaces that can help us increase our order volume further.
In this post I’ll explain why I’m such a strong believer in selling internationally, and how I go about deciding where to sell next. I’ll talk about the challenges we’ve faced selling internationally – both in general, and for specific marketplaces in New Zealand, France and the Netherlands. And I’ll tell you how we dealt with those problems.
If you have any questions just pop them in the comments box at the end.
Selling Internationally Through eBay and Amazon
eBay and Amazon definitely offer the easiest way to start selling internationally.
We’ve always made items available for international shipping on eBay. For a while we used multiple IDs in different countries, which did seem to bring in slightly more sales, but the fees were higher. eBay give a discount if you pay for an Anchor Store, which is well worth having – but not if you have multiple Anchor Stores for different IDs.
Now we use a single eBay account and have localised eBay listings for each country – translated into the local language. But we still get people buying from sites outside their country. We’ve had people from Australia go onto eBay Germany and buy things from us here in the UK. It’s not all that common, but it does happen. People will buy how they want to buy, and if you are comfortable with that then it’s just more sales for you.
eBay fees are also different in different countries, and sometimes in unpredictable ways. For example, all your images are free in every country except for Italy and Spain. If you assume they’re free in all countries and use multiple images worldwide, you’ll get surprised with a big bill after your first month selling on Italy and Spain. We were stung for around £3,000 worth of image fees but eBay were very understanding and actually gave the money back. On the whole eBay can be unpredictable internationally, whereas Amazon’s just the same everywhere.
After eBay we started selling internationally through Amazon. We sell through all the established international Amazons and we’re probably going to start doing Amazon Mexico soon. Amazon is basically the same all over the world and it works really well for us. We sell about as much on Amazon internationally, in total, as we do on Amazon UK. Last month 53% of our Amazon orders were international.
International sales on eBay – France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Canada, the USA, Australia and so on – are good for us in aggregate, but only about a third of our international Amazon sales. We sell more on eBay UK than Amazon UK, but international eBay sales are only about 20% of our overall eBay sales.
It’s very difficult to explain the differences we see between eBay and Amazon international sales. Amazon USA generates about ten times more sales for us than eBay USA. We actually sell more to eBay Canada than eBay USA. eBay Australia, on the other hand, performs very well for us. That’s less of a mystery: there’s no Amazon in Australia so eBay is the top site for buyers over there.
My advice when choosing countries to sell to through eBay and Amazon, is to experiment with as many as possible. The results can often surprise you. What we see is not easily explained by either population size, competitors in the marketplace, or even local availability of the products we sell. Try it out, with a limited product range if necessary, then base your next steps on the actual sales data that comes back.
Why Go Beyond eBay and Amazon?
We have a good international sales volume through eBay and Amazon, but only in those countries where eBay and Amazon are strong. They are by no means the top ecommerce sites in every country. In China, for example, eBay and Amazon are very small. In France the market is fragmented: CDiscount, Priceminister and others are big players up alongside Amazon and eBay (we tried Priceminister and it didn’t really work for us – but that’s another story).
So if you sell internationally only through Amazon and eBay, there will be many countries that you cannot access to their full potential.
We do about 10% of our sales through “alternative” marketplaces now. Cdiscount in France works really well for us. TradeMe in New Zealand and Bol.com in the Netherlands also bring in a respectable sales volume (but we’ve stopped selling on Bol.com temporarily – more on that later).
International sales through alternative marketplaces aren’t quite big bucks for us, but it’s all incremental sales of the same product lines and inventory that we sell through eBay and Amazon. More volume means we can order more from our suppliers and ask for bigger discounts. Our warehouse is used at higher capacity, and my staff are kept busier. Overall it’s not a hard decision to make, if you can add those channels without disrupting your business.
As an international seller, your products are going to be more expensive for foreign buyers than in your home market. That, plus the huge size of marketplaces like China’s T-Mall means there’s massive potential to increase your sales by going beyond eBay and Amazon.
Once you build up some international volume, there’s scope to reduce your shipping costs or outsource fulfilment. International shipping consolidators like Spring GDS in Europe and Globegistics in the USA can potentially reduce your costs, by batching up your shipments with other retailers and moving them to the destination country in bulk.
Amazon’s European Fulfilment Network is a good service to fulfil orders quickly from within mainland Europe. For a business our size it’s very hard for is to sign contracts with independent fulfilment houses in every country, so the Amazon solution is very helpful.
Bol.com and also Cdiscount have their own FBA style services. The downside with any fulfilment service is that it can take an awful lot of shipping out to the different warehouses, and you have to manage the different stock levels for each location independently. If your setup doesn’t support that it will be a big headache.
We use Volo which integrates a number of channels directly. For those it doesn’t support, we integrate them through our Magento website using plugins. Then Volo picks the orders up from Magento. It’s not as solid as a direct integration but it does the job. If you can set up a system that works, once you’ve got it running it’s like a gift that keeps on giving. The orders come in and you process them like any other order, that’s all there is to it.
How I Choose New Marketplaces
There are a huge number of alternative marketplaces around the world, so how should you decide which one to sell on next?
We take a simple approach:
- Where is our biggest “gap” – the country where our proportion of sales is most out of alignment with the size of the market?
- Which is the best online marketplace in that country?
- Are there any obstacles to selling to that country, via that marketplace? Can we overcome them?
As we’ve been selling internationally for some years, we have plenty of data on which countries our sales are coming from. When we look at the data it’s easy to see which countries are not performing as well as they could. (If your geography knowledge isn’t great, you can add population data to a spreadsheet as an indicator of market size.)
Take the Netherlands, for example. We compared our sales to the Netherlands against our sales to France, which are quite significant for us. The Netherlands has around a third of the population of France, but the sales were nowhere near that proportion – almost nothing. Why weren’t we selling more to buyers in the Netherlands?
The next step is to look for the dominant marketplaces in that country. That typically takes some Googling and online research, and UKTI have also been a great source of information for us. In the case of the Netherlands, it turned out to be the sixth largest ecommerce market in Europe. Bol.com (almost unheard of outside the Netherlands) is the biggest player there.
Other times channels actually approach us first – they often want international sellers on their platform to increase the product range for their buyers.
The final step is to find out how we get registered on that marketplace as a seller, and if the marketplace or the country as a whole presents any big challenges. That’s what I’ll talk about next.
My New Marketplace Checklist
There are a number of factors we consider before we start selling on a new, unfamiliar marketplace. Often there are a few hurdles, which can be overcome with research, persistence and sometimes outside help.
Other times the hurdles are complete showstoppers and we can’t go ahead until the situation changes (e.g. a new service to help sellers access that marketplace).
Setting Up an Account
Some marketplaces ask for a local address or business registration, which can be very difficult to get for a small company like us.
In the case of Bol.com, we found a third-party company who could get us set up on the marketplace.
If we already have listings translated into the country’s language, then it’s great to be able to get more out of that investment. For example, we already have our listings translated into Spanish so we are all set for Amazon Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries.
If we don’t already have listings in the local language, we need to assess the availability and cost of translation. We prefer human translation for listings as there’s a lot that can go wrong with machine translation, which tends to increase complaints and returns.
It’s easy enough to get translation done, it’s just a matter of cost. We’ve used Upwork (Elance) in the past as well as foreign interns.
The main options sellers use for international customer service are:
- Google Translate or other machine translation service, to translate incoming and outgoing messages so that existing support staff can provide support worldwide.
- Native speakers of the buyer’s local language. This is more accurate and less likely to upset buyers, but it’s costly.
A lot of sellers report good results with Google Translate. It’s not 100% accurate by any means, and the results can be comical at times, but for some it works well enough.
With native language support, you don’t have to hire people to do it in-house. Companies like InterCultural Elements can provide support representatives fluent in many languages as an outsourced service.
Either way, you at least need to know how you will provide customer service to that country before committing to selling there.
Being able to process orders through our existing system is crucial. We don’t even consider having a different process for different marketplaces – the admin overhead, complexity and risk of making mistakes is too high.
Some channels are integrated directly into Volo. For others, we use Magento plugins. Magento has very wide adoption all over the world, so the availability of plugins for different marketplaces is usually good. A complete lack of pre-built integrations would usually be a showstopper for us, although if there is a really compelling case then we would consider having something custom-built.
Shipping and Customs
Some countries don’t have a reliable postage system. For example, we’d like to sell to South America using MercadoLibre but the postal service in the countries they serve (Argentina, Brazil, Mexico etc.) just isn’t up to scratch. We could increase our prices to allow for the increased risk of lost orders, but in this case the sums just don’t seem to add up.
Actually much of the world outside the developed countries doesn’t have a reliable postal service. Too many parcels get lost. Even some developed European countries like Italy and Spain can be erratic. We used to sell just about everywhere but looking at how many items got lost we decided to restrict it to the EU, Norway, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, United States, Canada and Japan.
Tracked mail is an option, but the price can be prohibitive. Mail consolidators, as mentioned above, are worth investigating, but the tracking often stops at the point when they hand over the parcels to the local postage system in the destination country.
Having said that, tracked mail can increase sales by opening up those countries with less reliable postage systems. We will start using it more, to increase the number of countries we send to. We’ll take some of the hit out of our margins, and see what the overall effect is. Even with more expensive shipping, it might be worth doing.
Another option is a local fulfilment house, but again you have to sign a contract, pay storage fees, manage separate inventory and so on. It’s unlikely to be worth the cost and complexity until the order volume has really proven itself.
Customs are something else again. As the UK is in the EU (for now at least!) it’s not a problem within Europe. But for other countries it can be an incredibly slow process. In Mexico, for example, customs clearance can take several weeks, some orders get lost, and surcharges get added. It doesn’t take long to complaints to start coming through. Again, it’s a question of scale. There’s almost always a solution if you have enough order volume for that country, and have the margins to cover the costs.
It’s a fact of life that some buyers won’t be satisfied with what they receive and will want to return their order. It happens with domestic orders, and it happens with international orders too.
When you are considering a new international sales channel, you have to plan for how you will allow buyers to return their orders. Amazon are particular stringent on this, requiring either free returns or a local address for buyers to return parcels to. There are a number of companies that can provide that, including wnDirect and ZigZag Global.
A recent Web Retailer article looked at international returns in detail.
Making sales is one thing, but actually getting the proceeds of those sales back to your home country bank account can be a big problem. Some countries, like Argentina, have strict foreign exchange controls that make it impossible to get your money back at an acceptable exchange rate.
Specialist services like World First and Currencies Direct can often help with this, but there’s some countries that even they don’t have a perfect solution for. They do, however, offer better exchange rates for the EU, USA and Canada than Amazon’s own currency conversion service. You can save a few percent of your sales, which is well worth doing.
I’d like to share my experiences with three “alternative” international marketplaces.
New Zealand: TradeMe
TradeMe is the dominant marketplace in New Zealand. The sales aren’t off the chart for us, but it’s easy to sell there so it’s a good channel overall.
The site itself is almost a cross between Gumtree and eBay. It’s listing-driven like eBay rather than catalogue-driven like Amazon, and in general a lot like eBay was eight or more years ago. On TradeMe, you can’t do variant listings, you can’t sell more than one item at a time, you can’t do ongoing listings – they all have a certain duration. But it’s a nice little marketplace, with very pleasant buyers.
We went through UKTI to get set up and it was done quickly. TradeMe are looking for international sellers so they make it quite easy for you. It’s been easy to run, orders don’t get lost, and there’s no delays at customs.
In terms of seller performance metrics, TradeMe has a fairly basic feedback score system. We’ve not had any trouble keeping a good record.
Cdiscount uses a catalogue system like Amazon. We started off using their catalogue then added extra products that we sell elsewhere, but were not in their system. The site is quite basic but we get good sales on it. It was easy to get registered, and they handle all the payments like Amazon.
A lot of these sites can be a little odd when you’re used to eBay and Amazon – there’s often little things you don’t think of. With Cdiscount, you can only refund the whole order and not part of the order, which is a little annoying. If a package turns up damaged, for example, we would like to offer 10% off to keep the buyer happy, but we can’t. That tactic works very well on eBay, but it’s not possible on Cdiscount.
Creating inventory is a bit tricky on Cdiscount. There are little things like their stock numbers don’t support any characters apart from numbers, letters and dashes. A lot of our SKUs include hashes, so that can be a problem.
Like TradeMe, we use a Magento plug-in to pick up the orders for processing. Volo is going to integrate with Cdiscount soon (and also Allegro) so we’ll switch over to the direct integration when it becomes available.
Seller performance metrics aren’t a big thing on Cdiscount, and we haven’t had any problems in that area.
The Netherlands: Bol.com
We have been doing well on Bol.com, even with only a third of our inventory listed – until recently. The problems came from their seller performance metrics.
Bol are like Amazon on steroids when it comes to metrics. They want you to offer free returns and tracked mail on everything. We’ve stopped selling there for the time being, but are working on our internal processes and will be relaunching soon.
The sales volume was very good, but their performance standards are just a little over the top. For example, if a package doesn’t get delivered by the day you estimated, they will ask you to refund the customer in full.
Bol is a catalogue-based system, and they process all the payments. But it has a few quirks. You can’t refund someone unless they’ve started the return process in the system, and if it’s gone past the time for that then you cannot refund them at all. People don’t start the return process properly then get upset when you can’t refund them.
We’ve actually had the same thing with PayPal in Russia. Buyers in Russia can pay you with PayPal, but you can’t make a payment back to them. If it goes past the time when you can reverse the payment, then there’s no way to refund them. It’s not good for customer satisfaction!
It isn’t easy to register on Bol, as the on-site process asks for a Dutch company number. We used a company called Sales Supply to do it for us. They have an arrangement with Bol and will help you set up an account – for a fee.
We are always looking for more international sales channels. Poland and China stand out as big opportunities. We sell almost nothing to either country, but they have large populations who buy online. In Poland, Allegro is the leading site, and in China it’s T-Mall. Both have around 50% of the ecommerce market in their respective countries. It’s pretty much a dead cert that we’d make some sales if we can get on those marketplaces.
We do quite well selling to Amazon Japan, but Rakuten is a bigger player there. As we are already selling to Japan, it should be quite straightforward to run – if we can jump through the hoops to get registered, and get it integrated into our system.
Rakuten are active in many countries around the world besides Japan (UK, USA, France, Germany etc.) and if they ever roll out a global selling system that includes Japan we’ll definitely give that a shot.
We might do Newegg in the USA, and we’re keen to get started on Amazon Mexico using the new unified North American account. Then there’s Flipkart in India, MarkaVIP in the Middle East look promising, and Lazada in South East Asia.
Once you open your eyes to international marketplaces beyond eBay and Amazon almost every country in the world becomes a genuine opportunity to be explored.
Good luck in your own international endeavours!