Exporting online

As the world becomes more comfortable with buying online, the internet can be an easy way to reach international customers. As with any method of market entry, selling online requires planning and focus for success.

Selling online gives you a number of advantages including the ability to:

  • test the waters without major investment
  • avoid third party mark-ups
  • maintain direct control over your marketing. 

Before you decide on this method of market entry you need to ask yourself three things:

  1. Are my customers online?
  2. Are my competitors online?
  3. Does my product lend itself to online sales?

Your target customer may not feel comfortable purchasing from a company without a local presence. And it can be difficult to provide good customer service and after sales support from a distance. This approach may also mean higher freight costs if you are posting individual items directly to the customer.

Your website

You may need to create a localised and translated version of your website for the overseas market. Translations can be expensive. Therefore it can be a good idea, at least initially, to direct your energies to a specific country or region and translate into one language. If you can't afford a translation make sure you use plain, jargon-free English.

Don't use too many 'click-throughs'. Research shows that customers are put off if by more than three steps in the ordering and buying process. Try to make it as simple as possible for customers to buy from your site. Check out successful online stores such as Amazon to see how they've done it.

If someone emails you in a foreign language, are you going to be able to respond? Clearly state what languages you can answer queries with. Free translation services, such as Google Translate are useful, but their accuracy is not guaranteed.

Streamline your business processes

Ensure your other business processes align with your online systems. This is especially important for your stock control systems - you don't want your online customers to purchase an item that is out of stock.

As overseas customers will need to wait for orders to be freighted it is essential your systems don't create additional delays. Streamline your systems to process, package and dispatch customers' orders as quickly as possible. This is particularly important during periods of seasonal high demand.

Use track and trace postage and integrate it into your website. This will allow you and your customers to monitor the progress of their shipment online.

Building trust online

People can be nervous about transacting online and with a foreign company. However you can do a number of things to gain trust from your overseas online customers:

  • get your website professionally designed, first impressions really do count
  • consider buying a country specific domain name
  • include customer testimonials on the website
  • offer the opportunity to purchase in the local currency 
  • clearly state your contact details, and returns, privacy and security policies.
  • answer queries promptly (within 24 hours or sooner)
  • have your logo on each page of the website
  • don't let it get 'stale' - try to refresh your site regularly with new content.

Marketing considerations

If you want customers to come to your site they have to know where it is. For this you need a well thought-out online marketing strategy as part of a marketing plan or business plan. If Google Adwords and search engine optimisation (SEO) are unfamiliar terms, seek professional advice from an online marketing agency to help ensure people can find your site.

Research is absolutely necessary if you are thinking about selling a product or service online. Ask yourself, if there is really a niche in the market for your business and will surfers buy your product online, is it worth your while in shipping and handling, or will it be too costly?

Pay attention to details

Visitors will want to see high quality photographs and have a detailed description of the products. Do spend time on the small details - make your content informative and up to date, and your photographs polished.

If your visitors are using your website as an online shop window to browse through your products, don't forget to display your phone number somewhere prominent on each page so they can call and place an order personally - not all customers will be comfortable with online ordering.

If you ignore the competition, the chances are that customers will start ignoring you, so check out your competitors regularly, especially to see if they are offering any kind of special offer or new products or services. It is also a good way of getting new ideas on how to make your site better.

In-country product liability laws will still apply if you sell online. Comprehensive insurance that covers the countries you sell to is a must.

If you want to zero rate GST on products exported as a result of a website sale, you will need to prove that the customer is based overseas. An overseas email address does not constitute proof that the customer is overseas. You may be required to freight documents or a customer declaration.

For more information on tax issues see E-commerce and GST on the Inland Revenue website.


Seek expert advice on security issues, and get an independent security auditor to verify your website. This will help protect your customers, and the reputation of your business.

With the ever-present threat from hackers, it is important to make sure your website is completely secure. For this you will need to get and display your Transport Layer Security (TLS - software that encrypts sensitive credit card information), and your privacy policy (which should explain to your customers how you will safeguard their information).

Alternatively choose a store hosting company that will take care of all your technical security needs.

Read the International Trade Centres' Secrets of Electronic Commerce: A guide for Small and Medium -sized exporters (second edition).

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