How many customers does your English-only ecommerce platform turn away? The worldwide potential for online activity amounts to US$50 trillion, but English opens the door to just 36.5% of that total. It takes a minimum of 13 additional languages, including German and Japanese, to open the door to nearly 90% of the world’s total online gross domestic product. But the playing field just got bigger, and more complicated – from both a linguistic and logistical perspective.
On January 16, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiated between Iran and six world powers took effect. This ended years of economic and financial sanctions against the Islamic Republic. It also undid the pariah status of Iran, which began with its 1979 revolution. Besides decreasing political and nuclear tensions, the JCPOA has significant implications for any company selling products or services to governments, businesses, or consumers.
Most importantly, it welcomes Iran back to the community of nations–and the global economy. The agreement unfreezes tens of billions of dollars worth of Iranian assets. That means companies, government agencies, and individuals will experience a windfall of their own money once western banks release their sequestered funds.
As that money frees up, nearly 82 million consumers rejoin the world economic community. Iran has an 86.8% literacy rate, 68.9 million mobile subscribers, and 22.9 million internet users. These demographics could translate into a revenue spike for any online and mobile retailers who want to get their products in front of Iranian consumers.
But there’s more to it than just welcoming them to your website. Plan to adapt your offer to their language and cultural preferences. Common Sense Advisory’s (CSA Research) comprehensive survey and study on global consumers shows that while English-only sites may suffice for residents who can deal with English, most prefer buying in their own language and having online transactions adapted to their laws, customs, and other expectations. That means not just translating your site, but localizing it for Iran to maximize your selling potential. If Iran is on your list of target markets, get to work on adding Farsi (aka Persian) to your website, prepare for local holidays (Persian New Year is March 20th), and study the legal and logistical aspects of fulfilling transactions. But don’t expect green-field commerce – Iranian-owned Digikala owns a large percentage of the market’s existing online retail.
On the governmental and business side, JCPPOA also means that years of deferred infrastructure and capital investments will come to an end. Previously blocked from doing business, foreign companies can now legally sell to Iran. A rush of big contracts started immediately upon the agreement taking effect. China and France were immediate beneficiaries. China’s President Xi Jinping visited Tehran to discuss a 25-year plan to expand trade and relations, with the goal of US$600 billion in trade within a decade. Right after Jinping left the country, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani traveled to France to negotiate the purchase of 118 Airbus planes to restock Air Iran’s fleet. Automaker Peugeot Citroen pledged €400 million over the next five years to a joint venture with its Khodro, its former partner. And French oil company Total said it would buy crude oil from Iran and study potential development in the country.
Looking ahead, Rouhani tweeted that, “Iran has so much to offer the world as a top tourist destination; hence investment in aviation, hotels & railways is more important than ever” and “Our strategy is no longer one of the past – to sell oil & import end products – but rather to attract foreign investment in order to form JVs [joint ventures].” This outward-looking strategy creates new opportunities for foreign companies ranging from manufacturers to the hospitality industry to financial services. The Tehran Stock Exchange is the sixth-largest in the Middle East, with over 300 companies listed on the TEPIX index – think of them as potential customers and business partners.
Rouhani’s vision could bump up the standing of Farsi in CSA Research’s annual study of language support on websites. It ranked #22 on our 2015 pre-JCPOA study of language support at the 2,407 most heavily trafficked websites. It also fell into the third tier of preferred tongues as the slowest-growing of the top 25 languages in terms of economic potential because, as CSA Research wrote, “some avoid [Farsi] if they have no product or service distribution in Iran.” With that caveat no longer in effect, Farsi’s online gross domestic product (US$185.40 billion in 2015) could overtake Indonesian’s ($192.86 billion) by 2017. Online retailers already doing business globally should ask their translation and localization suppliers for help with Farsi for Iran. Those with English-only sites should look for professional help in adapting their sites not just for Farsi, but for any country and language to which they would like to sell. Ecommerce growth depends on finding new markets – and there are plenty of those worldwide.
If you’re already selling outside the United States, be prepared for some more diplomatic curve balls that could become home runs. With the rapprochement between the United States and Cuba, trade and tourism between the two countries will increase. For example, the two countries recently signed an agreement to resume scheduled air travel. Many online retailers already support or plan to add Spanish, so to take advantage of this new market they’ll have to localize beyond the language to support Cuba’s unique political and economic situation.
Don DePalma will deliver the session Planning for the Global Customer Experience at Multichannel Merchant’s Growing Global 2016 April 14 at the Duke Energy Convention Center in Cincinnati, OH. In the session, DePalma explores and maps the customer journey and what ecommerce brands can do to prepare for the global customer experience.