Five Tips for Selling to Customers in Europe

You wouldn’t own a bricks-and-mortar store and turn away customers who living on your block. In ecommerce, every customer is local, and a captive European market just one click away from your website shop front is perhaps being denied the chance to buy its gifts.

Ecommerce sales in Europe are projected to reach $257 billion in 2010. This is 35% of the world total, and marginally ahead of the $250 billion forecast for the U.S. But as many as one quarter of U.S.-based merchants still won’t offer shipping to Canada, let alone the rest of the world.

So why aren’t more merchants capitalizing on the European market? The answer may lie with the massive cultural variations in Europe, a collection of 27 countries, 230 languages and more than 830 million people. Differences in the way nations shop, what they buy, and how they pay, mean sites built for one market may not work in another.

But don’t be put off: these differences can be fixed. Here are a few pointers for taking those difficult first steps.

Research to find the right markets:
Naturally, you can’t treat Europe as a single entity. Differences in languages, culture and preferences mean ecommerce adoption varies. Don’t assume your target demographic will react in the same way to your products as your home market. Young professional women in Spain may not have the same tastes and buying habits as the same group in the U.S., or even the U.K.

A good strategy is to focus on countries closer to home. If you are predominantly an English-speaking business, the U.K. is an obvious choice, and Scandinavia worth considering despite its smaller online population. If you run a business catering to Hispanic customers, perhaps you’ve probably already considered Spain, although its online population is less than half the U.K.’s.

You will likely want to focus on markets in Western Europe, where shopping online is more commonplace and the direct marketing infrastructure is more mature.

Optimize your international site
Once you’ve chosen the countries you wish to target, you need to think about attracting international visitors.

Check your current web traffic to see where your foreign website hits are coming from. It might point to a missed opportunity – perhaps a country where your offering is truly unique, or difficult to get hold of.

Using Google Analytics you can research the country-specific keywords that already pull these visitors to your site, and optimize them. You can research similar country-specific keywords using Google’s keyword tool.

The structure of your website may need to change as well. Google takes the location of the web server as well as the top-level domain (TLD) into account to find relevant location-based results. Ideally, you should have a TLD for each country you’re targeting.

Although some countries are restricted, requiring you to have a local business address to acquire the domain, many, including Germany and the U.K., allow anyone to register. If you’re thinking about shipping to the U.K. it’s straightforward to pick a domain and link it to your other site.

Speak their language
It’s tempting to use translation widgets such as Google Translate and Yahoo! Babel Fish, but don’t be fooled. Credibility is a key factor in convincing an online browser to buy; presenting them with gibberish will have the opposite effect’ and won’t do much for your SEO, either.

Remember that your customer’s currency is also part of their language. It might be true that everyone knows the dollar, but only using one currency alienates your European customers and does cloud the cost. At the very least provide a currency converter, but better still use a payment service which can give an accurate price.

Just 15% of U.S.-based web merchants show the full cost of delivering in the consumer’s local currency. This is feature you can sell yourself on.

Pay attention to postage
Customers want to order goods quickly and have them delivered reliably. This is an area where European ecommerce is actually ahead of its stateside counterparts, typically making better use of technologies such as address auto-fill and validation to speed up the checkout process and ensure contact details are filled out properly. These rapid address-entry services cost only a few cents per transaction, drastically cut down cart abandonment, and are an expected feature on European ecommerce websites.

For our purposes, some can even return country-specific address fields and validation rules based on the IP address of the customer. These are useful gadgets when you consider all the different European postal code systems, address formats and languages.

Remember that much of your European trade will come from shoppers seeking unique items unavailable in their own country: They will be prepared to pay a premium, as long as they feel they’re being dealt with fairly. Encourage visitors to fill their baskets higher by offering flat-rate pricing tiers on postage.

Consider postal insurance and remember the golden rule when preparing orders for shipment: pack it for the Apocalypse.

Love your European customers
To take the weight off your customer service team, it’s critical your website is as automated as possible. But because of the difference in time zones, make sure you’re prompt when dealing with the inquiries you do receive.

Some love is tough love. If no one on your team speaks another language, you must make it clear where your email address is advertised that customer support is in English.

You also need to be aware of Europe’s Distance Selling Directive – a law which guarantees a seven-day “cooling-off” period, during which customers may return goods. Although no European is likely to pursue litigation, and even less likely the U.S. courts would uphold action, it’s something Europeans are used to – so it’s worth making your returns policy crystal-clear. Have a dedicated web page for your policy, and link to it on all email communications and order confirmations.

Set the rules and you won’t disappoint your overseas customers. Remember that it takes years to build a company’s good reputation, but online it can be dismantled in a few hours.

Phil Rothwell is sales and marketing director for British address software specialist Postcode Anywhere.

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