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Beyond the Shopping Cart: Top Tech Solutions for International E-Commerce

By Liz Armbruester
Feb 15, 2020 4:00 AM PT
tech solutions are available to help every e-commerce business go global

The Internet has made convenience a top consideration for consumers when it comes to browsing and making purchases. This trend has led to more consumers opting to shop online. As a result, retailers are racing to make their products readily available.

With U.S. e-commerce sales increasing by 17 percent year-over-year to US$154 billion in the third quarter of 2019, it's clear that the competition for online dollars has become intense. Increased competition and market pressure are forcing many U.S. retailers to look beyond U.S. borders for growth.

While more consumers are flocking to the Internet to do their shopping, the modern online shopping experience involves much more than placing items into a virtual cart and clicking "buy." Online customers want more than to shop at your online store. They want a cohesive brand experience that is consistent, whether it is in-store, online, via social media, or some other channel.

At the end of the day, understanding this consumer behavior is critical for selling across borders, because every international buyer is different, and they all want merchants to let them buy on their terms.

Whether you're a small retailer or a multinational company, there's a clear value to selling across borders in that you're able to increase your market potential radically by including customers from all corners of the globe.

In fact, cross-border e-commerce sales could account for more than 15 percent of the world's online retail market by 2022, according to an IDC report.

With today's modern retail landscape, consumers expect to be able to buy coffee from Argentina and receive it within a few days, just as they would a common household item purchased from Amazon. When shopping online, all the purchasing power is granted to customers, and they expect a seamless end-to-end experience from browsing to checkout to shipping.

International E-Commerce Challenges

While opportunities abound when it comes to international e-commerce, setting up shop and quickly serving new markets comes with challenges for retailers. Many businesses that embrace cross-border e-commerce do so without a complete understanding of the complexities of selling and fulfilling international orders.

It's common that businesses struggle to engage and shepherd international customers throughout the purchasing journey, from discovery to order delivery, and every step in between.

There are numerous challenges that confront retailers throughout the process of selling across borders. For example, customs duties and local taxes, and ensuring that shipments adhere to customs regulations aren't considerations when selling domestically.

Understanding the differences in selling cross-border likely requires amplifying your understanding of compliance in new markets. Having the systems and processes in place to account for new requirements is critical to establishing and sustaining a cross-border e-commerce business.

Shipments being delayed in customs is the top challenge faced by most retailers, a survey of retail executives on their cross-border e-commerce activities found. Other international e-commerce challenges that trouble merchants include added supply chain costs, accurately calculating compliance, and communication with international customers.

Selling internationally ushers in an entirely new way of thinking about e-commerce, so your business must consider the added layers of compliance in the product journey, preferential differences across international customer markets, and more in order to serve customers well.

While challenges abound, businesses interested in participating in international e-commerce can get off on the right foot by creating and implementing smart, efficient processes and systems. This will reduce risk to day-to-day operations and if done well, can have a direct impact on the customer experience.

To keep international customers happy, reduce compliance risk, and streamline efficiency, businesses should leverage technology to aid in the expansion of the traditional e-commerce experience.

E-Commerce Compliance Technology

In order to capitalize on the cross-border opportunity at hand, a broad stakeholder commitment is needed across your business. Stakeholders must work together to create the right strategy and execute effectively to capitalize on new markets.

A core strategy consideration should be third-party technology providers that enable businesses to automate the process of selling to international customers -- including the critical, yet overlooked, aspect of compliance.

The technology exists today to help your business with every step of the cross-border transaction, from the product catalog to the accurate assignment of harmonized system (HS) codes. If you want your business to have an e-commerce presence that can keep pace with customer expectations and support a global market, getting every step of the transaction right is critical.

Although the technology exists, many business owners might find themselves not quite sure where to begin. Questions that may arise include "Is a full-service solution the best fit?" and "Which technologies are available that work with the business systems already in place?"

When determining the right compliance solutions and integrations necessary to support international e-commerce efficiently, there are several key considerations business leaders should keep in mind:

Determine Your Goals

When getting started with international online sales, your Web presence must align with and be able to advance your overall business objectives. When it comes to compliance technology, there is no shortage of solutions available on the market to help you achieve your cross-border sales goals, but not all solutions are created equal.

Start the process by defining exactly what it is that you want your compliance solution to accomplish. Then, identify current gaps in your process to determine where technology can fulfill your needs best.

Last, use this information to assess features and benefits of the technologies available to determine best fit to get the job done.

Determine the Right Solution

When looking at cross-border e-commerce technology to address compliance, there are several questions business leaders should be mindful of when comparing solutions. Those questions include "How easy is it to set up and use?" and "Are there limitations to the number of products or countries it can handle?" To be effective, the solution needed for international e-commerce should be able to accomplish the following:

  • Boost efficiency by getting products to customers faster, while freeing employees from the headache of figuring out HS codes and country-specific tariffs;
  • Increase accuracy through automatic assignment of tariff codes that are kept up-to-date;
  • Lower risk by reducing the possibility of products being held up in customs or rejected due to incorrect duties and customs charges;
  • Convey clarity at the time of checkout by accurately calculating and displaying the added costs of compliance for the customer.

Another key consideration for any cross-border compliance solution is the solution's ability to work with existing business systems. If your business already sells through multiple channels -- like in-store, website and online marketplaces -- then it's important that your compliance solution can integrate with the systems your business already uses to manage the customer experience and data. As your business grows internationally, the need for centralized data is crucial to maintaining a cohesive customer experience across channels.

Compliance Often Misunderstood

Compliance is often an overlooked or misunderstood component of the cross-border selling journey, but getting transactional tax, customs and duties right is essential to the success of international e-commerce.

That's why, when your business is looking to expand or grow your international e-commerce presence, it is the perfect time to take a close look at how you're managing tax collection and reporting.

Mishandling compliance not only can be risky or costly to your business if you're found to be out of compliance, but also can disrupt your customer experience and deter customers from completing transactions.

Fortunately, technology is here to help and radically change how your business thinks about and executes its cross-border e-commerce strategy.

Other Tech Considerations

In addition to compliance, there are several other areas where technology can help your business simplify and automate international e-commerce operations. Chief among them are logistics, fulfillment, and delivery.

Buyers want to get their purchases quickly, which has put pressure on retailers to offer faster, better, and even free shipping. The effect of Amazon and other online marketplaces has increased the emphasis that consumers put on shipping and fulfillment. Customers expect to have the option to try out and return products before making purchases, in addition to timely and free shipping options.

As with compliance, your business should leverage technology to make accurate and efficient calculations of the shipping and fulfillment costs for customers to provide the true cost of buying at the time of checkout.

There may be changes needed to your existing e-commerce website to accommodate an international audience. Your website should serve multiple languages and adapt to the geographical locations of visitors.

There should be a fast and secure checkout experience. This means that your website should accept multiple forms of payment to avoid deterring international customers who might be accustomed to paying with a certain payment platform.

E-commerce has made it possible for consumers to make purchases from any device, at any time, from anywhere in the world. Retailers who want to stay ahead of the competition will be forced to jump into international markets, if they haven't already.

While the benefits of cross-border e-commerce are seemingly boundless, the risks associated with being unprepared to serve international clientele are just as prevalent. E-commerce merchants likely will need to lean on technology to provide consumers around the world with online experiences that go beyond the traditional shopping cart, while reducing risk and increasing efficiency across their entire operation.


Liz Armbruester is SVP of global compliance operations at Avalara.


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2020 online shopping habits and retailer strategies