When Frank & Oak launched two years ago, the Montreal-based online clothing retailer set its sights well beyond the Canadian border. Selling fashion to a narrowly defined niche—creative men aged 25 to 35—the company had little choice.
“When we built the brand we never really focused on Canada. Our shopper is very specific, but if you apply that globally, there are actually millions of customers. Geography doesn’t matter so much,” says co-founder Ethan Song. The company has more than 110 employees and manufactures its clothes in Canada, the U.S., China, Portugal and other countries. More than 70% of the company’s sales are in the U.S. and its website receives a high amount of traffic from the United Kingdom and Australia—countries it doesn’t yet ship to. “Even if we’re not selling outside North American right now, we can leverage our current experience to build an audience for when we’re ready to sell to those countries. We’re in this to win, country by country.”
It’s become a clichÃ©: On the Internet, the world’s your market. But surprising few Canadian SMEs even try. A survey released in October by the Retail Council of Canada and Google Canada found 61% of small retailers do not have an online presence at all. So how exactly does a retailer avoid the pitfalls of going global?
- Determine if your product is unique enough for foreign markets. “A lot of Canadian online retailers launched to service the same product that’s in the U.S.,” says Song. “But the main point of differentiation can’t be location. Whenever someone says, We’re the Canadian this or the Canadian that,’ you know they’re not going to be competitive globally.”
- Establish a strong web storefront. Turnkey online retail solutions like eBay, Amazon and Etsy make it easy to set up shop on the Internet. But if personalization, distinctive branding and your internal business processes are what set you apart from the competition, you probably should create your own e-commerce site. “We’re very focused on technology,” says Song. “Whether on the customer experience or the logistic side of things, it’s all custom-built. We also get much more data out of it.” Of course, make sure the entire experience is in the languages of your target markets.
- Attract attention. A strong website is a start. So is social media, the online equivalent of word of mouth. Tweets, Facebook posts, videos, blog entries and e-blasts should resonate with your customer regardless of their address. Understand the language and cultures of your target markets and, more important, the culture your customers. Frank & Oak produces a free monthly DJ playlist that’s often the first contact customers have with the brand.
- Provide a great retail experience in all markets. Customers will judge you by your pricing, shipping costs and delivery times as much as they’ll judge you by your nifty website. Is duty covered in the price or does the customer have to pay? If you add surcharges or otherwise treat foreign orders differently, make sure the differences are clear and transparent.
- Know the laws of the destination markets. Countries can have restrictions on imports. Certain ingredients in food, health and beauty products, for example, may be restricted and specific kinds of labelling may be required. You may need to comply with national privacy, environmental and anti-spam legislation.
- Provide customer support. International toll-free numbers, an easy return policy and follow-up communications can attract repeat business. In turnkey retail storefronts like eBay, use the rating and feedback functions to boost your online reputation.
Sign up for PROFIT’s Trade Tipsheets for useful, proven, FREE tips for cracking foreign markets!