OPINION: How to approach online expansion abroad

Greg Zemor, co-founder and CEO of online marketplace management solution Neteven, discusses the best approach to European expansion online.

With an estimated 264 million online shoppers in Europe, there is unquestionably a huge market right on the doorstep of British lingerie retailers. While expanding in the physical world is a topic that is often written about, with shop locations, branding, staffing and logistics cited as key factors to consider, less has been said about the various approaches to online expansion.

Although the online market is a different ball game to bricks and mortar, digital retailers need to undertake the same level of preparation and planning as their physical store counterparts when seeking to expand into new countries.

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The mistake that online retailers often make is to treat Europe as one homogenous market, where consumers behave in the same way and demand the same products. This is not the case. Expanding an online offering into Europe requires much more than localising an e-commerce website. It requires localised marketing, pricing structures, customer service and logistics.

As daunting as expanding across Europe sounds, the fact is that there is plenty of support and technology out there to ensure that every online retailer can compete with one another.

Just as bricks and mortar retailers need to choose the right locations for their stores in each country, online retailers need to be mindful of where and when their potential customers will see their products. It is not enough to have a website and some SEO and hope that customers will visit and buy their products. The key is to distribute products on pan-European marketplaces.

For online retailers that only sell lingerie, there could be a temptation to distribute products on specialist marketplaces. However, even if distributing products through specialist marketplaces can seem logical, it unnecessarily locks out a large swathe of potential customers.

A holistic approach to distributing products is essential, especially if you seek to expand your business across a large number of European territories. Indeed, the way European end-consumers use a marketplace varies dramatically from one country to another. For example, in the UK, Amazon is more popular for electronics than clothing and accessories, but in France, the opposite is true.

By selling through a variety of different online marketplaces, you can tap into their existing audiences, rather than trying to attract a whole new audience on your own.

In France, lingerie wares are the most bought product category, and it represented around 20% of online sales in the Q1 of 2014, according to FEVAD [La Fédération du e-commerce et de la vente à distance]. Therefore, it is crucial to consider French fashion marketplaces like La Redoute or Galeries Lafayette.

Undoubtedly, on first reading, this approach can seem expensive and time-consuming. Luckily, there is a host of technologies available that will help create and maintain marketing distribution strategies in line with your budget. Some of this same technology can also help to control prices and promotions by country.

A retailer’s capacity to compete on a pan-European level will be based on both the number of channels that they are able to sell their product through and the number of delivery methods available. For this reason, selling through online marketplaces is an effective channel as you can leverage the marketplaces’ existing delivery infrastructure. Similarly, a number of marketplaces offer in-house custom service, which is particularly useful for overcoming one of the biggest hurdles of operating in Europe – language barriers.

From a logistics point of view, it is also worth knowing about European Article Number EAN matching, offered by marketplaces such as PriceMinister, and Rue du Commerce. Using EAN, merchants do not need to translate product data into different languages – simply input one set of data with an EAN and the marketplace does the rest.

For any successful British lingerie brands hoping to expand into Europe and widen the reach of their products, it’s important to consider a multi-faceted approach. Opening new, physical locations in key European cities, establishing a multi-lingual website, which delivers across Europe and, above all, marketing products through a combination of specialist and generalist marketplaces, will help ensure that products reach a relevant audience.

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