International Online Retail: Design and Localization

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Business Development and Online Marketing professionals may view new e-commerce markets as very difficult and time consuming. However, if they approach their existing growth strategies in a flexible way and keep an eye on design, it might be easier then they think!

When listening to online retailers, it often seems as if the process of opening a new foreign online store or website is more difficult than rocket science, or so it seems to Jonathan Wright.

In his article ‘When Speed is of the Essence’ (published in the International & Cross-Border edition of Internet Retailing, January 2013) he states that this negative attitude occurs when companies lose sense of the proportion of the whole operation. Wright acknowledges that  these are ‘strange times’ for retailers: the economic climate remains unstable, but at the same time, he says, huge business opportunities are present internationally.

All retailers are faced with a dilemma which Wright describes as ‘stick or twist.’ Should businesses stick to what they know, or change their ways to attract more consumers?

According to Wright, companies can actually do both. As customers in foreign markets might already use a different version of their website, retailers can simply build on their existing knowledge. Stefan Smidt, vice-president product strategy at ecommerce company Hybris:

‘People are basically looking at how can we design the international operation according to the market, and how can we enable the new market, very quickly, and then let that grow to its own rhythm? And then, when it actually grows, do we want to bring it back to the enterprise, the organization, or do we let it keep going?’

This approach is in line with the so-called ‘quick-and-nimble ethos.’ Here, design is seen as an ongoing process instead of a goal-oriented exercise consisting of projects. Wright agrees that this approach might seem illogical, but thinks it simply requires discipline: if something works, leave it be, it something doesn’t,  change it.

Recently, companies have become more and more aware about the fact that the way in which data is handled is partly a ‘design issue.’ Companies have noticed the importance of product information management that ensures all data is derived from the same source, resulting in a very consistent information output.

In addition, online retailers are also increasingly paying attention to the way their products are photographed. To quote a well-known saying, a picture says more than a thousand words. Companies are now setting up little studios in China to photograph their products even before they are shipped.

Wright believes the quick-and-nimble approach does not involve big and difficult questions. In fact, ‘it throws the spotlight on the place of design in business processes because it’s a lot easier to move into new territories of the overall way a retailer handles information had already been thought through.’

When businesses use a traditional approach to tap into new markets, business processes, workflow and dynamic design will only help to a certain point to tackle cultural differences.

With regard to these differences, Wright gives the example of the monster hit Gangnam Style by Korean singer Psy. In his video, Psy simply won’t stop moving, which is very culture-specific to Korea. However, cultures aren´t fixed as consumers are always looking for new things, resulting in hybrids and mutations. Better said, in Wright’s words: ‘context changes the story.’ This is why we in the Western world are now dancing as frantically as Psy, and a reason for online retailers to habituate themselves with looking ahead.

According to Wright, ‘There will always be an existing and established competitor that understands the market.’ So how can a business set itself apart from his competition? One way to do this is by looking at customer service. Richard Sedley has a soft spot for companies that fuse service and retail together. If companies are able to tell a new story, this can greatly contribute to their success. However, Sedley argues, this story has to be altered for each separate market: ‘You do have localized preferences.’

Not all ideas and stories have to undergo a lengthy process of localisation for the online retail sector to work. The ‘hang to novelty’ is such an idea, because in what culture do people want to dress or possess exactly the same item as their next-door neighbour? This is why many new businesses involve products that can be customised to the customer’s taste. These companies are often small and won’t take over big and established businesses, but their approach, that handles the concept of design in a refreshed way, will probably influence the entire international market in the future.

And it’s not just approaches of brand new companies that interact with new markets. For example, Costco, the cheap supermarket chain that was known for its tangible stores, has recently started an online branch of their supermarket. This might be a wise step, as it widens their client base greatly. Now, even the consumers that are fairly well off might turn to Costco for their weekly shopping in these difficult financial times. As Wright concludes, ‘Innovation and change sometimes come from surprising quarters!’

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