The other day I had a superb online shopping experience. Ulla is the product I was looking to buy--it's a sensor which can be strapped onto any water bottle and it blinks  aggressively when it determines you're not drinking as much as you should. Anyway, Ulla is a U.K. company and I sort of expected to have to deal with paying in British pounds, but no. In fact, the website looked at my IP address, knew I was from the United States, gave me a shopping cart working in dollars, told me how much it would cost to ship to me and even gave me 20 percent off when I moved my cursor toward the top of the page as if I might abandon my purchase.

If only U.S. companies could do the same when  selling internationally.

The data agrees. PayPal recently commissioned market research company Ipsos to survey more than 1,200 merchants in six major markets--the U.S., France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the UK--to understand their cross-border business and sales strategies. The findings are worth considering. First and foremost, it's important to know which markets to target. Of international shoppers who buy from the U.S. merchants surveyed, the top markets by revenue are Canada, the UK, and Brazil (41 percent, 8 percent and 5 percent, respectively).  And get this: U.S business owners who sell cross-border reported nearly double the sales revenue of those who only sell domestically.

Perceived Barriers

So why don't more small businesses sell their  products to people in other countries? Language, currency, shipping and taxes are some of the barriers many companies perceive when they think about selling cross-border.

It's true--Ipsos's research found that 57 percent of Brazilian cross-border shoppers surveyed indicated they aren't comfortable buying from websites not in their local language. Yet none of the 1,200 merchants surveyed offer Portuguese--the language spoken in Brazil--even though the market accounts for 5 percent of U.S. merchant's cross-border revenue. In fact, only 19 percent of U.S. online merchants surveyed offer a language other than English on their site.

Going International Doesn't Have to be Difficult

But according to PayPal Director of Global Initiatives Melissa O'Malley things like language, letting people pay in their home currency and figuring out how to charge for things like overseas taxes and shipping don't need to be barriers for any  company. She suggests looking into some of the big shopping cart providers such as BigCommerce, Magento or Shopify which can automate many of these pain points. Plus, more than half of the merchants surveyed use a global marketplace such as eBay to help boost their sales internationally. "If a merchant wants to dip their toes into having an expanded global offering that is available with different currency and language options, looking at a marketplace solution is a great way to do that," she says.

Just Make Sure to Get a Few Things Right

Invest in search engine optimization (SEO), for one thing. Search is a top way consumers report accessing foreign websites they have not visited before. Yet less than two in five cross-border merchants surveyed invest in SEO, and only 14 percent use search engine  marketing.

Mobile optimization is a big deal, too. Considering a good chunk of consumers in Canada, the UK and Brazil make cross-border purchases using their phone or tablet (21 percent, 30 percent and 21 percent, respectively), it doesn't make sense that only about half of the merchants surveyed have a mobile version of their website.

"We're looking at what the merchants are saying they're doing and what the consumers are saying they're wanting, and there's definitely some mixed signals going on," O'Malley says.

Published on: Apr 4, 2016