No comprende? Language in international business

Robert Horne, account manager of eCommerce company, ICO3, discusses the intricacies of trading across borders and the problem of ‘no comprende’.

For eCommerce retailers, selling internationally offers massive potential for increasing brand awareness and online sales, but it also comes with its own set of challenges. These challenges cover a whole host of areas, including language translations, price conversions and legislation. Is there a way to get around the problem of ‘no comprende’?

No comprende? Language in international businessThe new UK Consumer Contracts Regulations, which have recently been implemented for distance sellers, mean that online retailers now have to offer a minimum 14-day returns policy, as opposed to the previous seven-day minimum. This new legislation is just one example, which demonstrates the importance of sellers being up to date with developments to seller regulations.

Alongside changing returns policies, it is vital for sellers to be aware of international delivery costs and delivery lead times. International delivery charges can be a minefield; they can have a serious impact on sales and can contribute to drop carts. If costs are too high, retailers risk putting their customers off, but if costs aren’t high enough, the retailer will wipe out profit margins, making their business unsustainable.

Looking at delivery options to countries that are further afield, America is one country which offers excellent opportunities for online retailers with, according to, an estimated 190 million customers – three times the population of the UK – ordering online. US delivery costs are often cheaper than standard non-European postage rates, and for many retailers, the US is a fantastic opportunity not to be missed.

Still saying ‘no comprende’? Language barriers and translations

Possibly the most obvious problem with international sales is the language barrier. Translations of products can be costly and therefore can cause difficulty for businesses in terms of setting up international markets. Sourcing a translator or a company that can offer multiple translations, would mean businesses targeting Europe can sell through the likes of Amazon France, Germany, Italy and Spain, much more easily.

Before recent changes, European bank accounts were required for Amazon, which, along with translations, created problems for international selling. These banking restrictions have however been recently removed on Amazon Italy and Spain, which now means retailers can sell in any of these marketplaces and only need one registered bank account.

In comparison to Amazon, eBay – another popular international marketplace – is a different beast entirely, requiring more visible elements to be translated, including item specifics and descriptions, as well as having a vastly different category structure in each marketplace.

Stock control and pricing

Once a seller has established themselves in various international marketplaces, there is then the challenge of currency conversion. The more marketplaces a seller is trading in, the more listings there are to keep both pricing and stock up to date, and in line with fluctuating exchange rates. If a business is updating this manually, it can be a time consuming exercise, and with exchange rates constantly fluctuating, this can affect profits if not closely monitored. In my experience, the best way to combat these issues is to successfully link integrations with specially developed software in order for all stock listings, both UK and international listings, to be updated automatically.

Managing expectations

When dealing with international sales, it’s important to set realistic expectations as different countries have differing ideas on how long a delivery should take. Making delivery options clear and concise on the delivery policy, showing how long it will take and where it’s being shipped from, are imperative to avoid miscommunication. This is especially important on third party marketplaces like eBay and Amazon, where people’s ratings can directly impact on your sales.

Along the same lines, more time needs to be given to international customers for returning an item to take into account the time it takes for the item to be received internationally. It’s important to outline who will pay the return postage, and the cost of replacing an exchanged item needs to be considered when deciding whether to sell it internationally or not.

Postal theft can be an issue in some countries, and it may be that the seller needs to either account for a percentage being lost, or send all orders via a recorded delivery method. The balance is whether the additional cost of a more secure delivery method will reduce international sales.

Legal implications

On a legal note, all sellers should anticipate changes in legislation and be aware that each country will have its own laws relating to selling products, particularly when it comes to describing an item. In terms of law, saying ‘no comprende’ does not cut it. You need to be fully aware and there is no excuse.

For example, the US has different rules to the UK about nine-carat gold, which can prevent a retailer from selling items labelled as gold, as the US will only class gold as being 10 carats or higher. Researching legal classifications and import regulations surrounding any product ranges, especially on items including alcohol, jewellery and other brands, is essential for anyone whose products will cross foreign borders. Another area where extra due diligence is required is in the food and drinks market. Retailers that sell food and perishable goods need to be aware of any restrictions on these goods when entering foreign borders – particularly in Australia – as many food, agricultural and plant products are prohibited.

It’s also wise to be aware of exporting goods to a country where the goods originate from, as many countries are protective over their own native produce. This is often the case with vodka and whiskey production, and many other items where a country is known as the original producer.

Overall, most of the barriers to selling internationally can be overcome with some initial research and planning, in much the same way that selling nationwide can be overcome. There’s support and advice out there for sourcing translations and plenty of platforms to sell through for any size of business so the problem of ‘no comprende’ will not be a problem.

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