Sure, it's fraught with shipping worries, customs delays, and all number of snafus, but for many online sellers, international sales are a fun and thriving part of their business that they would not miss for the world. And U.S. sellers are at an advantage in selling overseas in many ways, if they have easy access to merchandise that foreign buyers want and can't easily get.
EcommerceBytes interviewed a range of people, from industry executives to all kinds of sellers and buyers, to see what types of items sold best, what their experiences were with different countries, and what U.S. sellers can do to better appeal to foreign buyers.
Cameras, Classic Americana and Other Merchandise that Sell Well
Much of the items that get snapped up by overseas buyers are not so heavy as to make shipping costs prohibitive. But for special or especially popular items, the shipping cost may not matter so much.
eBay seller Lois Dupre of Anuated says, "If I have a Herman Miller (American office furniture and equipment manufacturer) item, like chairs, they will buy them up fast and pay big postage to get them." Otherwise, she says, "Vintage clothes and jewelry go well for me."
Cameras are one type of merchandise that proves popular with foreign buyers. "I've sold a lot of vintage cameras, especially Kodak," says Robin Yencer Vergason of Antique Treasure Trove, whose eBay ID is "Queenrob."
Seller and blogger Shannon Paasch of TheRecycleista blog has an eBay store and says cameras and accessories are selling well internationally lately for her as well. "I think a lot of the camera sellers aren't willing to ship internationally. Good news for me!" she says.
Above: Camera lens eBay seller Shannon Paasch sold to a buyer in Canada. Paasch says that in doing research, she found not many other sellers were willing to ship them overseas.
This brings up a good point about selling internationally: if many of your competitors are not willing to ship abroad, you have that much more of the overseas market to yourself.
Sandy Mathis of Montana Recycled Treasures says she has sold several older Polaroid cameras and a couple of other miscellaneous cameras and lenses internationally. Also "Gillette double-edge razors, mostly to the UK." And she's sold "a bunch of small animal traps to Australia, and kids' fishing poles to Japan. I love my international buyers," she says.
What about classic Americana? One of the big names in that niche is Disney. Seller Elizabeth Hurst Sheehan says she has recently sold Disney items, and especially plush, to Canada. She has also sold clothing to Australia, and, in a first for her, one auction for four pairs of new jeans to Saudia Arabia.
Another seller says she hears that American classic "blue jeans" sell well, but that's not one of the items she offers, as hers are all one-of-a-kind items.
A buyer in England says Harley Davidson items are popular items in the UK, and he himself was on the lookout for Under Armour brand golf and sports shirts.
Selling Brands that Don't Sell as Well in the U.S.
One eBay seller, who asked not to be identified, says she likes international selling because buyers will sometimes pick something that isn't too popular in the U.S., bringing in extra sales. For example, she sees interest from Italy in vintage Trifari Jewelry, "which is not too popular here, but which they like but can't get over there."
However, she said, "it also coincides with a very high loss ratio, between lost mail and unscrupulous buyers claiming non-receipt." She sells all one-of-a-kind vintage jewelry, and says she doesn't in general see any particular item or category trend to what international buyers purchase.
Another eBay seller who deals in a lot of golf shirts says some shirts, such as a bright-colored Tommy Hilfiger brand polo, which for whatever reason doesn't sell well for her in the U.S., has sold for her to buyers all over the world.
On the downside, some international shipping services have exorbitant costs, she said, "and for relatively low-price items, I really can only ship inexpensive US Post Office Airmail, which leaves the door open to merchandise loss in the mails (with no reliable proof of delivery), and claims of non-receipt by unscrupulous buyers (a small but active group)." And she says with high-priced items, she faces a risk of very large losses.
"One solution might be if eBay would allow me to specify that my item would only be visible to those international buyers with more than one year of feedback, and substantial-price item purchase history and excellent feedback," she suggests. She says that "one trick that is big in Italy is for a buyer to open an account and purchase 15 or 20 very low price items ($1 - $10) to acquire a very high feedback reputation, and then go on a tear purchasing a load of high-priced merchandise, which they then claim they never received, to force the seller to refund all their money."
In sum, she says she thinks the extra sales plus the extra losses result in a relatively small additional profit for her on international selling.
What Foreign Buyers Say They Want
What about what international buyers themselves say they look to the U.S. to buy, and what kinds of things can U.S. sellers do to tweak their listings or products to take advantage of this information?
Clothing, shoes and accessories are of increasing interest to buyers outside the U.S., according to eSellerPro Director of Global Alliances Andrew Norman. "This is particularly interesting for UK and European buyers, due to the differences in range and seasons in the U.S. and Europe," he adds. "Consumer electronics, and in particular accessories, are also growing in demand, with many UK buyers looking to the U.S. in order to get hold of the newest releases sooner."
Israeli Elad Darmon, founder of ezBay.co.il, and an enthusiastic eBay buyer and seller, says, "My students and colleagues buy especially sports brands clothing (Ralph Lauren, Nike, Abercrombie, Adidas, Tommy Hilfiger); perfume brands (Hugo Boss, Calvin Klein, D&G); watches (Casio, Swatch) and collectibles. He says most buyers he knows from Israel are looking for lightweight products, since "international shipping costs sometimes add 50% - 100% to the item total cost, making the deal less lucrative."
And price is the key factor in making that buying decision from another country, says Darmon. "For most of us in Israel, and I think in other countries worldwide, are looking for one simple thing when we buy online - the best price we can get," says Darmon. "Personally, it is one of the most important things I look for when I purchase online."
Cheaper goods are also foremost on the mind of Canadian Ryan Laker, Marketing Co-op student for Terapeak, when he shops the U.S. "I think for the most part we can get the same stuff up here as in the U.S. (I could see that being different in the UK and Europe though). However, I do find myself buying pretty much anything and everything I can from the U.S. as it tends to be much cheaper. Most goods tend to be cheaper in the U.S., and with a strong Canadian dollar, there is a lot of incentive to buy stuff we can get in Canada from the U.S. simply to save money."
Laker says he's saved hundreds of dollars buying camera lenses from the U.S., for example. "I think in general if sellers don't already ship to Canada they should consider it. The Canadian dollar floats at parity with the USD, and a lot of more expensive goods can be had cheaper when buying from the U.S. even after factoring in shipping costs."
One European buyer says he has been ordering books regularly from the U.S. Amazon.com site since the early 2000s, attracted by its broad selection. He says even with shipping costs included, it was cheaper for him than special-ordering them from large bookshops in his own country. "Besides, Amazon gave me the opportunity to browse books by different categories, which made my life much easier in learning about publications that most likely I would not have learned about otherwise," he said. Eventually he also started ordering CDs from the site, which were not available anymore from regular retailers, and "in that regard, my experience has almost invariably been good."
If that European buyer has one complaint, it's "the impossibility of having some control on the packaging procedure, which, especially for books to be shipped overseas, I have found sometimes leaves much to be desired." But in general he has found seller communication to be friendly, and only seldom encounters blatant refusal over issues such as providing photographs of books in which he is interested, and specific requests as to packaging procedures and shipment options.
Clear Shipping and Returns Policies
To be sure, shipping is a huge issue in international selling. "Whilst cross-border selling continues to grow, there are many challenges and issues that U.S. sellers will need to address," says eSellerPro's Norman. International buyers are only likely to buy from sellers if the shipping and returns process is clearly laid out, ensuring expectations are set from the beginning, he says.
However, Darmon says he believes online customers pay less attention to return policies or shipping time "in terms of "value of product," but as long as buyers can have the same item they found in a local store for a lower price online - it is a winning deal."
For the European book buyer, the "excellent customer policy in regards to returns and refunds" on Amazon.com is one of the big draws for shopping there, "in addition to the fact that the entire process, including payment, is "embedded on-site."" He also likes the customer evaluation functionality for third-party sellers. "In this way, any prospective buyer not only can learn of the reason for each evaluation, but also of the seller's reply to it."
Sizing and Customs Issues
"Sizing and compatibility are also key issues," says Norman, and that U.S. sellers need to ensure that any sizing conversions or product information is presented very clearly, so as not to prevent any barriers to purchase.
UK eBayer Andrew Milburn of MyAuctionEmpires confirms this: "I and others would find it useful for sellers to put sizes, etc. in both metric and imperial." But he says, "Overall I find buying from U.S. sellers a pleasure and very rewarding, and often receive items within a week of them being sent out."
Norman says another issue that U.S. sellers need to be wary of is the customs charges on items coming into the EU. The current value over which the buyer needs to pay customs is relatively low, around 18 pounds or 22 euros. "Some sellers will write "gift" on their item's customs declarations to get round this rule, however this is ill-advised and can have severe consequences," he said. On the other hand, some U.S. sellers complain that foreign buyers ask them to fib on the customs form; they fear that if they refuse, the buyer will leave them bad feedback under the guise of another reason.
"Legal ways of selling despite the rules are to begin selling lower-price items abroad, look at fulfillment services in the EU, or seek help for an ecommerce software provider," said Norman.
Darmon says he believes the Israeli government's recent raising of the tax-free threshold for imported merchandise - it's now up to $350 from $75 - will see more Israeli buyers' demand for higher-priced products from other countries. "So we see new popular eBay categories such as: Computers & Laptops, Gadgets & Gadget Accessories, GPS, Sports Gear, Digital Cameras, Cell phones, iPhone & iPad, Baby Products, Musical Instruments, Toys, and even Home Decor products," he said, adding, "Many new buyers from Israel had joined eBay since that government decision."
Reasons Why International Buyers May Not Shop the U.S.
Sometimes there are other reasons denizens of a certain country tend to buy or not buy from other countries. In the case of Australia, Tools4etsy developer and Australian inhabitant Graeme Grant says, "Being isolated and a small population compared with many other countries, choices are limiting and costly due to low national buying power, and also due to the sheer distance between each of the capital cities for freighting."
He notes that many U.S. companies, including Apple, "sell their wares at a higher cost here even though the Australian dollar is worth more than the U.S. dollar and shipping of goods is from China or other local Asian manufacturers. We are usually one of the last countries for overseas brands to release their products."
But many sellers say they do a brisk business with Australia. "I sell to Australia and Japan all the time," says eBay seller Patricia Smith. She says she sells lots of different vintage items, and her best-sellers overseas are vintage material in yardage. "The best is 36 inches wide and has cute animals or flowers in shades of blue. Quilters all around the world love old material," she says, adding, "Don't wash it - sell it as is, stains, stinky and all."
Other times, the reason a country's buyers don't look to the U.S. as much is that it has a brisk online marketplace of its own. One Chinese buyer, who looked to the U.S. Amazon.com site for certain books about Chinese painters, said, "In China, we have an eBay-like Web site called Tmall (from Taobao). Buyers can virtually find anything you expect to find elsewhere." She added as far as she knew, the price difference between Tmall and eBay has been kept to a minimum, "except home-use electrical appliances (iPhone), drug products, and motors, for which China's customs charge high duty fees. Accordingly, these products seem less risk-free than other types." But, she said she seldom buys items online other than books.
Even though not everyone in the world looks to buy from the US, and international shipping can be a headache, one thing is clear: there are international buyers out there who want stuff from the U.S., and sellers who don't offer it may be missing out on sales.
Milburn said at the top of his wish list is for sellers in the U.S. to offer shipping to countries such as the UK. "There are many times when I go to buy a product and then read, "Sorry, we do not ship outside the USA,"" he said. "And sadly, this is not a just one-off thing; it is happening more and more often, and I think if U.S. sellers were to offer worldwide shipping they would see a big increase in sales."
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