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How to Prepare Your Brand for Cross-Border E-commerce Fulfillment

By shipa 12 Oct, 2019

Cross-border e-commerce can mean many things, all of which offer excitement and promise for your enterprise. It doesn’t matter if you plan to sell in Saudi Arabia from your business in Dubai or sell and ship your brand-offerings from the UK to the Middle East. Wherever your globalization dreams may take you, international e-commerce fulfillment and shipping principles are the same.  

In this article, we’ll discuss some of those principles, but with an emphasis on how they apply to order fulfillment and logistics when your target market lies within the boundaries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).  

The states of the GCC, after all, have become a hotbed of online consumerism, offering immense opportunity for e-commerce companies within the region, and those operating from further afield. 

“Check Out” the First Step in International E-commerce fulfillment

As this post is all about fulfillment, as opposed to marketing, we’ll assume you’ve already prepared your e-commerce store for a new target market. If you haven’t, though, don’t worry, you’ll find plenty of resources to help you with that, such as this useful article from Business.com, and this one from Small Business Trends

However, the fulfillment process for cross-border e-commerce, especially in emerging markets like the Middle East and Southeast Asia, starts at a point often considered part of the marketing funnel—your online store’s checkout. So that’s also best viewed as the first step in preparing your fulfillment strategy.

Of course, it makes sense for your checkout to be friendly to shoppers in your target markets, which means publishing it in the national language of that market. That’s not the only reason why your fulfillment plans should include the checkout process, though. The other, as we’re about to reveal, is cash.

Prepare for Cash on Fulfillment

In the GCC, cash-on-delivery is still one of the most favored methods of paying for purchases. Yes, even for online shoppers! Furthermore, lest you think the region hasn’t advanced into the modern world, card payment on delivery is also one of the most popular online purchasing methods. 

We’ll discuss COD and the ramifications for e-commerce fulfillment in more detail a little later. Right now, though, you need to know about it because it’s an essential consideration when preparing your store’s checkout solution.

If you’re a merchant in the GCC, you’ll be familiar with the COD conundrum, but it might be news to you if you target the region from elsewhere in the world.  

There’s no easy way to break this to you… to prepare for cross-border e-commerce fulfillment, you will need to set up your checkout process to accept cash on delivery. That also means that you’ll need to consider how you will collect cash or card payments at the point of delivery. To do that, you’re going to need a local delivery partner, or international courier service that can manage COD and the transfer of funds back to your business. That’s what we’ll talk about later in this post.

The Shipping Process: How Will You Manage it?

There are several questions to answer in determining how you will prepare to manage cross-border e-commerce fulfillment. Some of the major ones are as follows:

Can All Your Products be Legally Imported Into Your Target Market? 

For example, perhaps you have an online store in the United Arab Emirates that sells plastic Christmas trees and decorations. If so, don’t even think about expanding into Saudi Arabia. Christmas tree imports are prohibited there, so you’re unlikely to find many takers for your products. 

Hopefully, of course, you would have established that fact through market research, but treat this cautionary Christmas tale as a simplified example. Your products might be in demand in your target country, but there might also be strict rules about their importation. It would be most unfortunate to take even a single order without knowing about those rules.

How Will You Help Customers Assess Their Landed Costs? 

When you conduct e-commerce across borders, there will be, in many cases, a range of extra costs in addition to the purchase price of your products. You might choose to absorb those expenses by factoring them into your purchase prices and offer delivery duty paid (DDP) for your customers. However, you will need to decide if this will harm your competitive ability by generating an excessively high price point. 

You could sell under Delivery at Place or Delivered Duty Unpaid terms, which will leave your customers with the obligation to pay import duties and taxes. If you choose this option, though, you’ll need to think about how you will calculate the extra costs and flag them to the customer in advance. 

Absent such a mechanism, your customers are likely to be surprised by unexpected fees at the point of delivery. That, in turn, might give your products the qualities of a boomerang, resulting in many of them coming back. That’s not good for business—even if you are selling boomerangs. 

How Will You Deliver Your Cross-Border Orders? 

Unless you are selling elephants or SUVs online, you will probably wish to use an international courier company to deliver your customers’ purchases. 

Not only are courier services faster than any other cross-border shipping option, but they also minimize the effort required by your business to manage transportation. That said, all couriers are not created equal. Depending on your goods’ origin and your target market, you might find some variations in the routes they use and the delivery lead times they can offer. 

As part of your preparations for international e-commerce, therefore, you’ll need to get to know your courier options, and perhaps build up a shortlist of those with the best lead times and rates. 

It will also make sense to look favorably on any courier that can help you by providing an integrated tool for calculating landed costs.

How Will You Manage Returns? 

Now, about those boomerangs. Product returns and rejections are the banes of every e-commerce operation, but they are a fact of life in the industry. Moreover, in markets where cash-on-delivery is prevalent, returns are more common in online shopping than in the high street.

Establishing a sound returns policy and identifying how you will manage it is a critical part of cross-border e-commerce preparation. Factors to consider for returns planning include:

Legal obligations – For example, if you operate out of the European Union, you’re obligated to accept a product’s return unconditionally, provided it takes place within 14 days of purchase. Other nations may have similar laws, so it’s a vital planning step to research the legal element of returns in your particular country.

Reverse logistics – The reverse supply chain is never easy to manage, especially when the returning product must cross international borders. How will your company minimize the number of journeys and deliveries executed in the reverse supply chain? You might, for example, wish to partner with a logistics provider in your target market that can consolidate your returns and ship them back to you in bulk every so often.

Visibility in the reverse supply chain – Whether you manage returns individually or route them to a consolidation partner, you’ll want to think about how you keep track of them. Visibility is essential as they make their way from the customer, through customs in the market-country and at the border of your home country, and back to your fulfillment center. It can be beneficial to work with a carrier offering a comprehensive tracking solution, especially as the return supply chain is less predictable and more fragmented than the outbound.

Alternative return strategies – You might even think about whether it will be worth bringing returned products back into your inventory. Depending on their value and the nature of the trade lanes you use, you might prefer to have returns consolidated for sale in secondary markets in your target region. In some cases, it may even be more cost-effective to write an item off, rather than returning it, and send a replacement to the customer free of charge.

How Will You Handle Cash-on-Delivery? 

Yes, it’s time to return to that thorny issue of cash payment, and more specifically, how you will prepare your business to accept cash at the point of delivery.  

The preference for cash payment in emerging markets is persistent. So much so that even large global carriers are beginning to take what might once have been considered a backward step by introducing cash collection services. However, such services are still limited in coverage. 

For example, one worldwide courier has introduced cash-on-delivery fulfillment services, but only for merchants in China and Australia delivering to consumers in Southeast Asia. 

If your target market is in the Middle East, you might not have such an option with the global carriers, so how will you collect cash from your customers? The answer will probably lie with one of the regional delivery companies in your target market. 

COD in the GCC

If you’re selling to (or within) the GCC, for example, Shipa Delivery offers the facility to collect cash and card payment on delivery. We remit all accumulated sums to our business customers weekly and invoice monthly for our delivery services.

This commercial model helps to maintain cash flow, which can sometimes be an issue for smaller businesses when cash-payments take too long to flow back into their accounts.

If your business base is outside of the GCC, of course, you will need to plan for shipping your customers’ orders over much greater international distances. In this case, if you want to benefit from the ability to offer COD terms, your packages may need to arrive at the warehouse of a regional service provider for the last-mile delivery leg. If so, your preparations should include choosing a provider for shipping into the target country or region, along with a suitable domestic last-mile delivery service, with COD facilities.

Fulfillment Support: The People and the Technology

In addition to great products, you need two things to succeed in cross-border fulfillment on anything more than the smallest scale—people and technology. We’ve already touched briefly on the technology side of things, but the topic warrants some elaboration. Therefore, before concluding this article with a look at people-preparation, we’ll talk about the need to prepare for the use of digital tech to support your international fulfillment endeavors.

The Benefits of Tech-First Fulfillment Partners

The good news is that you shouldn’t need to spend a fortune purchasing or developing an expensive tech stack to manage cross-border e-commerce fulfillment. Aside from your checkout, which should be user-friendly for shoppers abroad, much of the technology you need is obtainable at a reasonable price from vendors. 

Integrated solutions might even be available free-of-charge from your logistics partners. For instance, several international couriers provide software that integrates with your checkout to calculate shipping times, cost, and currency conversions, improving visibility for you and your customers. 

Some regional carriers, or delivery companies local to your target market, may offer similar solutions, along with tools to generate shipping labels and automatically schedule and activate deliveries. 

These applications can be immensely helpful in reducing labor costs associated with fulfillment, leaving your people free to concentrate on sales and service excellence. 

For that reason, your preparations for cross border e-commerce should include researching the technological capabilities and offerings of potential delivery partners. Remember too, to ask about integrated shipment/parcel tracking, so your team and your customers can follow the progress of deliveries in real-time.

Prepare Your People for International Interactions

Do you have multilingual customer service staff? If not, you should think about getting some, because a particularly exciting—and sometimes challenging—facet of international e-commerce, is the interplay with customers of a different culture than your own.

However, that also means they might speak a different language, but just like customers at home, will wish to talk to your customer service team from time-to-time. 

Despite the existence of technology such as chat-bots, there’s nothing like the reassuring voice of a real person to put an anxious consumer’s mind at rest. Language capabilities will hence be critical to your people-preparations, along with the need for round-the-clock availability if your target market is in a time-zone several hours away from yours. 

How to Offer Multi-Time-Zone Support

Today’s connected shoppers expect instant responses to their queries, especially when they’re waiting for your fulfillment team to deliver their cross-border orders.

Think about how you will provide that kind of immediacy in customer-service interactions. Will you hire staff to work out of office hours to be available for customers in a different time zone? Will you outsource customer service, perhaps to a specialist provider, or to a delivery company offering customer support as a value-added service? 

Another option to consider would be to engage some freelance virtual assistants in your target country who specialize in customer service and speak the local language. 

The beauty of such a solution is that local VAs can work during regular office hours in the target country. They can take care of your customers while your local team sleeps, and their fluency in your customers’ language will help to prevent confusion and misunderstanding.

Fulfill Your Dreams of International E-commerce Success

Your business stands to gain immeasurably from expanding across borders, especially in emerging e-commerce markets like the GCC. 

If you already operate inside the region, why limit your sales to your home state? If outside, now is the time to get a foothold before the big players corner the entire geography (Amazon, eBay, and AliExpress have already captured 50% of the cross-border e-commerce market globally).

While it’s critical to prepare your marketing plans and changes to your e-commerce website, don’t forget the importance of flawless fulfillment in building your brand’s integrity. 

The tips above will help you develop a list of preparation points for this vital element of international e-commerce—but now it’s over to take the practical steps. It’s time to make your decisions, finalize your plans, go cross-border, and prosper.

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