ATouch of Local Flavor

To compete with online giants that have international reach, Wal-Mart Stores launched an e-commerce initiative in February aimed at securing billions of dollars of additional sales in countries including China, Japan and Brazil. By linking its stores with call centers, Wal-Mart’s new platform could potentially sell groceries, general merchandise and digital products. But Wal-Mart is hardly alone in its online global push—more and more U.S. retailers are showing interest offshore to offset slowing stateside growth.

“Opening up your business to new markets allows companies to diversify, and it provides a hedge against slow times in the markets you’re already in,” according to Michael Sank, VP of corporate strategy, Transperfect.com , a New York City-based software provider of localization services. “Any retailer that went local in other markets within the last five years increased U.S. dollar sales in those markets simply because many currencies have grown in strength against the dollar.”

If you are thinking about “going global,” remember, it’s not just about offering part of the company Web site in local languages. True localization must encompass language, culture, customs, technical sophistication and other characteristics of the target locale, including sizing and other product specifications. Retailers that are looking for global customers need to localize their content both online and in-store.

“It’s a proven fact that companies that adapt their products to local markets experience increases in market share and global revenues,” Sank said. “And when you consider that 52% of online consumers will buy only from Web sites where the information is presented in their language, you begin to see that you’re on an un-level playing field when a site is not localized.”

So far, online retailers that are expanding globally and localizing for international markets are often those with an existing offline presence in these markets.

“Many of these companies may already sell products through in-country dealers, but are interested in selling direct,” said Zia Daniell Wigder, New York City-based JupiterResearch senior analyst and VP. “Some hope to diversify their revenue streams and take advantage of growing e-commerce markets around the globe; others are motivated by the high value of international currencies compared to the U.S. dollar.”

For example, Stratham, N.H.-based outdoor gear retailer Timberland has had an offline presence in international markets for years, but just launched a U.K-driven site late last year.

As more retailers consider expanding their global reach online, Sank suggests they keep the following tips in mind:

  •  Ensure high-quality source content with messages that can be adapted for international markets;

  • Leave your preconceptions at the door. It is easy to subconsciously assume that your own local-market characteristics apply globally;

  •  Ensure that the design concept is fully internationalized. All languages behave differently and English is not necessarily a good model on which to base design decisions;

  •  Avoid design or content changes. They can bring the localization process to a halt;

  • Integrate content development with localization. Consistency is achieved when localization is integrated across the many processes occurring when going global;

  • Consider localization as the guest of honor rather than the poor relation; and

  • Most importantly, call upon localization experts. They understand in-country issues, languages and needs—which can make all the difference in the world.