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For many people, the Internet has turned shopping into an international experience. With a click of your mouse you can order shoes from Milan, Italy; cosmetics from Paris; and African art straight from the motherland. But U.S. consumers are still holding on tightly to their purse strings, which is leading online merchants to open their virtual doors to international customers. But before you put out the bienvenue mat, there are a few things you should know about attracting and serving customers overseas.
For starters, you must be able to communicate in a language that potential patrons can understand. Consider adding a link to online language translation services, for little or no charge, to help international customers feel more at home. Try using national flag icons to illustrate the languages your site supports or try http:// babel.altavista.com, which lets you translate Web pages into Chinese, English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, and Russian.
Currency translation is another important element to add to your site. Moshood, the African American clothing retailer, has a currency translation feature embedded into the design of its Website (www.afrikanspirit.com) that translates prices into the U.S. dollar, the Euro, and the Spanish peseta. You can also link to free currency translators such as XE.com (www.xe.com), which updates every minute and gives you a list of currencies from the Algerian Dinar to the Turkish Lira.
Once customers are able to calculate the price of a product in their currency, they’ll want to know the cost of shipping the item from your office or warehouse to their home. Taxes and duties (called the value-added tax, or VAT) charged on international sales are often due upon receipt of the item. Make sure that your customers are aware of additional costs. To avoid this problem, Averlyn Archer, founder of the online art store Genisisartline.com, posts a disclaimer on her order confirmation form that alerts customers from the Caribbean, England, or Germany that their country of origin may charge additional customs or duties upon receipt of products.
If you have the financial resources, you might consider developing country-specific Websites that customers can link to from your home page. Country-specific sites translate all content into the predominant language of the countries you serve, while acknowledging cultural differences and international laws. For example, it’s illegal to sell Nazi memorabilia in Germany, as large auction sites such as Yahoo! and eBay discovered early last year. And in the U.S., customers are familiar with the term ZIP Code, but in the United Kingdom, customers recognize the term Postal Code, which may not be written in the same format as U.S. addresses. Remember to adjust online data collection forms accordingly.
Lastly, make sure your site is appealing, quick to load, and easy to navigate. “We [in the U.S.] are spoiled with high-speed connections, but that’s not the case with international Internet users,” says James F. Foley, director of the International Trade Center at Bradley University and author of The Global Entrepreneur: Taking Your Business International (Dearborn Trade Publishing, $29.95). Make sure