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Internet explorers go native

Fashion retailers building sales in new markets will always require websites with localised content.

British fashion retailers face a steep learning curve when launching fully translated, localised web sites in new territories. Country-specific sites can cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to set up and manage properly, but the overheads are much lower than setting up physical stores.

“However, in fashion, customers in all countries need the sense that a site is somehow local if they are to fully trust the service,”

says Allyson Stewart-Allen, managing director of International Marketing Partners, a consultancy which advises on cross-border cultural understanding. “That means they will expect clarity around pricing, delivery options and returns. Can they speak to someone in their own language, for example?”

Culturally, retailers should be aware of unique needs in different markets. In the US, a phone number on a fashion website is essential as service expectations are high.

In Spain, smaller clothing sizes are likely to sell out first. Cheap, man-made fabrics aren’t popular in France and Italy. Bright colours will do well in Mediterranean countries, while muted colours are popular in the UK and Scandinavia.

Basic research can be done online, agrees Amanda Davie, managing director of digital management consulting company Reform.

“By looking at white papers on international markets and using Google Adwords analytics and social media monitoring tools you can find out what customers in key locations are interested in, for instance where plus-size clothing is in demand, or where British high street brands are popular,” she says. “It’s essential to understand shopper behaviour: which digital devices people are happy to use, how they expect to pay for and receive goods, and which social media influencers dominate in the region, be it Facebook, local price comparison sites and marketplaces or discount couponing schemes.”

Fashion retailers who are serious about building sales in a new market need a local team developing a country website to ensure properly localised content, making the language relevant, determining the very best customer acquisition strategy and shaping ongoing SEO (search engine optimisation), social marketing and local PR, says Davie.

Ian Harris, chief executive of Leeds-based search engine marketing specialist Search Laboratory, warns against translating keywords too literally. “Keywords must be in the mother tongue, so it’s essential to work with search agencies that employ native speakers of the countries you’re targeting.

If you don’t use the right colloquial terms for ‘cocktail dresses’ or ‘maxi dresses’, you’ll fail to connect with customers.”

He says large fashion brands spend between £5,000 and £100,000 a month on international search marketing. In technologically advanced countries – particularly Japan – mobile search is of increasing importance. Japanese shoppers take photos of outfits they like on the street and then search for those same outfits online – so your international web platform must support this with the latest ‘searchandising’ software – which integrates search and merchandising for a better mobile experience.

“You need to balance simplicity with optimisation on international websites,” says Michael Ross, co-founder and director of etail consultancy eCommera. “A single global template is cheaper and ensures a consistent look and feel, but it might be astute to observe cultural difference.”

eCommera’s recent report, The 10 Ps of International Commerce, advises UK retailers to use local insight when it comes to promotion. “Keyword-driven marketing campaigns alone will not be sufficient, so you need to be creative about building brand awareness using local events and PR,” says Ross.

Golden opportunities in China are frustratingly out of reach today because the personal finance infrastructure isn’t yet in place for people to pay online, with very few Chinese owning credit cards. In many parts of Asia – particularly South Korea – a high percentage of web purchases are made through mobile devices, so mobile-optimised sites and payment options must be considered.

Within Western Europe there is a plethora of payment methods for each country – Mister Cash in Belgium, ELV and Giropay in Germany, Carte Bleue in France and Machtiging and iDeal in the Netherlands. “Allowing payments in local currencies and with local payment methods significantly raises checkout conversion when expanding abroad,” says Julian Wallis, country manager for Ogone payment services, which processes non-credit card payments in multiple currencies. “For those who can surmount the obstacles, it’s a fast time to market with huge revenue and growth opportunities.”

Many British fashion names are sensibly expanding their online businesses closer to home first – going ‘cross border’ to neighbouring countries. Marks & Spencer launched last autumn, and has announced for the Republic of Ireland.

These and future country sites will feature localised content and marketing, tailored product ranges, prices in local currency and local delivery prices. David Walmsley, multichannel development director at Marks & Spencer, says: “Our plan is to transform M&S into an international multichannel retailer.

Our first non-UK website,, serves customers across the whole of France, complements our Paris store and offers our customers more choice. In addition, our in-store touchscreen browse and order points enable customers to choose from our full catalogue of clothing and homeware products.”

Topshop ships to more than 100 countries but has a strategy to localise too. It now has dedicated country sites for France, Germany and the US, and owner Sir Philip Green says he envisages Arcadia Group building a “£500m to £700m business in three to five years” in China, through multiple channels.

Etailer is focusing on three overseas territories: Australia, with a web team working out of Sydney; Scandinavia, with a team in Oslo; and the Middle East, with a recently set-up operation in Dubai. “We believe it’s important to expand internationally, slowly and strategically, in line with the culture of each new market and the customer expectations there,” says Sarah Curran, chief executive of My-Wardrobe. “Although in all these territories English is widely spoken, we’re passionate about offering a local experience of our brand, so we are investing in translating these sites and employing local experts to help us offer the best local experience.”

For the Middle East, My-Wardrobe made a point of adding the local currency capability first, and is now working to translate style guides into Arabic, and develop localised content and translations of PR, marketing and social media elements.

“Our discovery is that in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar, word of mouth and social networking are very powerful and this is how our target audience engages with online shopping and learns about fashion brands,” says Curran. “There is clear interest not just in the big French and Italian fashion houses, but also in newer brands like Acne and Equipment, and the women here are interested in authoritative style reports to build their knowledge. This is exactly our specialism so it’s an exciting time.”

Curran says emerging markets such as China, Russia and Brazil are being closely monitored, and will offer big opportunities in the future, but for the time being the costs and challenges of setting up dedicated language-specific sites in these emerging markets are prohibitive, she says.

Experts advise investment in local domains, as search engines favour these – for instance or And they warn that the main search engines – Google, Yahoo – don’t dominate the world over.

In South Korea, Naver is the top search engine, while in Russia it’s Yandex, which prefers .ru domains. “It also helps to have a local server – again search engine algorithms prioritise websites with local servers,” says Davie at Reform.

International ecommerce also requires compliance with country-specific online trading regulations, understanding of tax systems, currency, fraud and customs issues, not to mention all the operational challenges of dealing with cross-border deliveries and returns.

Click here to read more of Drapers international focus features

Key learnings in one market won’t necessarily transfer to another, so there are huge challenges to overcome. Winners will see phenomenal sales growth. “The losers will be those that don’t internationalise, or do it poorly,” says Ross.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Maosha

    I was reading this article and found something is not correct.
    "Golden opportunities in China are frustratingly out of reach today because the personal finance infrastructure isn’t yet in place for people to pay online, with very few Chinese owning credit cards." Actually, it might be some influence of the limited amount of people own credit card, but the real reason is lacking of online transaction trust. More, the online check-out system is running differently here in China. It usually requests that you shall open online banking, or online security protector USB devices, or sometimes, it reaches the limitation of online payment. So, it is inaccurate information on the topic of China online market.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

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