Is international shipping right for your business? - Shop Owner Academy
7 min read Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should!

Is international shipping right for your business?

Is it right for your business to ship internationally? The internet means we can sell around the clock to customers on the other side of the world. However, does it make sense to try to sell to people half way around the world? Shipping can be difficult for your business and slow and expensive for your customers. Should you ignore it or would that mean you're missing profitable opportunities?

When I was about 12, we were invited to attend our first wedding. By we, I mean my brother and I. Our mother was also attending, but we knew she’d definitely been to at least one wedding before.

Our paternal grandmother made us two piece suits especially for the event. Neal’s in burgundy and gray and mine in navy and sky blue.

Nan had been a seamstress before the Second World War and had retained all her skills with needle and thread.

For weeks before the day, we had to attend fittings to ensure progress on the suits was going well. It was like being dressed by Tom Ford, but without the swearing and racial abuse.

Well she’d occasionally rant about the French, but I’ll save that for another day.

One giant leap for a kid

The morning of the wedding, I was allowed out to play for a few hours on condition I definitely returned home by such and such a time to get ready.

So it was, no doubt like many kids before us, Stew and I found ourselves stood on the roof of the local school. Not sure why.

Guess it’s like cats. Even our blind ones can’t help but climb straight upwards at every opportunity.

Being stood on a roof almost inevitably led to a stupid bet.

“I bet you can’t jump off the roof” is what Stew baited me with.

“I could” I replied, “but are you up for it?”

“Yeah, of course!”

What happened next was basically the last scene of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.

The Key Grip’s cut.

We looked each other in the eye and then sprinted towards the edge of the flat asphalt roof.

As we reached the edge together, Butch soared off into the open air.

The Stewdance Kid, on the other hand, pulled up incredibly sharply and ultimately remained firmly rooted to the roof.

You’ve got to remember to roll

Looking up as I write this, I know the ceiling above me is 13 feet tall, so I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say the roof was 10 feet up. Back then I probably measured about five feet tall.

With the benefit of almost four decades of hindsight I can see it wasn’t a bright move.

Truth be told, with the benefit of less than a second of hindsight, I could see I might have just done something a bit stoopid.

I hadn’t even landed and that thought was going through my mind.

Then I did land and my right ankle started to buckle under me in slow motion.

I wasn’t going to a wedding, I was going to hospital. I could see my mother’s face. She didn’t look happy.

Still she was a positive ray of sunshine compared to the vision I had of nan. She’d dressed me in a stripy top and beret and was flinging onions at me while screaming “garlic munching surrender monkey”.

Back to the school.

Remember, I’m in slow motion here. My ankle is still buckling, but ever so slowly.

Next came the little miracle.

Sprinting off a roof may well be a stoopid thing to do. It comes with one benefit however.

Momentum.

I’ve heard parachutists are taught to roll on landing to reduce the risk of injury. My forward momentum meant that’s exactly what I did.

A daft, uncontrolled, but ankle saving roll.

It hurt a bit and I spent the day garnering sympathy for my little limp.

But no-one could be angry with me for twisting my ankle while stepping off a curb, now could they?

You don’t have to do anything

And my point is? Painfully labored obviously.

However, the gist is that just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean that you should.

Of course, this could apply to any subject, but I’ve been particularly thinking about shipping products. I’ve been preparing videos for an upcoming course on launching a WooCommerce based store.

Configuring shipping has been part of this, which is why it’s front and center in my mind right now. It’s a common pain point for ecommerce site owners, deciding where to ship and for how much.

Two of the greatest promises of ecommerce stores is that we can sell 24/7 and to people anywhere in the world.

Selling around the clock is undoubtedly a boon for any business, but shipping products globally plain doesn’t make sense for some businesses. Arguably it doesn’t make sense for most businesses, though handmade businesses may be an exception.

Whether it makes sense for your business is something that only you can decide. Let me ponder a few points, however, to help you gain some clarity.

Customers are a fickle bunch

Customers are an impatient bunch too! When they want something, they want it now.

Amazon understand this and it’s one of the reasons they allow customers to pay an annual fee to ensure next day delivery as often as possible.

It’s a simple fact that if a customer can buy locally, i.e. in their own country, they won’t buy from a seller in another country. In most cases.

If you read Etsy’s guide on their internal search, you’ll see they’ve discovered exactly this.

Many buyers in certain countries, like the UK, Australia, France, and Germany, have told us that they like purchasing from sellers based in their own countries because they find it to be more convenient and less expensive.

That quote also highlights why customers may buy from another country. If it is cheaper to do so. Bear in mind it will have to be significantly cheaper too.

It doesn’t just have to offset the inconvenience of the increased delivery time. The saving will also have to compensate for the perceived risk of buying abroad. If something goes wrong with the order, dealing with a company in another country may be more challenging.

Import duties

There may be additional costs in buying abroad too and most are completely unaware of this until they fall foul of it the first time.

Import duty or tax. I’m not going to try and talk about this with any authority. I’m not one. However, most countries impose taxes on goods that are shipped into them.

The specifics of this can be confusing and often there’s a threshold below which nothing is charged. Gifts are usually completely exempt.

Hence you may see some businesses saying they will mark purchases as gifts.

If you’re going to sell internationally and you think it’s possible your products could incur import duties, I strongly recommend you make this clear to prospective buyers.

Few things in nature compare with the rage a customer feels after waiting weeks for a product, because it was cheaper, and then finding the tax means it has cost them more than buying locally.

“Buyer beware” be damned! They’ll see you as wholly to blame.

Are your products unique?

The type of products you sell is also a a key factor in whether international shipping makes sense to you.

Readily available, mass produced goods can often be easily sourced in most countries and few buyers will look elsewhere to buy.

More specialist and handmade craft and art items are a different kettle of fish. Sometimes a product can be so specialized, it may only be available from one seller.

If you’re a handmade seller,  however, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you’re the only place a buyer can get a product.

This is where you need to do an honest assessment of of your products. Are they really unique or just a slightly different twist on a theme that’s commonly available everywhere?

If a buyer can find something that’s more or less the same locally, they’re less likely to look further afield.

That said, you could be an exception to this if you’ve built a particularly strong brand that separates you from your competitors. Even if you’re products are largely similar.

Cheap as chips or loads-a-money?

The cost of your products could also be a factor in whether international shipping makes sense for your business.

With more high end products, the cost of international shipping and insurance may be considerably less relatively. In this case, shipping may be quite insignificant in comparison to the cost of the product.

Do you enjoy dealing with foreign shipping businesses?

Finally, forget about your customers and think about yourself.

Do you want the hassle of dealing with international shipping, especially when it goes wrong? Now in fairness, things rarely go wrong with shipping, but it does happen.

Plus you’ll find yourself managing a more complex range of shipping rates to cover all your destinations.

Are you embracing the global market?

There’s no right or wrong answer over whether your business should ship internationally.

It opens up a much broader potential market for your business.

On the other hand, that could complicate your marketing strategy and fulfillment.

If you’re starting out, hopefully some of the points above will help you decide which way you’ll go on this subject.

For those of you already up and running, I’d love to hear whether you ship internationally or not and why you made your decision. You can comment below or head over to our Shop Owner Academy Facebook group and tag me there.

Ian Pullen

Ian Pullen

Graphic designer, web developer and writer with experience working on projects for solo entrepreneurs and big businesses like The New York Times and Unilever. Lives in Spain with Kate and an eccentric number of dogs and cats.