The inexorable rise of e-commerce and the ongoing bullish forecasts for online retailing spell real potential for small and medium-sized companies and provide opportunities for them to get into online sales alongside the bigger players and major international marketplaces.

Cross-border e-commerce: SMEs have good cards to play

Projections for worldwide e-commerce saw online revenues exceeding $1 trillion in 2014 and nearly doubling within the next four years. A report commissioned by US-based delivery specialist FedEx from Forrester Consulting entitled ‘Seizing the Cross-Border Opportunity: How Small and Medium-Size Online Businesses Can Go Global’, reveals that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) now have unprecedented growth opportunities in the e-commerce business. To seize these openings they will need to take advantage of the growing enthusiasm of buyers towards e-commerce so as to position themselves alongside the market leaders. The in-depth survey underlying the report shows that smaller companies have realistic opportunities to meet the needs of increasingly demanding customers and to carve out a substantial market share for themselves. The report underlines that ″cross-border e-commerce is a major revenue opportunity for small and medium-size enterprises″ but that in order to compete with the online market leaders, ″SMEs must differentiate by offering unique merchandise while providing world-class service″. The good news is that ″limited variability in global shopper preferences means SMEs don’t need drastically different regional e-commerce strategies″, says the Forrester report.

Shoppers appreciate unique products and offers

In 2014, the French spent $30 billion online, a figure which is forecast to increase by a further 46% by 2018. Some 60% of all French people polled usually buy something on the Internet at least every month, 66% of them purchasing clothes, 51% ordering books and 42% buying IT equipment online. SMEs in France should be able to take advantage of the e-commerce boom since 41% of the people there surveyed not only said they were happy to buy online from SMEs, but also felt that by so doing they were helping to support smaller businesses. French people seem quite happy to order items online from a smaller player, one reason being the special offers and unique products more frequently available from these kind of firms. However, if they want to differentiate themselves from the market leaders, SMEs really need to highlight their unique features. And there is one persistent stumbling block: when it comes to the total purchasing costs, including delivery charges, of international retail, opinions are divided.

SMEs versus major brands and online marketplaces

When buying online cross-border, close to half of the online shoppers polled worldwide said they were concerned about potentially high shipping and customs costs, plus long delivery times The majority of shoppers strongly prefer to buy from an internationally-reputed ″multi-brand online retailer or marketplace″, as then ″seller reputation or trustworthiness″ and ″reputation/recognition″ are usually a given. The report also offers some useful advice to SMEs to help them overcome any hesitations they may have about embarking on the e-commerce path. The report’s authors advise any smaller provider wishing to seize the opportunity to go online globally to ″Study your current international traffic and business traffic″ on their websites in order to get an better idea of their target market (country, favourite products, and so on); ″Learn from your peers″ –- identify competitors and get ideas from the way they work; ″Identify the right partners based on your strategy and needs″ (especially for logistics); and ″Focus on limited geographies at first to test your approach and partners″. These are some of the key success factors in the e-commerce world that are well within reach of SMEs, argue the Forrester experts.

By Anthéa Delpuech