Maybe it makes sense that Dell Computers was the first company to sell its products online — after all, the company was already digital. Since then, however, retailers selling everything from guitar picks to built-in fireplaces have seized the online opportunity, and customers have responded. Today, e-commerce is an everyday experience for millions of consumers.

The basic principles behind e-commerce aren’t as modern as we might think, however. In a way, they harken back to the days of the Eaton’s and Sears catalogues, where photos of the latest toys beckoned to children in even the most rural parts of Canada. If their parents placed an order, the toys arrived at their doorstep a few weeks later.

So it’s similar for buyers, but if you’re a seller, e-commerce is a game-changer because it offers even the smallest company — you, with your small inventory housed in your spare bedroom, for example — worldwide reach, with customers from as far away as Kazakhstan or the Fiji Islands.

In short, you can access the same global reach as those multinationals you aspire to catch, making yourself, at least in the beginning, a micronational. And the cash outlay to do so is modest.

Understanding the pros and cons, however, is essential.

Reasons to go for it

  • Expanded customer base: You escape the limits of geography and customers around the world can find you.
  • No bricks and mortar: Traditional exporters often set up offices abroad; e-commerce circumvents that need.
  • Lower marketing costs: Search-engine optimization and Facebook are your marketing tools.
  • Streamlined business operations: All of your customer data is in one place, on one platform.
  • Better customer experience: Customers get detailed product information, often with online offers targeted to them thanks to their past buying history, rapid customer response and 24/7 access to the “store.”

The drawbacks are fewer, but they do exist

  • Less-personal customer service: The salesperson’s role is diminished.
  • Unseen and un-held merchandise: Buyers must judge products solely on images and descriptions.
  • Security concerns: Some customers are wary of credit card fraud with online purchases.
  • Duties and taxes: Customs charges can be barriers to business.
  • Logistics: Deliveries to international markets are often more complicated than domestic shipping.
  • Returns: Your returns process will have to handle reverse logistics and refunds in different currencies.

E-commerce does make exporting easy, but there is a learning curve with engaging in cross-border e-commerce, particularly around pricing and managing the logistics.

Andrea Stairs  —  Managing Director eBay

In the words of eBay managing director Andrea Stairs: “E-commerce does make exporting easy, but there is a learning curve with engaging in cross-border e-commerce, particularly around pricing and managing the logistics.”

Five secrets to your e-commerce success

1. Do your market research

Consider whether your product will sell abroad and what countries will be most interested. Research which markets have the highest online purchasing rates and analyze your value proposition and target markets. Stay on top of your competition and find your edge. Think about how to price your products most attractively.

“You may want to focus on markets that share your language,” Stairs said. “And, if you’re in the fashion category, be sure to provide the sizing for other markets.”

2. Find the most appropriate e-commerce platform

EBay and Etsy are essentially online catalogues. Your products will show up with like-products from other sellers. Storefront platforms, such as Shopify, allow you to customize the shopping experience and your ability to take international orders. For something even more customized, you can hire an e-commerce web developer. Regardless of the platform, be sure it optimizes on mobiles, where many do their online shopping.

3. Determine how best to get paid

Figure out how you want to be paid and set up accounts with electronic payment suppliers such as PayPal. You’ll also need a merchant account with an internet credit card provider.

4. Sort out your delivery service

E-commerce veterans say delivery is one of their biggest challenges. Be clear on your site about delivery times and costs and choose a reliable shipper with international experience.

Third-party fulfillment services will store inventory, pack and ship your product, complete with tracking information. Consider this service.

5. Provide top-quality after-sales service

Good customer service is essential in an arena where bad customer-service stories can go viral.

Similarly, good customer service yields word-of-mouth recommendations and repeat business. Remember that you may encounter language barriers in responding to customers — have a solution for that. If you can’t respond around the clock, use an auto response that assures customers they’ll hear from you.