International eCommerce: How to Effectively Grow in Eastern Europe

Internationalization ecommerce
Internationalizing your eCommerce business can be a challenge if you don't change your viewpoint.

Could Eastern Europe be the next big frontier for your international eCommerce business? Absolutely – and we’re here to share our best practical tips to empower your success.

The Eastern Europe Market: Exciting Times

At first glance, the Eastern European market seems underwhelming. Countries here have the smallest GDPs in Europe, which translates into price-sensitive, often hesitant shoppers. Then there are the cultural and language differences. The task of building platforms, marketing, and support to fit Eastern European customers can be a significant challenge. Even holidays aren’t always on the same date. Some countries, such as Romania, refer to the Orthodox calendar and celebrate Easter and all related holidays on different dates than countries that refer to the Gregorian calendar – meaning you might have to switch up the seasonal specials.

So, is Eastern Europe even worth your effort? We know it is!

Reasons You Should Invest in the Eastern Europe Market

You are asking yourself why you should invest in the Eastern Europe Market? As Tom Dupont, Director Central and Eastern Europe & Market Expansion at ABOUT YOU, comments: “Eastern Europe is an exciting, fast-growing eCommerce market where digital transformation has picked up speed significantly in recent years.” Want to know more? Here are three solid reasons why the region is one of the most promising – and underrated –new markets for international eCommerce:

  1. Eager customers, low competition
    Unlike mature markets like Germany or the UK, Eastern Europe’s eCommerce market is just getting started. Few to no local competitors serve a growing number of young, Internet-loving shoppers. It’s the perfect time for you to sweep in.
  2. Fast growth (better than Western Europe)
    While the Western European market is larger, Eastern Europe is expanding faster, growing by nearly 30% in 2020.
  3. A long, happy way to go
    eCommerce penetration in Eastern Europe was just 41% in 2020. Compare that to the whopping 86% in Western Europe, where shoppers are much more set in their ways. The eCommerce market has plenty of room to grow in Eastern Europe – take Poland, for example, where a $29.6 billion eCommerce market is projected to grow to $47.1 billion by 2025.
Tom Dupont

Eastern Europe is an exciting, fast-growing eCommerce market where digital transformation has picked up speed significantly in recent years.

Tom Dupont, Director Central and Eastern Europe & Market Expansion, ABOUT YOU

In short, you have fast-growing markets with eager online shoppers and few companies to serve them. Now is the right time for a market entry in Eastern Europe.

But, to thrive in a new market, you have to think like a local. In the following section, we provide you with advice on how to enter the Eastern European market through a regional growth strategy.

Building a Winning Local Strategy to Boost Your International eCommerce

When in Rome, do as the Romans do: You won’t get far in an international market if you don’t adapt to your customers’ culture. When it comes to international eCommerce, you want to speak your clients’ language – both literally and metaphorically.

This begins with things as simple as product descriptions – don’t just translate them verbatim; make sure they are culturally relevant. For example, if your original description contains a reference to a popular show (say, The Office), make sure the series is also well-known to your target audience. If not, switch to another cultural reference or risk alienating them. In short: The key to successful internationalization is localization!

This “big goals, local strategies” approach applies to virtually all aspects of eCommerce growth. From local payment methods to local-language customer support, this is how you build a relevant business in a brand-new market.

These are the three most important aspects of localized strategy:

  • Local payment methods
  • Local logistics
  • Local marketing
Internationalization cash on delivery
Even though more and more people pay deliveries with card, they still prefer to do right at their doorstep.

Local Payment Methods

When it comes to shopping online, offering the right payment methods can make or break your international eCommerce venture. Eastern Europeans are usually price-conscious customers with lower budgets. So how do you convince them they can trust you with their money? By offering local payment methods, the kind they know and trust.

Cash-on-Delivery is Your Best Friend

Cash on delivery (COD) is easily the most popular option. Take Romania, for example, where a whopping 78% of transactions are conducted with cash payments rather than with card or e-wallet. Distrust in the banking system is one major reason that people avoid cards, while fintech solutions are often not popular enough to be an alternative. COD is notoriously unpopular among merchants – you’re not alone if you’re hesitant to implement it. What happens if a client can’t pay for their order? Delivery refusal and returns can be costly, and cash flow management becomes more important than ever.

But the risk is worth it. In Poland, offering a payment method that customers know and trust can double your conversion. Throughout the region, offering local payment methods can boost your earnings by 40 to even 80%! Cash on delivery may seem complicated and difficult to implement, but with the support of partners who can assist you with the structures they already have, you will certainly succeed in this task. Even though local experts predict an increase in e-wallet and card payments, now and in the medium term, you should also focus on local payment methods, since they will give your sales a huge boost.

Three Steps to Take When Considering Your Payment Method

Ultimately, a locally tailored payment method approach in Eastern Europe includes:

  1. Research popular methods
    Offer payment methods that people already use and trust – this is how you build confidence in your brand.
  2. Include cash on delivery
    Despite all their challenges, cash payments remain a crowd favorite in Eastern Europe. Implement COD to give your customers the peace of mind they’re used to.
  3. Use local payment providers
    For each country in Eastern Europe, there is a local PaaS that might not be popular elsewhere but is very well-recognized locally. In Poland, for example, this is PayU.

Card and PayPal payments are becoming more and more popular in the region, but relying on them alone will turn off many potential clients. Win them over by offering local methods along with your usual checkout options.

International logistics
Integrating local carriers can be a challenge. Connect with strong partners to benefit from synergies and existing structures.

Local Logistics

“Our top priority when entering a new market is to meet the customers where they are, get to know them, and align our strategy accordingly,” as Tom puts it. If you’re offering COD (and we highly recommend you do), your delivery service will also handle payments. Regardless of your choice, the need for trustworthiness is a decisive factor when setting up your local logistics. Is the chosen shipping option your customers recognize? Would they use it themselves?

Get to Know Your Locals!

In Bulgaria, for instance, the two most popular local services are Econt and Speedy. Businesses use them to deliver, and so do consumers – whether it’s for sending grandma a present or delivering important work documents. The setup of local logistics processes involves an effort that should not be underestimated: onboarding the various delivery services, concluding contracts, coordinating responsibilities, establishing workflows, etc. The list is long and can quickly become overwhelming, but it is feasible, especially with partners at your side who know the market and the structures.

Transparency Is Key

Eastern European clients expect the same level of transparency and convenience as their Western counterparts. To build trust, look for the specific local options that offer them that. For instance, Slovanian Post has a track & trace integration, allowing both buyers and merchants to keep tabs on orders. Without it, your returns tracking becomes much more challenging – and the chances of mishandling a case grow significantly, leading to unhappy customers and poor reviews. One point that should not be overlooked here is that the technical requirements for optimum compatibility between your shop system and the carrier must be met to ensure a smooth process.

Local marketing
When adapting your international marketing strategy to local customs, you need to consider the fine differences that exist in any country.

Local Marketing

International eCommerce brands have one major advantage in Central and Eastern European markets: Customers associate Western brands with exclusivity, better quality, and even status. In short, you get a head start.

While there are many Russian and Turkish brands on the Eastern European market, Western ones are often missing. Customers value them, though – they already see them in a positive light. The hitch? This usually applies to major brand names. As Marcel Majsan, Croatian eCommerce Association eCommerce Hrvatska, puts it, referring to Croatia: “(...)if you have a big brand name, an online presence, and a quality webshop, you will be successful. If you start a pure e-commerce brand, you will need to invest quite a bit into marketing to gain trust or have incredibly low prices.” This may sound overwhelming. However, as mentioned above a good step to winning your customers' trust is offering COD. For your customer, that means: There is no need to pay in advance and no sensitive data must be provided. More importantly: Be transparent about your return policy and consider partnering up with a local customer protection agency whose logo you can include on your website as a token of safety.

How to Win Over Potential New Customers

How can you win over customers as a new eCommerce brand?

Tell customers what you’re all about

Your brand is the one thing that doesn’t change in local marketing. Think about how you’ll explain it to potential customers while emphasizing the values they care about – exclusivity is one that often comes to mind.

Adapt to local customs

When do you run a Mother’s Day promo? On the second Sunday of May? Not in Eastern Europe, where most Mother’s Day celebrations are on March 8th. Understanding these cultural differences and creating locally adapted campaigns is the key to winning over your customers.

Impress product search engines

Eastern European customers care about the price – and they use product search engines extensively to help them find the best deals. Mind your appearance on these platforms. Always look to be the price leader; the perceived value is much more important than the total cost.

SEO in the local language

Translate and optimize your website for each individual country. When booking translation services, you’ll want to specify that you need an SEO-optimized translation. Getting to the first page on Google is often easier in these smaller markets, so use organic traffic to your advantage.

Collaborate with influencers

Local celebrities and social media personalities can get the word out about your brand. Make sure you align with their audience and combine their coverage of your product with a discount for best results. The bigger, the better.

Cover All Legal Aspects

Finally, you have to tackle legal compliance. Consumer protection and merchant laws vary between countries – and if you’re selling outside the EU, taxation also plays a role. Take Croatia and Serbia, for example. The two countries share a border and a very similar language. Setting up a second logistics center in Serbia might involve high costs and a lot of effort, but in the medium and long term, it could be a better solution than cross-border selling. Luckily, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, and Montenegro are culturally and linguistically similar, so your investment in website translation and country-specific marketing is much lower.

International eCommerce in Eastern Europe in a Nutshell

In international eCommerce, think global, act local. The Eastern European market has plenty of untapped opportunities for savvy entrepreneurs. To grow your brand, keep local-specific strategies at the core of your approach:

  • Payment method: Offer customers the kind of payment methods they know – usually, this means COD.
  • Local logistics: Work with established delivery services that a potential client would already trust with their own packages.
  • Local marketing: Tailor marketing efforts to fit the culture and stand out for your ideal customers.

Adapting to all these factors requires a lot of country-specific expertise. Building your own structures can be a challenge, especially when resources are scarce, however, it is possible. How? By working with experienced partners who have many years of expertise and can draw on existing structures to help you get started quickly.

Eastern Europe might be one of the best eCommerce opportunities of 2022. We’re excited to see you thrive there!

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