International ecommerce stores

Whether you have an existing Shopify store or are planning to be selling internationally at launch, the global marketplace presents both opportunities and challenges aplenty. And while those operational challenges won’t just be found on your website -legal, logistical and customer service approaches all need careful consideration when serving international customers- running a digital store-front which is engaging and functional in multiple time zones requires diligent, and sometimes highly creative, planning.

Unfortunately, it’s common for stores to get 90% of their revenue from their native countries, but only 60% of their traffic. What are you doing for international visitors? That’s a lot of missed revenue. – Chris Houghton, Sauce.ly

Core functionality, apps or custom development?

Shopify, in common with every other ecommerce platform available, includes a certain set of core features. These features are written and supported by the Shopify team themselves, and (subscription permitting) every Shopify store owner gets equal access to use them as they see fit without any custom programming or apps. There are a good number of core features which all ecommerce platforms worth their salt will provide in some form – these features are typically dictated by the majority need; almost every Shopify customer wants a checkout process, product management, discount codes and a basic page content management system, to name a few. But things get a whole lot more fuzzy when we begin thinking about the lesser needed functionality: How many store owners intend to sell subscriptions? How many will sell to both consumer and trade customers, with different product prices for each user group? Or, for that matter, how many customers want to offer their store in multiple currencies, languages and regions? We can very safely guess that the answer for those features is certainly not ‘the majority’!

OK, so why is this relevant?

It’s important to recognise that ‘Going Global’ is not common. This means that Shopify and, for that matter, the majority of other ecommerce platforms, do not support international ecommerce functionality at their ‘core’ – not quite yet anyway. But that’s only a tiny part of the story. The Shopify app store, which hosts hundreds of apps that expand the functionality of the platform, and it’s community of 600+ Shopify Expert developers, are more than a match to the challenge of building an international shopping cart on Shopify. However, since these are not core features, selecting the right apps, and/or commissioning the right custom development takes some creativity, helped along with a pinch of experience.

The International Shopping Cart Checklist

When we think about the functional needs of an international ecommerce store, several requirements and optional features come to mind. By identifying which of these features you definitely want in your store, you’ll be in a better position to select the mix of solutions which will best achieve your ends. The most typical features include:

  • Multi-lingual support: Do you want to serve alternate language versions of your store?
  • Multi-currency shopping cart: Do you want to show your customers pricing in their local currency?
  • Custom design based on visitors country? Check the differences between amazon.com and amazon.co.uk homepages to see how different their design and layouts are!
  • Custom content based on visitors country? Should your products, written content, article, blog etc be different for visitors from different countries?
  • Native-currency checkout process. Should your visitors from different countries not only see your product pricing in their local currency, but also checkout in their local currency?

Shopify International Store Setup Methods:

So, since the ‘core’ international functionality is not all covered by Shopify, what options do you have to achieve your needs? Your approach will depend upon which functional needs you select from the bullet pointed list above. It’s important to keep all of your needs in mind when formulating your solution because certain needs logically preclude the use of particular solutions.

Solutions:

Lets break down each of the internationalisation challenges listed earlier in this piece with considerations and solutions.

1. Multi-lingual Support

Multi-lingual functionality is a mixed bag in Shopify. It can roughly be divided into two areas: Theme elements, and page content.

shopify-localesMost modern Shopify themes are now developed in such a way that all words and sentences included in the theme can be defined in multiple languages. These different languages files are called ‘Locales’ Some themes even come with popular alternate locales like French and Spanish ready to go! If you need to add your own language then this is quite straightforward (assuming you have someone who can provide the translations!) but does involve some work with code so give your favourite Shopify Expert a shout if you’d like a hand with this. You might be wondering what bits of text are included in these theme language files; basically any words, sentences etc which are shown on the site, but not stored in your product info or pages – for example your cart page text, button names, footer copyright text and so on. Shopify looks for all these bits of text in the locales files and will use whichever locale is appropriate for your visitor.

So, where does that leave your content – things like pages, product descriptions, terms of service and so on? This is where things get a bit trickier. Shopify does not currently have a single built-in multi-lingual editor feature though you can bet it’s on the way. Your admin area is only designed to store content in one language. This means there’s no single perfect solution, but a few you can consider.

Langify allows easy shopify store translation

Modify create alternate translations of your content side by side with the original.

Langify is a Shopify app created by Johannes Hodde. It’s a comprehensive storefront translation app which allows you manage translations for all your pages and products. It even lets you set different images depending upon your visitors location in case you have pictures with text in them. It works great for most uses. You use your Shopify admin system as usual to define your default language content (usually english), then head into Langify to create alternate translations for all the translatable it has located in your store.

Google Translate is a free alternative to Langify which needs a little coding work to install. However, it is completely free and will immediately provide tens of alternative translations for all your store content, including the theme elements if you’ve not used Shopify’s locales to define them. Google translate previously allowed site owners to submit their own custom translations for their site content but that feature has recently been abandoned sadly. This means that any translation Google Translate provides is 100% automatic and therefore can sometimes fall a little short of ideal. However, this represents a quick and easy way to support tens of translations to a ‘good enough’ standard most of the time.

2. Multi-currency Shopping Cart

Shopify does not support this natively yet, but there are a number of apps or even some free code snippets which you can add yourself (or have an expert add) if you want to avoid app fees.

Here’s a Shopify guide to adding a drop-down menu in your store header which lets customers select between the different currencies you’d like to make available. Be aware that any currencies you show will simply be calculated based on the days exchange rate. For example, if your product is $10, and you allow customers to see pricing in British Pounds, then they will see roughly £7.50. The exchange rates change many times a day to keep the price the customer sees as close as possible to the actual checkout price.

3. Region specific page designs

Shopify does not feature region specific page design control by default, however it is possible. There are a few possible approaches to consider here: Use a Shopify app, open multiple stores (one for each design), or contract a Shopify Expert to code multiple designs into a single store.

1. Use an app.

Sauce app icon

Sauce is a marketing app which helps website owners track, segment, and target visitor groups. One of the key features of Sauce is that it allows you to serve and run different code depending upon the group your site visitors sit in. Since you create the groups, and you can use your visitors location as a filter to place them in different groups, you have complete control over who sees what design elements in your multi-region store. Simple implementations like adding a banner with a special offer just for visitors from a certain country are relatively easy for store owners who know basic code, but more complex solutions involving lots of changes to images, text and so on would likely require the skills of an experienced Shopify developer. The monthly cost of Sauce is comparable to that of a second Shopify store subscription, so this may become an easy choice if you are contemplating serving three or more regions with varying content.

2. Open multiple stores

This one can get costly very quickly, but if you are keen to serve very different design, content, and even functionality depending upon your store visitors location then there’s currently no better alternative than opening multiple Shopify stores and building/managing them each completely independently. You’ll need to think about stock control since your stores inventories will not be connected, and talk with your payment provider to ensure they can process payments from multiple stores. You’ll be paying multiple Shopify store subscriptions, so if you’re a large business consider Shopify Plus since the subscription includes up to three stores in one fee with possible discounts for additional instances. A Shopify Expert developer will be able to create a system to automatically forward your customers to the correct store for their region, or you can use a splash page with a region selection.

3. Expert customisation

If you’d still like to serve different designs to visitors depending upon their location, all within one international ecommerce store, then you’ll need to do a lot of code work. The immediate benefits of this are that you only have one inventory to manage, and you’re only paying one Shopify subscription which mean lower monthly costs, but the upfront work load may be significant. There are plenty of great Shopify Experts out there, many of whom will be capable of helping with this.

4. Region specific content

Region specific content is also not supported by Shopify ‘out of the box’. But you can deliver it through some work with Langify or Sauce. Remember from our item above that Langify will let you translate the written content and many of the images of any page or product on your site? You can use this exact functionality to present subtly (or very!) different content depending upon your users location, even if that means your different content versions are the same language! You’ll need to use GeoIP or some kind of manual location selection so Langify knows where your visitor’s are from. Once it has that, it will present whatever content you have set up for them.

If you’d prefer not to use Langify or want native control over your content (controlling it in Shopify’s own editor, rather than in Langify) then you should consider opening a separate Shopify store for each store you want to present. Of course this means paying a subscription for each store, and managing your product inventory across multiple stores.

5. Native currency checkout process

This is an easy one. Shopify does not support different currencies in the Checkout pages. By Checkout pages I mean the pages which come immediately after a customer hits ‘Checkout’ in your store. These pages are specially locked down by Shopify to ensure PCI level 1 compliance – which is the highest compliance possible. This security comes at a cost since it means that the functionality of these checkout pages is pretty much impossible to change.

This does not stop your customers from shopping in whatever currencies you make available. Once they reach the checkout they will simply see their basket value in your stores true currency, rather than the converted rates you’ve set up for them to see in the rest of the store.

If you own a large store, and are already on Shopify, you can consider (Shopify Plus) google it. This is an enterprise scale subscription which does allow some functional modification of the checkout pages and might make it possible to manage multiple currencies at checkout, though I’m not certain of that at this time.

Two main approaches:

You may have got the sense by now that there are two key approaches to consider when architecting your multi-region / multi-language Shopify store.

1. Use apps, custom coding and other creative tweaks to get as close to the functional ideal as possible. Accept the hard-limits of operating multiple regions in a single store like only being able to configure one payment gateway, only having one checkout currency and language etc.

2. Open a Shopify store for each regional instance and send the customer to the one most appropriate to them. This choice carries it’s own drawbacks, namely the cost of multiple Shopify subscriptions, the complexities of synchronising product inventories and so on.

Whatever approach you elect to take, remember that each has benefits and drawbacks and select a solution which fits your immediate, and long term operational needs best.

The International ecommerce store – Final Thoughts

One of the most frustrating things we can face with any platform like Shopify is running up against systemic limitations which appear to (or -worse- genuinely) limit our ability to achieve our goals. In this event there can be a temptation to write-off a platform if at first we don’t have a tick box to enable a particular need. Shopify, just like many other ecommerce platforms, does have some inherent limitations when it comes to international functionality. However, by taking the time to examine your needs and then considering the strengths and weaknesses of different solutions, you should be in a strong position to launch and operate a truly international store or suite of stores on Shopify.

Written by Dan McIvor
Inconspicuous entrepreneur. Director at SwankyApple. Shopify Plus Expert.