Shopbop’s Karen Grajwer on Reaching Shoppers Across Borders

Shopbop, the online fashion retailer, was acquired by Amazon in 2006. With a background in retail and international business development, Karen Grajwer joined Shopbop in 2010 to lead international marketing. Shopbop had only recently started to push into international markets when she joined. Her primary task? To merge international strategy with execution. Here are some of the lessons she had to share.

Know your international customer

As Grajwer points out, in any new job, not just one that involves international work, you should always start with the customer. Ask the fundamental questions of how they find your company, what their experience is like with your website, your brand, and your customer service. But with international customers, it’s also important to consider a range of other factors.

“It’s easy to forget that international customers care about a lot more than just your products,” Grajwer explains. “International customers are buying in a different currency, in a different language. They can’t easily do returns, they don’t know what additional duties and taxes they’ll have to pay. They might not know what paperwork they will need, and their shipping costs are high. Would you buy a product you can’t return with at least $30 in duties, taxes or shipping costs alone?”

Grajwer advocates getting started with a customer-centric framework and obtaining detailed input on what the customer is most likely to want, where they are most likely to need your product and how you can make the delivery experience as seamless as possible. “Talk to everyone on the ground. Your customers, your potential partners, agencies, and so on. Then form your own opinion. The more local your information, the better.”

If you translate it, they won’t necessarily come

Far too many companies think that if they simply have a great product, all they need to do is translate, and that this will open up international opportunities. Grajwer warns that this is a simplistic way of viewing international expansion, especially for e-commerce companies.

“One common mistake e-commerce companies make when they try to go cross-border is thinking that localizing language is the only big move to make,” she explains. “Talking to customers in their own language matters, but it is just one of many things that affect the customer experience and not always the most important. Talk to your customers and they will let you know what matters to them.”

The same advice applies for enabling international shipping or engaging in search marketing. While those are also pieces of the puzzle, Grajwer advises companies to take a holistic approach. “Having a great value proposition isn’t enough,” she says. “You’ll need to build a marketing plan to engage the people who are your low-hanging fruit.”

“Easy” countries are also the most competitive

Many companies divide international markets into two primary buckets — countries that are easier to move into, and those that offer much greater challenges, usually along with bigger opportunities. Often, the easiest countries are ones that have fewer localization needs, already have sales associated with them and therefore proven demand. For most companies in the US, countries like UK and Canada fit this description.

Similarly, for Shopbop, the “easier” countries were ones where customers were already buying from them or inquiring about their products. Delivery and customs were already working pretty well, and marketing could be handled with a lighter touch through agencies or partnerships. For these countries, Grajwer recommends an agency-focused approach in the beginning: “It’s likely you won’t need someone on the ground in the beginning. Be scrappier.”

However, although these countries appear to be low-hanging fruit, they come with their own set of challenges. “In the beginning, these countries seem a lot easier to target, but this means your competitors are also usually there too,” she points out. Grajwer recommends optimizing your value proposition early on in those markets, because otherwise it’s difficult to get a strong growth trajectory in such competitive countries.

Carefully consider your market mix

At Shopbop, they didn’t just focus on the easiest countries starting out, but rather a mix of those less complicated markets along with more challenging ones. In total, they elected to focus on four countries initially. Countries that were more challenging entailed bigger risk and bigger investment.

According to Grajwer, it was important to include a couple of countries in the mix that were extremely promising in terms of addressable market size, even if they required a greater investment in execution. She warns against focusing on too many markets simultaneously, especially in the early days.

Lean heavily on locals

Far too many companies believe they can simply send an expat over to another country to launch international efforts. Grajwer strongly recommends the opposite. “Don’t use many people based out of the US that are experts on the country. Instead, read a lot and go there yourself,” she says. She advises spending ample time in-market and talking to people on the ground to really understand local customers and their needs. It’s also important to hire someone from the local market who will think like those customers, not like someone who is based in a US office.

It’s also easy to hire someone who reinforces what you already know about a market. Grajwer suggests instead hiring people who will push your thinking to the next level and who can lend new perspectives. “Sometimes, the best person is the one who walks in with a different point of view and talks about competitors who aren’t the global players you are already were aware of, but about local companies instead. These are your true competitors in the eye of the consumer.” Hire people with local expertise that you simply can’t get sitting within US borders.

Grajwer also suggests a lean approach when it comes to international, and letting the business drive major investments, instead of spending a large amount of money propping up a big local team before the sales and customer figures warrant it. Far too many companies set up a local office before they have reached the right scale. “Use agencies and partners to be your eyes and ears on the ground in the early days,” she recommends. Then, put metrics in place to determine the pace at which you will scale.

Throttle your pace to embrace the learning curve

There are many factors that e-commerce companies need to consider before rushing too quickly into new markets. For example, will you set up a local warehouse, or simply ship from the US cross-border? This decision depends on your depth of inventory, proliferation of products, and type of goods.

Your team will also need to understand local laws, customs issues, and how each country views the type of products you are shipping. Shipping books, for example, is a different world from importing software or shipping fashion merchandise. There are intricacies in every category, and these take time for any company to fully learn as part of the international expansion process.

Moving too abruptly into too many markets at once is a lesson she’s seen play out as a common theme in past digital companies too. Grajwer points out, “In one company, we sold a massive software project in a language we couldn’t deliver. In another, we planned a massive launch event, which caused a quick traffic spike and no follow-up.”

Ultimately, she advises embracing the learning curve, and not taking on too much at once, especially when it comes to big bang launches for international markets. In her experience, if you do so, you may end up with less than ideal results. Recognize that international marketing is an ongoing learning experience, and that it will take time to learn what works to drive true engagement.

As Grajwer explains, “With international, slow and steady wins the race.”

Luciana Baigun

Luciana is the Head of Marketplace for Argentina at MercadoLibre, the largest e-commerce and payments platform in Latin America. She previously ran international at DoubleDutch and Quidsi, an Amazon subsidiary. Before switching to tech, she worked in seven different countries in applied game theory consulting.

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