Selling internationally with Shopify: what are your options? by Linda Bleijenberg

‘Global by default’: under this banner, Shopify has improved and extended their range of cross-border options in recent years. At Code we used to advise our international clients to go with a multi-store setup (which can still be a very profitable setup), but with the launch and subsequent improvement of Shopify Markets (2021) and Hydrogen (2022), Shopify merchants can now choose from three viable options. 

Are you looking to expand cross-border, or migrate your international store to Shopify? In this blog we’ll help you determine which Shopify setup works best for your business.

4 basic principles of selling internationally

Before we introduce the three options, let’s do a quick recap of the main challenges you will have to solve for your online store when you go international, especially in a European context.

1. Translation vs localisation

This is a big one: simply translating your site for a new region is never going to cut it. Different countries have different customs, prefer different trustmarks, celebrate different holidays, use different SEO terms. You might even attract a totally different audience in the new country, compared to your native market. At Code we have seen so many examples of this. Our advice is always: no shortcuts! Do not skimp on localisation, because it will really hold you back. Hard work will pay off.

Our customer Kabrita sells goat milk formula in all continents and has a lot of experience with cross-border commerce. During their launch in the German market, their team discovered that parents in Germany are not only searching for the word 'cramps', but mainly for the word 'colic'. Although the literal German translation of 'cramps' would be correct, this example proves that SEO can yield much more when a local expert points out the right search terms.

→ Want to see an example? Read our tips on how to localise your German store

2. Test a market before you dive in

Another best practice: only invest in new markets after you have verified if your brand resonates with your target consumers there. It’s a common mistake to think that your brand will be equally successful abroad as it is in your native market. Most of the time this is far from true: it takes a lot of testing, learning and tweaking before you can confidently move into a new market. 

Our customer  Stoov is a good example of how to approach this. After conquering the Netherlands with their heating products, they started with Germany, then tested other countries such as Denmark, Spain and the UK - and are now targeting the UK market. 

→ Shopify Markets is ideal for testing new markets: read more about it below.

3. Think big, start small

This one ties in with the previous one. Moving into a new market takes time and effort - and a bit of experience. It helps a lot if you have already perfected your e-com skills by  optimising your native store to its maximum capacity, before applying them to a new market. Also, consider moving into new markets one at a time, so you can bring your full attention to conquering a particular region before moving on to the next one.

4. Single store vs multi-store

And of course there is the eternal question of how to arrange your collection of markets in your online store. Do you want a single superstore that caters to all your markets, layering on the clever apps and extensions provided by Shopify to make sure a visitor sees the version of your store that is optimised for their region? Or do you prefer a multi-store setup with separate, dedicated storefronts per region? Both have pros and cons, the main point of discussion being content management. Read on to learn more!

Option 1: Shopify Markets

When Shopify Markets was launched in 2021, at Code we could immediately see its potential. Now that we’ve been working with Markets for a few years, we can confidently recommend this option for brands who only sell in a few countries or languages (our client Osaka is a good example), and brands who want to test new markets before determining what their next Shopify Plus expansion store will be.

What is Shopify Markets?

Shopify Markets offers merchants a way to go cross-border from a single store. It’s an all-in-one solution that tackles everything you need to start selling in a new market. Translate and localise your storefronts, offer local currencies and payment methods, calculate duties and taxes, comply with local regulations, and manage it all from a single dashboard. And all of this free of charge: Markets comes built in with all Shopify plans.

Shopify Markets allows you to offer different prices and content to different regions, and makes it easy for the visitor to switch between languages and currencies. When visitors place an actual order, prices and currency will automatically adapt to the customer’s location. In the customizer you can set which content is shown for a specific country/language. This could be a different banner or a different design of the product page. For example, a Dutch visitor sees different content than a French visitor.

A final note on Shopify Markets is that it is not yet compatible with all apps. Does your store rely on third-party apps for important functionality such as a PIM, then first check if they are compatible with Shopify Markets. If not, expansion stores is likely a better fit for your setup. 

Shopify Markets x Shopify Plus expansion stores 

A great way to use Markets is in combination with the Shopify Plus expansion stores we will discuss below. Use one of the expansion stores to test new countries with Markets, before you give the most successful ones their own expansion store. Markets can also be combined with a headless setup

An extra reason to go for this hybrid approach is the difference in transaction costs between Markets and Shopify Plus expansion stores. If you sell in a different currency through Markets, Shopify charges you a 2% transaction fee - an additional cost you won’t have when selling through expansion stores.

What is Shopify Markets Pro?

Recently, Shopify also introduced Shopify Markets Pro: an extended version of Markets aimed at larger international merchants. The big plus of Markets Pro is the collaboration with Global-e as a so-called Merchant of Record: Global-e will serve as a proxy for merchants using Market Pro, so they don’t have to take care of tax registration and -payment, duties and import taxes, accepting local payment methods, and organising shipping and fulfilment.  
Markets Pro is still in its early access phase and is not yet available in Europe.

Option 2: Shopify Plus expansion stores

To tackle the localisation issue we mentioned above, at Code we often recommend adopting a multi-store approach. This setup is especially useful if your business:

What is a multi-store approach?

With a multi-store setup in Shopify, you have multiple versions of your storefront and can redirect customers to their local version of your store. If you are on Shopify Plus, you can add up to 9 storefronts to your account without paying extra.

While your online stores operate as separate businesses, giving you full control over products, pricing, payments, shipping, marketing and more, you can connect all of the stores to your 'main store' to centrally monitor sales performance and reporting. A multi-store setup is ideal if you want full flexibility to localise for your markets while keeping a centralised overview, as illustrated by our client Kabrita

There’s also an often-heard objection to this approach, with many brands worrying that having multiple storefronts will cost a lot of time in terms of content management. As we said above, at Code we think you can’t spend enough time and resources on localisation: it will pay off in revenue and conversion growth.

Read more about the multi-store setup here

Option 3: Headless Shopify

The desire for easier international content management has been one of the drivers behind the rise of headless architectures with Shopify. With a headless architecture, you can replace Shopify’s native frontend with any CMS you like - including CMS solutions like Contentful and Sanity that make it easy to manage the content of several, multilingual storefronts in one place.

With the launch of Hydrogen in 2022 and its recent improvements, you can now go headless with Shopify’s blessing and assistance. Besides content flexibility, headless can give you speed and innovation power to achieve your goals and outperform your competition. Headless is typically only viable for larger brands that will see a good ROI for their move into headless. 

Read our blog on headless commerce here

Which option is best for your situation?

Of course no e-commerce business is the same, and sometimes it’s hard to determine which of the three options (or hybrid solutions) would work best for your store - even with all the information above. If you would like solid advice from people who know what they are talking about: don’t hesitate to get in touch with Code. We will gladly take a look at your cross-border plans and help you make an informed decision.