How To Navigate International Shipping As A Small Business


One of the benefits of running your own business is the ability to scale it up and serve as far as you can reach with the internet and shipping. However, figuring out international shipping for a startup isn’t always as easy as it sounds. The costs might seem prohibitive, but there are some solutions when you know where to look for them.

According to Statista, around 80% of goods get carried via sea, so maritime shipping may be the way to go. You can also look into air freight for lighter items as a competitive option. Knowing how much your items weigh is a good first step to seeing how much international shipping rates might be.

So, where do you even get started with international shipping as a small business? Language and currency differences might make the task seem overwhelming. It doesn’t have to be. Here are some clear steps to take to begin selling globally.

1. Understand Customs

Before you start shipping items, get a handle on how customs works in different countries. You may want to start with just a handful of locations you’ll sell to and expand from there as you learn more. Each location has its own rules, regulations, and fees. A minor paperwork mistake can cost you time and money.

The process is similar in most places. An agent inspects the package and documentation. They usually verify that everything matches. Then, if the value of the item is more than their minimum, they add duties and tariffs. If the customer already paid for the delivery, customs will release it. If they owe money, they collect payment first.

2. Streamline Order Processing

When shipping out of the country, expect potential delays. The faster you can get items through the order process and out the door, the faster international customers receive the item. Setting up a supply chain management strategy improves results by as much as 40% and keeps your clients happy.

Invest in software that manages inventory, selects the best shipping options based on both length of time to deliver and cost, and helps with customer relationship management (CRM). International shipping presents different challenges than domestic shipping. The right software tracks where your products are and ties into your customer database to keep them informed.

3. Calculate Duties and Tariffsa perwson calculating duties and tariffs

How much should you expect to pay? You obviously can’t memorize the fee structure for every country in the world. Look up the product category HTS code to see where your product falls. Although heavier items are costlier to ship, you can send them via less expensive transport modes.

You can also use online calculators to input your HTS Code, the value of the item, and the country of origin and destination. This will give you a good idea of your fees according to any trade treaties and other factors.

The more an item is worth, the more your fees will be. However, significant items also command more money. For example, it isn’t cheap to ship a vehicle across the ocean, but auto manufacturers know they can command top dollar once it’s there and make up the tariff difference in most cases.

4. Offer Transparency

Costs can add up for international shipping, but your customers may want items they can’t get in their home country or a better quality product. Be upfront about what the final costs might be and that they can vary.

Send an invoice listing out the charges so the customer doesn’t think you’re just trying to pad your pocket with a few extra dollars. Once they see the actual cost to you, they’ll realize the duties and tariffs as well as international shipping charges.

5. Excelerate Growth

Online retailers grow 60% faster when offering international shipping. It makes sense that if you expand your reach, you’ll increase your customer base. However, you must also create buyer personas for each location, as cultural differences can impact how people view words, colors, and even fonts.

For example, black might present a serious look for a business in the United States, but someone in another country could see the color as bad luck. Create landing pages that work for each segment of your audience.

International shipping allows you to speed up growth, but you still have to keep an eye on the customer experience (CX).

6. Buy Durable Packaging

Your item has to make it a long way to its destination. The bubble mailer that excels for a shipment from one state to the next within the continental United States may not be strong enough to make it overseas.

Pack the item as though it will be dropped, stomped on, and run through a grinder. The more protected the items are inside, the better chance your customer receives their order in perfect condition. You should also include branding on the outside of your shipping container. Add your logo, website, and a tagline in the language of the destination country.

7. Compare Companies

You have a number of options when sending products overseas. You can use the old standby of the USPS, and this is likely your most cost-effective option for small, lightweight packages. You can also use FedEx or DHL. Many smaller delivery companies specialize in sending larger orders or bulk items.

Look at the costs and requirements for each and see what works best for you and your customers. You might find one charges a bit more upfront but offers perks another doesn’t. You should also try out different providers and see which one gets your items there faster and in the best condition.

Ask for Customer Feedback

Dip your toes into the waters of international shipping slowly. Try out a few sales in a nearby country and ask your customers for feedback on the delivery times and condition the package arrives in. If one carrier doesn’t work for you, try another.

In the early days, keep a close eye on the costs of packaging and shipping items to make sure you’re charging international customers enough for the service. You should also ensure any currency exchanges are to your benefit, too, as the cost of exchange can quickly eat into your profits.

This article originally appeared on the Growave blog and is made available here to educate and cast a wider net of discovery.
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Steve has entrepreneurship in his DNA. Starting in the early 2000s, Steve achieved eBay Power Seller status which propelled him to become a founding partner of, a contact lens and eyewear retailer. Four years later through a successful exit from that startup, he embarked on his next journey into digital strategy for direct-to-consumer brands.

Currently, Steve is a Senior Merchant Success Manager at Shopify, where he helps brands to identify, navigate and accelerate growth online and in-store.

To maintain his competitive edge, Steve also hosts the top-rated twice-weekly podcast eCommerce Fastlane. He interviews Shopify Partners and subject matter experts who share the latest marketing strategy, tactics, platforms, and must-have apps, that assist Shopify-powered brands to improve efficiencies, profitably grow revenue and to build lifetime customer loyalty.

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