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One of the challenges of e-commerce is international expansion, and how exactly one goes about it. There are complications around websites, language, SEO, tax and how to integrate with back end systems.

We have spent a lot of time working it out here at Flowers HQ, as we now service not only the UK flower delivery market, but also those of France, Germany, The Netherlands and Belgium. Here are three of the key areas to think through before you embark on your international roll out:

1. One daddy domain or several?

This is absolutely key.Do you want to have all the different countries you service on one website or do you want to have separate websites for each country? There are pros and cons to both approaches.

One website to rule them all

The biggest benefit of this approach is that you only have to market this one website: this can be beneficial in particular in terms of simplifying PPC and making SEO easier (as you only have to build the domain rank of one domain, not numerous domains).

Please note that if you use subdomains for each country (eg http://france.yourcompany.com and http://uk.yourcompany.com) search engines will treat these all as separate sites so you will not get this benefit.

In tools such as Google’s Webmaster Central, you can also tell the search engines that certain folders and areas of your website are targeted at different countries so it knows where you want those pages to rank. There could also be benefits in terms of back end integration as the new countries would be running off the same back office as when you only served one country.

Targeted, local websites

This is the approach we have taken, and we now have five international flavours of Arena website (eg http://www.ArenaFleurs.fr) to go alongside our original UK website. We believe the benefits of the multiple site approach outweigh the extra marketing and web development investment required:

    • A local experience 
      People are local and it is our belief that seeing a site in their own language on a local TLD, with local language used in the domain name (eg Arena Fleurs vs. Arena Flowers) will help conversion rates. 

      Having a single site for a single country says that you are taking that customer and their country seriously and reduces the risk of being seen as a faceless organisation just keen to monetise them as part of a broader European strategy.

    • Tailored experience 
      Having separate sites also gives you more flexibility in how the site is built and allows the customer experience to be smoother: you can offer the local currency; you can have a local 0800 number across all pages of the website (even if the call is then routed to your call centre in the UK); you could put a local address for snail mail; you can present local order cut off, delivery and payment options in checkout (eg we offer the “Ideal” payment method on our Dutch site and “ELV” on our German site).

      To be even more tailored in countries with multiple native languages (eg Belgium where they speak both Flemish and French) you could have two separate sites, one targeting the Flemish­speaking community and one targeting the French speaking community – we’ve actually done this and have both http://www.ArenaBloemen.be and http://www.ArenaFleurs.be, so that we can address both segments of the Belgian nation.

  • Marketing
    Whilst indicating to Google in Webmaster Central that the French folder on your .com site is targeted at France is helpful, not all search engines have this facility and, even if they do, a local website ending in .fr may well, all other things being equal, rank higher than your site in .fr search engines.

    Being on a local TLD should also make it easier to get links into the site and to do partnerships with local organisations (eg relevant local directories).

Cross fertilising sites

You can also then use your local sites to sell the other local sites’ products. For example there is a page on our French site that allows you to buy products for delivery in the UK.

The French customer will have a fully “French” web experience (language, checkout, currency etc) but will, effectively, be buying from the UK site. This is complex to build but should reap benefits of higher cross border sales rates between the company’s web assets.

Ultimately, which approach you should choose depends on the level of investment of time and effort you are prepared to make. The first approach of a single site for all countries is certainly the easier way to 'dip a toe in the water' but the second approach should, in my opinion, be the ultimate goal.

2. Subsidiary or no subsidiary?

It is perfectly legal for a UK company to trade in Europe without having a locally registered company. For a number of reasons, however it might be helpful to set up a local subsidiary in the relevant country.

The most significant reason is a practical one: often local suppliers (eg couriers) will simply not talk to you if you do not have a local presence. This can be frustrating given there is no reason that they should not, but it is a frustrating reality.

Depending how important local supply is to your business, it is worth weighing up the benefits of a local company against the set up, administrative and accounting costs associated.

3. VAT

Under distance selling rules within the EU a company registered in one country can send goods over the border into another EU country and still charge the local VAT rate of the country from which they sent the goods. For example, sending from the UK (top rate currently 17.5%) into Germany (top rate currently 19%), a UK company delivering from the UK into Germany should charge the customer 17.5%.

However, this only applies to a certain amount of trade. For example, once a UK company has sent 35k Euros of goods into Belgium, the UK company must then register for VAT in Belgium and begin charging customers sending goods to Belgium the relevant Belgian VAT rate (and pay the VAT over to Belgium tax office, not the UK tax office). This is designed to prevent companies in countries with lower VAT rates from competing unfairly with local companies.

The VAT rates and the thresholds after which registration is required vary by country and they are subject to change so checking for latest status is important (don’t rely on me!).

In practice, these finesses makes for quite a headache as products sold on a UK site going into another country will have to be able to have their VAT rate changed at some point in the future. It’s not an issue when starting out, due to the thresholds, but it’s worth bearing in mind and letting your developer know; they won’t thank you if you land that on them with only a few days to implement the change!


Published 4 November, 2010 by Will Wynne

Will Wynne is Managing Director at Arena Flowers and a contributor to Econsultancy. If you want to, you can add Will to your circles on Google Plus.  

6 more posts from this author

Comments (10)

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Dawn Clarke, Marketing Communications Manager at SeeWhy

Will - these are some great tips! I agree that having targeted, local websites is advisable - not only from a language/cultural point of view, but also a legal stand point.

If you are considering remarketing to website visitors who have abandoned a shopping cart for instance, the rules on opt-in and opt-out vary from country to country.

Although there is umbrella Europe-wide legislation in the form of the European Union Data Protection and e-Privacy Directives, each of the individual countries in Europe have interpreted the legislation slightly differently. There is a great blog on this here.

almost 6 years ago



One of the most confusing things for me is the VAT.  My site is based over here in the States and we're looking to start selling products over there in Europe.  We're planning to initially just make the customer be responsible for any VAT that will be imposed on the goods.  The system there is just so complicated with all the different rates that it would be a nightmare for a small company like mine to try and handle it.  While we know that this will be a deterrent to overseas sales, we don't really have the capacity to do anything else.  

One question I had was how is this VAT tax collected?  You pointed out that you don't have to register in a country as long as you're below a certain threshold.  Is it all on the honor system that a company would pay a foreign country all the VAT it is due?  Or does the customer just pay the tax when the package is shipped?  

almost 6 years ago


Will Wynne, Chief Executive at Arena Flowers

Hi Dawn: thanks for the kind words. Much appreciated.  You're absolutely right about the marketing pitfalls.  Another example would be PPC and Google's differing policies in different countries (for example around trademarks (a hot topic in flowers at the mo, what with Interflora battling Marks & Spencers over that exact point)).  It's tricky this international ecommerce lark! :)

almost 6 years ago


Will Wynne, Chief Executive at Arena Flowers

Hi Anonymous

Good questions (and I can't claim to be able to give you categoric answers as I'm not a tax expert).  One point is that your European customers may want to reclaim VAT on purchases they make from you if they work for a business so you may get requests for that; if your primary market is consumers, it's not such a big deal as consumers can't reclaim VAT.

If you're sending products from the States, you don't have to charge any VAT until you pass the threshold.  However, customs may intercept your parcel and then whack on duty payable by the recipient before they're allowed to receive the item (on the basis of your declared value of the product).  Merchants outside the EU often label a product as a gift of minimal value and package it innocuously to avoid catching the authorities attention, but that's not a particularly great sustainable strategy if you are doing a lot of volume as it has risk attached to it.

One other consideration is where the product is actually made.  If you are selling (ie website) from the US but you have costs in Europe which attract VAT themselves, you will be able to net those VAT charges off against your European VAT bill, which would offset the cost somewhat (although presumably not entirely unless you're selling at a loss!).  

On your final point, yes it's pretty much an honour system.  Clearly, if you're undercutting local businesses, they may shop you to the authorities but the extent to which they can actually do anything to stop you sending product into the country, I'm not certain of.  We certainly have a lot of tech sellers from the Far East on, for example eBay.co.uk and Amazon.co.uk, sending product into the UK to undercut the local sellers and I don't imagine for a moment that they are VAT registered in the UK.  One of the ways that UK based sellers combat this is by pointing out that they offer superior levels of service with regard to returns etc etc.  

In short, it's complicated.  My summary advice would be to test the waters first and see if it's even worth your effort and you can make money out of it; then work out how you want to approach compliance with the regulations etc.  I always say "let's prove the market first, then make sure we're doing things right!".  Hope that was of some help.  Thanks again for the comment.


almost 6 years ago


Paul Webb

Interesting article, there is lots of options for ecommerce marketing internationally, one of the most complex parts is getting the correct administration area to control the stores worldwide, as specialists in Ecommerce design Toucan Web Design Limited http://www.toucanwebdesign.com can build anything from a simple sales page to a multinational, multilingual international trading platform online, we were the first company worldwide to build a currency converter based on a live feed from the European Central Bank and this can be integrated into any website to ensure no loss of profits when a currency suddenly decides to misbehave, together with accurate shipping and taxation calculations there is a lot to consider with international trading.

almost 6 years ago


Will Wynne, Chief Executive at Arena Flowers

Good point about exchange rates, Paul.

We have also built a live link into our back end that ensures that products sold in GBP on our UK sites for fulfilment in the Euro zone and vice versa are updated automatically daily to ensure we are not losing out due to exchange rate movements.  We then apply a rounding calculation so that we don't end up with odd looking prices (eg £34.56 would be rounded up to £34.99 and £34.49 would be rounded down to £33.99).  We used to do this manually but manual is always dangerous; it gets forgotten and suddenly you're margins are too high or too low! 

almost 6 years ago



Dear Will, Thanks for this great practical article. You picked out some very important topics. I agree, that having customized websites for every country has some big advantages. Did you think about having an international landing page (e.g. arenaflowers.com) and from there link to your local websites (arenafleurs.fr, arenablumen.de,...)? Probably by choosing the country on an interactive map or pull-down (e.g. http://international.findmespot.com). This international landing page can then for example be communicated in advertisements in international print media. I would very much appriciate your thoughts on that (international landing page). Thanks in advance and success with your business! Regards, Patrick

almost 6 years ago


Will Wynne, Chief Executive at Arena Flowers

Hi Patrick

A very good call.  To be honest, if we had our time again we'd put our UK site on ArenaFlowers.co.uk (which we also own) and then do exactly what you say which is to put an umbrella page featuring all of the smaller sites, so that customers can then click through to them.  As you say, this would give the advantage of one URL to put on advertising materials, print etc.  The issue is that right now, we aren't keen to risk losing all the hard work on SEO we've put into arenaflowers.com; even though there are established ways of moving pages from one domain to another, it's not without risk.

Maybe we'll take the plunge down the line.  Or maybe we'll find a nice url that hasn't been cybersquatted as soon as it appears!

almost 6 years ago


Michel Hendriks

Great points concerning the domains/localized sites. One solution certainly isn't best for everyone, using these pros en cons you should be able to make the right choice for your specific situation.

What I was most happy about reading in this article though, is VAT. I work for an e-commerce service provider in the Netherlands, and I can say that this is one of the most underestimated aspects of international e-commerce. Apart from the thresholds, you run into strange situations where 2 countries think they are both entitled to receive VAT for a transaction. That has implications for bookkeeping, it can get complicated. As a service provider, we have VAT numbers for almost every EU country, but until recently customers just didn't realise this could be an issue for them. It's good to see this is starting to change, because VAT (and other international tax laws) is definitely important.

almost 6 years ago


Steve Matthews

I have an e-commerce website and currently only trading with the UK. What costs and legal issues would i face if i opened up to the US market?

over 5 years ago

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