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Sell products online: Small business guide to online marketplaces

Photo of a woman in front of laptop with a credit card in her hand and she appears to be making an online purchase.

Consumer online spending continues to rise year after year. According to the sixth annual UPS Pulse of the Online Shopper study, e-commerce was up 14 percent last year, and research by Internet Retailer indicates that consumer adoption of online marketplaces is increasing, with the 18 largest global marketplaces growing 51.7 percent over the last three years.

Customers who once relied almost exclusively on brick-and-mortar stores are now comfortable purchasing goods from sellers in distant locales, and small retailers are realizing they must be agile in positioning their products to reach these consumers. This means building a multichannel online presence has become one of the most important steps to growing their business.

For small businesses, positioning products in front of both domestic and global audiences can help propel them into booming enterprises. But selling products online takes some business savvy and marketplace know-how.

Selecting the right marketplace

Marketplaces come in all shapes and sizes. The behemoths - like Amazon and eBay - offer a broad selection of products from multiple sellers, offering small retailers the opportunity to expose their products to millions of people.

eBay has built a reputation as a marketplace for more obscure items, including collectibles and memorabilia, with strength in international commerce.

Candace Spurlock, who runs a brick-and-mortar store selling vintage items, is considering a move to an online marketplace to supplement sales between shows, currently her principal means of marketing her products. "In looking at my marketplace options, eBay seems to be the best choice. There are a number of sellers offering similar items, and many are PowerSellers, meaning that the customers are there and they are buying."

But for others, bigger may not always be better. These giant global platforms expose businesses to a significant traffic boost that otherwise might be unattainable, but they also introduce new competition from other third-party sellers and even the brand itself, as is the case with Amazon. Coupled with marketplace fees, branding restrictions and generous return policies, selling through these expansive marketplaces can actually prove detrimental to small retailers.

Other smaller marketplaces tend to cater toward niche environments. Newegg, for example, focuses on providing technology sellers with a retail platform to market and sell products. Etsy, an online community for crafters and artists, has helped bring 1.7 million sellers' handmade boutique crafts and jewelry to a huge global audience.

If your business specializes in a particular niche such as jewelry or electronics, you may find that these smaller sites naturally position your products in front of the most interested buyers.

As with any strategic business decision, the key is to do your research. Find a marketplace where your customers are already shopping, or if you have an established presence as a marketplace seller, one that opens doors to a new audience. Then, apply your market know-how and business savvy to entice customers to your product listings.

Going to market

As consumers shop online marketplaces, they are often presented with multiple similar product listings. These brief item descriptions are akin to the flashing neon signs encountered in busy shopping districts, competing for customer attention in crowded and often chaotic environments.

According to Spurlock, writing compelling product titles is one of her primary challenges as she prepares to transition to selling more products in online marketplaces. "I try to think of how I would search for something I am selling, but how do you list an old-style gumball machine? It's a niche sort of item, and yet you want to keep yourself open to buyers who might stumble upon the listing."

Unlike roadside signs, product titles don't need to be colorful or flashy. In fact, buyers are looking for plain language and real product details such as size, shape, model, color and technical specifications. So, when creating product descriptions, more is usually better.

For examples:

"New Microsoft Surface Book 4 128GB" will perform better than "Microsoft Surface 4"

"New Kate Spade small Cedar Street Hayden Purse" is far more compelling than "Stunning Kate Spade Purse with attractive pink handles"

Where product descriptions are concerned, a picture is also worth a thousand words, but only if images are in focus, clear and show the item from multiple angles. Using high-quality photographs will enhance the details of your product description and encourage buyers to purchase your items over those offered by your competitors.

Appeal to cultural differences

Additional factors come into play when creating product listings for overseas buyers. When making international purchases, buyers are especially concerned with trust. If your product listings can't convey a businesslike, legitimate presence, consumers will look elsewhere, no matter how appealing your items may look or how competitive your pricing may be.

Some small businesses have fallen prey to the folly of online translation tools, resulting in product descriptions with improper syntax, or worse, incorrect details.

The best advice is to skip the do-it-yourself translations and elicit the help of someone who speaks the language of your intended buyers. A wealth of online translation companies has emerged to serve the needs of companies considering global commerce, so finding a professional to translate your copy has never been easier - or more important.

Even when expanding into other countries where the language is the same, be aware of regional dialects and variants in spelling. For instance, "color" is spelled "colour" in the U.K., Canada, Australia and other English-speaking countries, and words can have multiple meanings from one Spanish-speaking country to another. Spend time getting to know the unique cultural landscape of the new market you'll be entering before creating your listings, and take advantage of tools like UPS Country Guides, containing strategies, tips and tools for shipping to some of the most popular international destinations.

Also, be aware of cultural variances and make accommodations. For instance, when purchasing clothing from Asian sellers, American buyers often find that sizes run small compared to products they find at home. A simple sizing guide can go a long way in avoiding customer frustration and in encouraging repeat business.

Packing and shipping make the grade

When it comes to packaging and shipping your items, consumers have high expectations. For example, think about the Amazon Prime delivery experience from the buyer's perspective. In two days or less, purchased items arrive expertly packaged in an instantly recognizable branded box.

As a small business or startup, you may not have the budget for custom packaging and free next-day delivery, but you can and should provide the basics. First and foremost, your customers will expect products to arrive in perfect condition. Damaged goods or improperly packaged items top the list for customer returns, so make sure you're using appropriate packing materials and proper box sizes.

Shipping speed has also become an increasingly important differentiator. Most online marketplaces offer guidance on determining the best shipping methods and costs for the greatest customer satisfaction, and you can always visit the UPS time and cost calculator to find up-to-the-minute shipping time and pricing for a particular package.

As online marketplaces continue to grow in popularity, small retailers are finding that opportunities for global growth have never been more accessible. By combining smart planning, disciplined execution, cultural understanding and a strong shipping and logistics program, businesses of any size can achieve successful and long-lasting international expansion.

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