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Routes to market:Using e-commerce as a route to market

What you’ll learn

  • the main international e-commerce channels
  • the related resources and skills you'll need
  • whether e-commerce is right for your exports

What e-commerce means for your international trade

E-commerce means selling online through:

  • websites
  • social media, for example Facebook, Instagram or country-specific channels like China's Weibo
  • online marketplaces, such as Amazon, eBay or other country-specific platforms like India's Flipkart

Companies usually use a combination of these elements to get the best results.

It’s not just about business-to-consumer. Business-to-business (B2B) e-commerce is increasing rapidly across all sectors, as organisations like major companies, government, schools and hospitals procure goods and services online.

A number of websites now link buyers with companies that can supply all or part of major orders – everything from hospital equipment and PC systems to pens and paper.

Reaching customers

Selling online is one of the easier routes to market for new exporters, with less investment than some more traditional methods. But it still requires expertise and cash outlay to achieve real success.

There are obviously costs for developing, hosting and supporting an international website, if you choose to do this. For all channels, you'll also need to focus on and budget for the following.


You'll generally need to translate on all platforms to have any impact. Content which works in your home market may need a different approach and tone of voice to your UK output.


Can your customers find you? Look at how your site or online marketplace entry is structured, and identify the correct keywords and phrases and hashtags for the market.


The online offering to customers is vast and the competition can be strong. To cut through, you'll almost always need to pay for targeted advertising on any channel.

Brand and customer experience

Customers expect a fast and well designed site and a great social media presence – the quality (and honesty) of your images and product descriptions matter. Just as in the UK, customer reviews can make or break your brand.

Increasingly, a quick turnaround is expected. As you grow, you may need to outsource fulfilment. This might be in-market, by operating a warehouse, or some online marketplaces will fulfil for you.

Legal and intellectual property (IP)

Factor in the need for legal and regulatory advice, especially around IP. If you don’t have copyright on your brand or patents on your new products, they may be copied and in some cases legally registered by others, leaving you without a product.

Is e-commerce right for you?

If you're not ready to export, e-commerce can't make you ready. You’ll need to know the trade fundamentals, such as regulations and tariffs, before you sell online, because they'll apply just as much in the virtual world.

In some countries, such as China, it's a good entry point into a huge and complex market. For some companies, it's a brilliant way to engage customers without the need for any other market entry routes.

But it can be challenging. Using third parties who are familiar with a market and can overcome its complexities, such as distributors or agents, may be a better route for some, using less time and resource.


  • You can expand quickly, and manage from anywhere in the world
  • Suits a wide range of companies, including B2B
  • Good complement to other routes to market


  • You may have to hire in expertise from contractors or an agency
  • Not suited to some products, for example highly bespoke, or very perishable, products
  • Not suitable for some markets, for example developing countries with low internet usage, or poor postal infrastructure

People get caught up in the how of e-commerce, but try to think about the what and why. What are you offering, why should people buy it from you? If you can nail those for your market, you’ll find the how comes easier and you'll thrive.

International trade adviser

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