Overcoming International Shipping Challenges for Small Businesses

by / ⠀Career Advice Startup Advice / June 19, 2024
Overcoming International Shipping Challenges for Small Businesses

Expanding your small business internationally can seem daunting. As eager as you may be to grow your global customer base, the logistics of international shipping make some entrepreneurs balk. But going global doesn’t have to be challenging. With the right tools, strategy, and partners, you can overcome delivery issues abroad and unlock exciting new markets that can help take your business to the next level.

This guide will break down the major international shipping roadblocks that trip up small eCommerce merchants and how you can hurdle them seamlessly. From customs procedures to returns to tracking, this post will help you launch your worldwide selling success.

Pick the Right International Shipping Carrier

The foundation of your international delivery is choosing the right carrier. This is one area you don’t want to cut costs. Pay for an established, reliable shipping partner at the outset. It’ll save you money and headaches in the long run.

Whether you are opting for less than container load (LCL) or full container load (FCL) shipping, it’s recommended to test a couple of carriers with small orders first. Get a feel for their tracking interface, customs process, terms of service, and delivery times. Once you determine a favorite, form an official contract to lock in discounted rates. Renegotiate this routinely as your volumes grow.

Pro tip: Use a shipping management platform that connects with multiple carriers through one dashboard. Easily compare delivery times and pricing across carriers, print labels, track shipments, and more.

Know Import Laws and Duties Upfront

One surprise expense that sabotages many small businesses is getting slapped with unexpected customs fees and import taxes. Different goods face different tariffs—and each country has its own harmonized system codes determining duty percentages.

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For example, apparel and footwear imports can incur up to 37% fees when entering the EU. Wine and spirits average around 22% import duty. Look up the classification codes and pre-existing trade agreements for your products early. Contact a local customs broker in each target country to determine precise import regulations.

It doesn’t hurt to read a few guides on import fees and regulations for the regions you want to transport in, such as this EU guide. Then, build these costs into your pricing strategy so they don’t eat your margins down the line.

Get Shipping Documents in Order

Speaking of customs brokers, they’ll help ensure you provide proper shipping paperwork to breeze through border checks and avoid fines. Required documentation varies but commonly includes a commercial invoice, certificate of origin form, packing slip with contents descriptions, and special permits or licenses.

Your freight forwarder can supply these standard export forms (for a fee). Again, it’s advised to frontload these expenses into your product pricing model, so unexpected fees don’t arise later.

Ensuring accurate documentation becomes even more critical for businesses that rely on FCL shipping, in which an entire container is dedicated to your shipment. The efficiency and cost-effectiveness of FCL shipping hinges on smooth customs clearance – and meticulous paperwork increases the chances of this considerably.

Pro tip: Use an all-in-one shipping software that generates customs paperwork and auto-fills details like product SKUs, dimensions, and values from your existing catalog. No tedious manual data entry is required.

Standardize Packaging and Labeling

While glitzy packaging appeals on the shelf, standard boxes simplify shipping logistics internationally. Fancy gift boxes are tough to stack efficiently on pallets and could require extra handling.

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Plain corrugated cardboard cartons in a couple of standard sizes are your best bet. These nest compactly into shipping containers, and the product contents are clearly labeled outside each box.

Waterproof packaging and naval marine insurance are non-negotiables for ocean freight. Items must withstand exposure to salt, humidity, and heavy handling across vessels and port transfers. Impacts and drops aplenty will occur before your goods complete the long journey.

Choose durable boxes with secure sealing and ample water-resistant tape. Where necessary, use reinforced crates or industrial-strength pallets. Then, wrap entire ocean freight shipments in plastic sheeting for an added buffer against the elements.

Provide Transparent Tracking

International customers understand deliveries take longer but still expect updates on their shipment status throughout transit. Deny buyers the chance to track packages every step of the way, and they’ll quickly take their business elsewhere.

Nowadays, most carriers provide shipment tracking portals that pull data directly from airports and postal streams worldwide. Forward this tracking link or auto-send status update emails to purchasers right after checkout.

Pro tip: Set up trigger-based messaging through the shipping software platform so customers receive updates at key checkpoints—when the label is created, the package is in transit, clears customs, etc.

Allow for Slow & Variable Delivery Times

Be transparent with customers, stating that international delivery times vary greatly by country. Western Europe may only take 4-8 days for small package transfers, whereas Asian routes can span 2+ weeks in transit (which may not factor in customs clearance).

Expand your shipping timeframes and set expectations clearly at checkout. Provide a range of dates on which they can reasonably expect delivery to account for hangups like weather delays.

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Pro tip: Visually display general time-in-transits on a world map on your shipping policy page. Show broad estimates for ocean, airmail, and priority mail by geography.

Facilitate Easy Returns & Exchanges

Returns are tricky enough domestically, and opening up returns internationally raises the stakes further. But, you still need to accommodate unsatisfied foreign customers despite the complicated logistics in reverse.

First, build return shipping costs into your margins so customers don’t have to pay prohibitive fees to send products back (a guaranteed way to tank reviews and repurchase likelihood).

Second, take ownership of duties and taxes again in the returns process. Overseas customers shouldn’t be penalized for incomplete deliveries out of their hands, either.

Lastly, create simple return procedures around local drop-off locations in partnership with your carrier. Automate return approvals through your store backend, as well. International-scale returns become unsustainable if reps manually issue each return label and authorization.

Final Word

Done right, an international shipping strategy delivers huge upside potential for small eCommerce businesses looking to expand their operations. With that said, if you want to find success, you need to make an effort to prioritize the customer experience through transparent tracking, fair returns, and predictable pricing – no matter how much extra effort it requires. The best way to make this possible is to lean on technology and experts as much as possible. This way, you can focus on growing global revenues, not just logistics.


About The Author

April Isaacs

April Isaacs is a freelance writer and editor with over 10 years of experience. From the art scene in Paris to pastures in Montana, April has covered individuals' stories and can confirm that no two stories are the same.


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