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International commerce often begins on a company's home page. Forrester Research reported in 1998 that nearly 50 percent of all Internet orders placed from outside the United States are ignored. "[Many] U.S. businesses have no clue how to send the product [internationally]," says Shapiro. "[It's important to know] what it will cost to get the product from Point A to Point B."

Shapiro recommends developing a checklist of what you can and can't do. For example, are you willing to handle multiple currencies? Can you calculate different shipping rates, taxes and tariffs? How will you handle background and credit checks? What about returns and service? "You need to understand your capabilities and limitations," advises Shapiro.

To encourage international orders, Veltkamp offers these tips to make your site globally friendly:

  • Design flexible online response forms so overseas customers can insert address information that doesn't fit "standard" U.S. fields (such as Zip code, state abbreviation or telephone number fields). Make sure forms won't be "bounced back" as incomplete if an overseas visitor fails to fill in a section.
  • Don't use country flags to indicate translated pages. Veltkamp points out that flags represent geographic regions, not language groups. A visitor from Quebec won't feel welcomed by a French flag nor will a Spanish-speaker from Mexico feel that that a Spanish flag represents his or her language.
  • Make it easy for international customers to determine how much it will cost to purchase a product from your company. Consider adding a currency converter to your site so visitors can determine price equivalents. (A free currency converter is available at Universal Currency Converter).
  • Don't create the impression that you assume the United States is the center of the commercial world. Avoid terms like "foreign" when referring to international customers. "The biggest complaint I hear from people outside the U.S. is that the Internet is too U.S.-centric," says Veltkamp.

Finally, make sure your page loads quickly. Many overseas customers pay for their connection by the minute and won't appreciate time-consuming graphics, Java scripts, animations or videos. Don't rely on glitz to sell your product; let your product sell itself.

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