Why it may be best NOT selling to international customers

The benefits of selling your products worldwide are obvious… the disadvantages much less so.

Sell internationally and you’ll be able to target more buyers and increase your sales and profits. You’ll also maximise the number of people likely to buy from you again outside of eBay and so grow your future profits and minimise your selling costs.

Just perfect, eh?

Not always because selling internationally can be a major source of frustration and loss of profits for some sellers. And I’m included in that.

Putting things into perspective, it isn’t all overseas buyers who cause sellers sleepless nights. For many of us, the biggest problem is overseas buyers who don’t understand the English language and are not prepared to use a reliable translation tool to make sure they know what your product is, how it works and whatever else a savvy buyer needs to know.

So they buy a product having an English language eBay title and description and send back a SNAD complaint – product ‘Significantly Not As Described’ – and claim a refund and force you to send money in advance to pay for your item to be returned.

They know the fact they live outside the UK makes it unlikely you will retaliate when your product doesn’t come back.

The question is how do those people know the product is significantly not as described when they may not understand your listing in the first place? And that being so, why does eBay almost always find in their favour?

Those claiming refunds won’t always be wrong and some will deserve a refund, but many will be using their place of residence to defraud overseas sellers. Some will also be too lazy to translate foreign language listings because they know eBay is likely to support their complaints and force sellers to refund.

I’m not alone in my belief that selling overseas should be a last resort – even for countries matching the seller’s own language – and only offered for products with ‘local relevance’, such as antiques emanating from a specific country.

Vintage view postcards, for example, my own particular specialty, invariably attract more bidders and higher prices from collectors in whatever countries they depict.

Sadly, I’ve given up buying items more likely to sell overseas – in English and non-English speaking countries – and focus instead on targeting UK only buyers. That’s entirely because I’ve had it up to the eyeballs with overseas buyers failing to return my goods and forcing a refund through eBay or sending empty packages purporting to contain my goods because I’m unlikely to sue them for damages outside the UK.

Now, good or bad, eBay has introduced a tool to translate listings to suit overseas sites, as already happens at Etsy. Ina Steiner of eCommerce Bytes suggests this might “increase the incidence of misunderstandings and claims” and her views are supported by numerous other eBay researchers.

In an eCommerce Bytes forum populated by eBay sellers in mainly English-speaking countries, I found numerous people who agree with Ms. Steiner that eBay’s new tool may generate more problems than solutions.

As one forum member puts it: “It’s bad enough the bozos [Avril’s note: I think this means buyers on English language sites] here don’t read a description and I can’t imagine what kind of translation eBay is giving the foreigners.”

Numerous other forum members complain about translations currently offered by eBay causing messages to be distorted or end up antagonising or insulting their recipients.

A major fear is that common and uncommon terms used in one language may be translated incorrectly or have various alternative meanings in other countries, as explained here.

For instance:

“In German, a gift is not quite as pleasant as in English – it means poison! Taking it a step further, gift in the Scandinavian languages can mean both poison and marriage.”


“Kiss has a more juvenile meaning in Swedish – pee.”

So should you or should you not sell internationally on eBay? Should you instead focus on UK only sales and possibly all countries using English as their main language?

Check out these tips to help you come to your own conclusions…

If you want to sell worldwide, you must recognise and anticipate communications problems and do your best to prevent them. Something like this in your descriptions might help:

“Please note I am based in the United Kingdom and my titles and descriptions created in English may have been translated by eBay into wording more appropriate to buyers outside the UK.”

This alerts foreign language speakers to go easy on messages that might otherwise raise their hackles.

That precise message could be translated, of course, but I found no irregularities from a few spot checks on Google.

If you want to sell only in the UK (or in the UK along with other mainly English-speaking countries), especially for products likely to attract bigger profits outside the UK. You’ll suffer fewer communications problems but be prepared for some long distance frustrations, such as having to refund buyers who retain your possessions.

You can set your eBay listings to avoid selling in certain countries, due to communications problems or because certain goods are illegal in some locations (such as alcohol in some Middle Eastern countries). Also valid reasons: because delivery can’t be properly tracked or you’ve encountered more problem buyers in some areas than others.

The place to do so is inside your eBay listings where it says ‘Post to’, at which point you highlight locations you don’t wish to target.

Problematic translations typically arise when eBay turns its own foreign translation back into the seller’s language. Or, as one eCommerce forum member put it: “I can spot the buyers who don’t speak English from the appalling translations eBay offers up.”

When that happens, the same seller suggests using Google’s translation tool, apparently much more efficient than eBay’s, to write a response in the seller’s own language which Google then translates into the buyer’s main language. This person warns against using slang terms and words with more than one meaning – such as build (to make, physique), bypass (to ignore, an alternative route), and so on.

Sellers should then copy Google’s foreign language version and translate it back into their own language and edit ambiguities and misleading words and phrases.

You’ll find Google’s translation tool here.

Focus exclusively on products likely to sell fast and attract good prices in the UK and having no obvious superior alternative marketplace. That way you should almost always speak the same language as most of your potential buyers.

For me, that means selling postcards depicting locations in the UK and avoiding all overseas topographical areas.

In the end, however, the choice is yours, and you may not be deterred by problems not of your own making.

However, for someone like me can have their entire day ruined by such incidents might use one or more of those tips to circumvent the problem just mentioned.

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