U.S. Stores Learn the Ropes of Shipping to Foreign Shoppers

In The News

The New York Times, by Stephanie Clifford

Macy’s has long marketed itself as a shopping destination for visitors to the United States. It offers a savings card with a 10 percent discount for foreign shoppers, custom programs for tour groups and travel agents, and a tourism Web site that lists shopping events and recommended hotels near Macy’s flagship stores.

But only last year did Macys.com — which shoppers worldwide can look at — offer overseas shipping.

“We were getting international traffic,” said Kent Anderson, president of Macys.com. “It was coming whether we were offering them, frankly, any realistic way to interact with the site or not.”

Macy’s is one of several retailers trying to extend its international presence to its Web operations by shipping overseas. In the last year, Williams-Sonoma, J. Crew, Aéropostale, Crate and Barrel and Lane Bryant have added international shipping to their Web sites, while Ann Taylor and Neiman Marcus are working on it.

Some of the retailers are meeting existing or anticipated overseas demand, while others are testing the waters before opening stores in other countries. Either way, they are discovering that shipping beyond the United States is not a simple undertaking.

“Typically the guys we’re talking to start off thinking they can toss it in a box and give it to U.P.S. or FedEx and hope it gets there,” said Michael DeSimone, chief executive of FiftyOne, a technology company that helps retailers add international shipping capabilities.

But there are problems with ordering systems, customs and postal fees, he said. For example, many retailers do not have software in their warehouse management systems that recognizes foreign postal codes, which — unlike those in the United States — do not always have five digits.

“It sounds like a really stupid reason not to sell internationally,” Mr. DeSimone said, “but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this was the biggest roadblock.”

The appeal to reach customers in other countries is based largely on the popularity of mobile phone sales overseas. Forrester Research expects online retail sales in Western Europe, Asia Pacific and Latin America to increase 67 percent from 2011 to 2015, compared with 42 percent for the United States.

And traffic to American Web sites from international visitors is already high. In December, 14 percent of visitors to jcrew.com were from outside the United States, as were 36 percent of visitors to abercrombie.com, according to the research firm comScore.