August 9, 2012, 9:54 AM

Selling online from North America to Latin America takes guile—and patience

A grow­ing number of U.S. online retailers and consumer brand manufacturers are taking that challenge on by setting up shop and selling online in Latin America.

Mark Brohan

Research Director

Lead Photo

Tradercom CEO Federico Torres set out to build an online retailing business in Latin America from a base in the U.S.

It wasn’t quite the same as graduating from the e-commerce school of hard knocks, but after six years of trial and error Tradercom USA Inc. has learned some valuable lessons about what works—and what doesn’t—in selling online in Latin America.

In 2006, Tradercom CEO Federico Torres set out to build an online retailing business in Latin America from a base in the U.S. To carve out a niche in Latin America’s growing business-to-consumer e-commerce market, which eMarketer estimates will grow about 110% from $29.70 billion in 2011 to $62.42 billion in 2016, Tradercom (No. 206 in the 2012 Top 300 Latin America) had ambitious plans to build a web store in multiple countries and offer steep discounts on well-known American products such as Fossil watches and Weber grills that are not always available through merchants in Latin America.

But selling online in a foreign country is never easy, especially in Latin America, a fast-growing and still-developing e-commerce arena where U.S. merchants face several substantial barriers to entry, including big tariffs and government red tape, sketchy local delivery options, and plenty of cultural differences. “There is a huge opportunity for U.S. web merchants such as us to develop a significant e-commerce business in Latin America, but there are significant challenges that we had to work our way through.” Torres says. “It took us a long time, lots of patience and a willingness to always try a new approach to build up a steady base of shoppers.”

Today Tradercom is an estab­lished and growing online retailing company. The e-retailer carries a web inventory of about 100,000 SKUs and sells online in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela. Sales for the web-only retailer are on track to reach $8 million in 2012, double its 2011 sales.

Tradercom is one of a grow­ing number of U.S. online retailers and consumer brand manufacturers setting up shop and selling online in Latin America. The market already includes 25 U.S. companies ranked in the Top 300 Latin America, which in 2011 had combined web sales of $1.43 billion, up 32.4% from $1.08 billion in the prior year.

And more North American online retailers are seriously eyeing Latin America for a new interna­tional opportunity or expanding their existing base of operations. For example Apple Inc. (No. 11), which has been selling computer hardware online in Latin America for several years, in December 2011 launched an iTunes store with a catalog of 20 million song titles for Brazil and 15 other countries in Latin America.

Consumers in Latin America also are big fans of mobile commerce and social media, and looking to conve­niently shop online for the products they can’t find in local stores, says Kent Allen, principal and founder of The Research Trust, a San Francisco-based e-commerce and retailing industry research firm with clients in the U.S. and Latin America. “There’s only a handful of global e-commerce markets left where there are still lots of ground-floor opportunities to be the next category-killer web store, hot niche player or even the next Amazon, and that’s Latin America,” Allen says. “E-commerce in Brazil, Mexico and other parts of the region are still in an early growth stage and that’s attracting the attention of lots of U.S. merchants.” 

But U.S. web merchants must overcome a unique set of challenges to sell successfully online in Latin America, especially with logistics, shipping and dealing with complex tariffs and other red tape that can vary widely from country to country. Tradercom has labored for six years to identify and overcome fulfillment, delivery and customer service chal­lenges in Latin America. It has engaged local shipping partners, built a shopping cart that tells customers in each country and in their native language upfront what the expected shipping and tariff fees will be, and developed alternative payment methods.

When Tradercom began opera­tions in 2006 among the company’s first moves was to partner with a Miami import, export and wholesale company with strong ties to consumer brand manufacturers and 25 years of experience in shipping U.S. orders to several Latin American countries. “We had the e-commerce expertise to build the multiple international sites and systems we wanted, but they had the expertise to get us the best deals on local and international shippers, and deal cost-effectively with the tariffs and red tape that can differ significantly by country,” says Torres.

All orders to Latin America from Tradercom are fulfilled and processed at a Miami distribution center. Prior to any final pick, pack and ship, all orders are reviewed and checked to see that all international shipping and tariff requirements have been met. Once the package is ready, the order is shipped and the customer is sent an e-mail notification with shipping details and an expected delivery date. If there are any problems, another e-mail is sent notifying the customer of the problem and the available options, including canceling the transaction and return­ing the shopper’s money.

Over time and working closely with its import and export partner Tradercom has developed a network of big and small shipping companies, including DHL International GmbH. Tradercom also has worked closely with DHL and its other carriers to develop sophisticated software pro­grams that help Tradercom develop the most economical shipping rate for each order, monitor the status of each delivery and even develop local deliver routes that avoid high-crime areas. “Big shipping companies will charge up to $50 per pound to deliver to the biggest Latin American cities, and small couriers are cheaper but typically have very low service quality,” says Torres. “We’ve kept shipping costs lower by combining services of our logistic partners and creating integrated systems software that allow for a smoother tracking experience.” 

For the first time the Top 300 Latin America is available in three formats: print, digital and in English as part of the all-new and completely updated Information on how to order the Top 300 Latin America Guide is available here.

Comments | 3 Responses

  • U.S. brands also can sell online to China by leveraging the growing ECommerce, company like cwkcommerce provides one-stop solution.

  • I agree with the author in that this is an ideal time for U.S. based e-retailers and manufacturer's to enter the Latin American market. With a B2C eCommerce market estimated to grow over 100% between 2011 and 2016 the window of opportunity is now. The importance of entering the huge and growing Latin American market holds especially true for established e-retailers who want and need to beat their competition! On the other hand, this is also a great opportunity for new e-retailers that want to upset and eventually dominate the established e-retailers! As far as Latin American markets go, Mexico is one of the biggest and most promising! Mexico, for example, has the highest amount of internet users among the world's Spanish speaking countries. Internet access within Mexico has increased by 21%, year-on-year, compared to an average global rate of just 10%. Finally, Mexicans spend an average of 2 hours more online than their international counterparts! We are currently seeking strategic partnership opportunities for our sets of one-word, generic, popular retail ccTLDs (Country Code Top Level Domains including +, +, +, +, +, + and + Now is the ideal time-frame for U.S. e-retailers with stagnant U.S. growth to tap into the emerging Mexican and other Latin American Markets in order to grow their overall market share and eventually gain first mover advantages by establishing a trusted local presence!

  • Thank you for this piece. I know this dilemma too well. I'm not sure retailers are patient. I'd be curious to see how many North American retailers are setting their sights on Latin America right now.

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