March 28, 2013, 4:07 PM

Case study: Parlez-vous français?

A French-Canadian e-commerce site translates into more online sales for Sephora.

The company: Sephora USA Inc.

The project: A new French Canadian-language e-commerce site for Canadian shoppers

The reason: Makeup and beauty products retailer Sephora is investing heavily in Canada to grow its sales in the country both online and offline. To do this, it needs to cater to all Canadians, including those who speak French as their first language—about 22% of the country's population—according to the government of Canada. French Canadian varies from traditional French similarly to the way spoken and written English in the United States varies from that in the United Kingdom.

Feedback from customer service representatives and comments from Canadian shoppers on Facebook and Twitter showed that French-speaking consumers wanted to shop online in their native tongue, says Angela Vinci, senior director of product development for Sephora Digital. "They may be small, but they are a very vocal group," she says.

Additionally, Canadian law stipulates that companies with a physical address in French-speaking Quebec—Sephora has five stores in the Montreal metro area—offer their web site in French Canadian, according to Charles Lupien, an attorney with Montreal-based law firm Fasken Martineau DuMoulin who focuses on intellectual property and e-commerce. The government can revoke a company's right to do business in Quebec if they do not have a French Canadian site. Although the rule is rarely enforced, many companies that want to grow Canadian sales quickly realize it is a good idea to invest in translating their sites, Lupien says.

And so, in the first quarter of 2012, the e-retailer decided it was time it learned how to speak French.

The help: Early last year, Sephora began vetting language translation vendors to help it launch a French Canadian version of its site, Vinci says. The retailer explored five vendors and then narrowed that number down to three, calling non-competitive retailer references for each. After several phone calls and e-mails with references including luxury retailer and home goods retailers, » » Sephora settled on Translations.com, a unit of TransPerfect Translations International Inc.

Sephora liked that the vendor offered a dedicated point person conversant in the French Canadian dialect during the implementation process and a separate account manager as a go-to person once the site was up and running. It also offered help with e-mail translation, a marketing tactic Sephora was eager to introduce to French-speaking shoppers. Another plus was that the vendor had worked on translation projects for e-commerce sites including Lululemon and jewelry and watch retailer Ashford.com. "We spoke with some vendors who were more focused on the technology," Vinci says. "The defining factor for us was that they were able to demonstrate what it took to run an e-commerce site."

The kick-off: Sephora began working on the French Canadian site in August 2012. The first step included Translations.com completing a rough initial translation of the 800,000 words, 250 images that contained text and 7,000 beauty products Sephora sold on its English-language site. That process took around four weeks, Vinci says. The initial translation was done by a Translations.com staffer conversant in the French Canadian dialect and fluent in English.

The rough draft then passed through manual revisions between a French-speaking Sephora staffer and Translations.com for further tweaking.

During the project, Sephora held daily meetings to discuss the progress of the new site for teams across its entire e-commerce organization. Here, the Translations.com implementation manager and a dozen Sephora employees from information technology to marketing to graphic design got together to discuss their work and any concerns or hurdles they were encountering.

One topic that came up, for example, was what the site should not translate. The team agreed it could not translate names of products such as the "Liner Intense Liquid Eyeliner" by Dolce & Gabbana because of copyright restrictions, or trademarked color names, such as makeup brand Urban Decay Cosmetics' eye shadow colors with names like "Muse" and "Desperation." However, it was essential that the site translate the product descriptions so the shopper could understand the eyeliner's hue or the foundation's consistency. For example, Muse is a dark reddish brown with golden shimmer, and that had to be translated. Establishing such parameters saved a lot of time and prevented Translations.com from translating terms that must be displayed in their original form, Vinci says.

The team worked through other hiccups during the meetings, including devising alternative wording to English-language home page promotions that at times stretched about 25% longer when translated to French, throwing off the layout.

The sessions also gave marketing personnel a chance to address language issues in e-mail messages. For example, with its English-language e-mails, Sephora had long used the greeting "Dear" and then inserted the consumer's name. However, in French, the word "Dear" changes depending on whether the person addressed is male or female. To get around that, Sephora decided to use the non-gender specific greeting "Bonjour."

The finished product: The French Canadian site went live in October. Today, Sephora says the process of translating updates made to its English-language site for the French Canadian version takes about a day. That quick turnaround is crucial for a retailer that adds new products daily and updates its home page at least once a week. Sephora says it did not have to hire any additional employees to manage the site.

To keep the process flowing, Translations.com has a program connected to Sephora.com's proxy, or preview, site. The program captures any additions or changes Sephora's e-commerce team makes to wording on the English site and immediately sends that information to a Translations.com linguist. Once translated, the copy is sent to Sephora's French Canadian-speaking reviewer for approval. The French translations from Translations.com are approved on the first try about 90% of the time, Vinci says.

Having the preview environment is important because it lets Translations.com capture content and complete the translation process so Sephora can have updates to its English-language and French Canadian sites go live at the same time.

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