Cross-Border E-commerce: Maegan Murphy Of Orium On Best Practices For Cross-Border E-commerce

An Interview With Rachel Kline

Authority Magazine Editorial Staff
Authority Magazine

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Set yourself up for success. I work in technology, so I might be biased, but I think it’s highly important to invest in the right technologies when expanding into new markets. Managing the complexities of international fulfillment, customs and duties, product selection, market personalization, etc. becomes overwhelmingly untenable when done on paper (or excel, or email). The longer a retailer uses workarounds, the harder–and more expensive–it is to insert process and automation down the line. Understanding up-front product and accounting needs, and then using the right technologies to fulfill those product and accounting needs, saves enormous time and money both in the short-term and the long-term.

As the global marketplace continues to expand, cross-border ecommerce has become an essential avenue for businesses seeking growth and new opportunities. However, navigating the complexities of international markets and cross-border transactions requires a strategic approach and a deep understanding of best practices. In this interview series, we aim to connect with ecommerce experts, international business strategists, global logistics specialists, payment processing professionals, and anyone with valuable insights into “Ecommerce Experts on Cross-Border Ecommerce Best Practices”. As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Maegan Murphy.

Maegan Murphy is the Retail Technology Lead for Orium, a leading composable commerce consultancy and systems integrator. For the last five years, Murphy has been working in the retail technology space with a focus on order management systems, point of sales systems, and product information management. Her depth of experience supporting brands as they transition to new platforms and solutions has made Murphy a passionate advocate for effective change management, ensuring organizations are able to get the full benefit of a new technology.

Thank you so much for your time! I know that you’re super busy. Before diving in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you grew up?

Thanks for taking the time to speak with me as well! I was born in Montreal, and spent some of my childhood in the US and the UK. While I eventually settled down in my hometown, I will always appreciate growing up living and experiencing different places. Because I’ve been fortunate enough to live in different parts of the world, I feel I’ve been afforded a unique viewpoint on how different cultures and experiences shape retail markets, and I always enjoy new shopping experiences when traveling to see friends or family.

What led you to this specific career path?

It’s a bit of a funny story–I originally went to school to become a writer. I graduated with high expectations for myself as a writer only to hit that post-school wall, where I discovered that getting one’s first post-university job can be hard. I eventually widened my horizons beyond content creation jobs and landed in outside sales for the automotive industry. While I enjoyed it, I didn’t necessarily feel fulfilled by my day-to-day. It was only at my second company, a small Montreal-based retailer that was looking at updating their tech stack across multiple platforms, that I had a knack for learning technology quickly and using technology to solve business needs. From there, I raised my hand for any and all technology projects, learning the ins and outs of Enterprise Retail Planning (ERP), Warehouse Management Systems (WMS), Supply Chain Management (SCM), Order Management Systems (OMS), and various product management systems. Learning and working within so many retail platforms has definitely served me well.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

My most exciting projects are always large-scale digital transformations. While switching out one tech for another is a little less strenuous and/or stressful, I enjoy a challenge and there’s nothing more satisfying to me than seeing noticeable efficiencies organization-wide. I appreciate that these projects require massive change management efforts, and that’s where I feel both internal and client teams can lean on me and my experience. Change is hard, especially when a team has been working a certain way using certain processes on certain platforms for over a decade, and it’s especially difficult for non-technical folks to imagine tech and processes they can’t see or immediately benefit from. I try my best to use concrete examples and translate their current state to their potential end state using their retail language. I want to show them their current pain points and how we’re going to solve that for them. Sometimes seeing is believing.

You’re a successful business leader. What are three traits about yourself that you feel helped fuel your success? Can you share a story or example for each?

I have been told by many people that I am not shy. They might have been referring to that as a strength or a weakness–either way, I think my boldness has served me well so far. I’m not shy to raise my hand for new opportunities, and that’s where I’ve managed to build my knowledge and experience to become a retail industry subject matter expert when it comes to tech. I’m also not shy to voice my opinions, even in a room full of higher-level executives, and I feel that has helped shape my reputation as someone who will always call out risks or challenge ideas constructively. I would say I gained the most experience in my last job, and it was wholly due to my willingness to volunteer my time and energy for new opportunities. I started out by working closely with our ERP’s functional consultant to understand the strengths of our platform and what features we were misusing or not using at all. From there, an opportunity to work on an ecommerce migration was brought up, and I was able to throw myself into the world of online selling. After that, a need for an OMS was discovered, and I raised my hand to work on vendor selection and change management. Each time I volunteered, my value to the company grew and my own knowledge expanded, until I became the obvious front-runner for every other piece of the digital transformation we were working on, and later leading me to Orium, where I continue to act boldly.

Another trait that has served me well is my enthusiasm for learning. Maybe it’s a gift, but the more I’ve thrown myself into learning, the faster I’ve become at picking things up. There’s something so satisfying about delving into a new platform or technology and feeling the pieces click together as I understand how that technology works and how I can use that knowledge to guide retailers down the right path. Most recently, I’ve been involved in a number of PIM opportunities as the retail industry sets their sight on product creation for the next 12–18 months. I’ve thrown myself into learning everything I can about partner PIM platforms and in a fairly short time frame, I’ve brought my knowledge and understanding to the level where I can speak about them with authority and certainty to a retail customer. I truly enjoy being able to pinpoint where a retailer can expect to see massive efficiencies in using product management technologies. Being a part of that excitement with a customer is one of the best parts of the job.

A third trait that I feel has fueled my success would probably be my communication skills. While I appreciate everything I’ve gained from being bold and immersing myself in quick study, there is something powerful about understanding how to cater one’s communication style to one’s audience. There is a bit of an art in understanding your audience. I often join the sales team when they travel onsite to a retail customer’s office for discovery sessions. I sometimes find myself speaking to executive leadership team members in these rooms, which means I need to cater my messaging in such a way that someone who is busy running a company can still resonate with how we’re going to solve their problems. This often leads to asking smart questions to understand their pain points so that we can focus on their high-level wants and needs without getting too into the weeds and focusing on details about the tech, like API capabilities. This is a skill I use every day, whether it be client-facing or internal communication.

Excellent, thanks so much for sharing that. I want to shift gears and talk about ecommerce. What was the original vision for your ecommerce business? What pain point(s) were you trying to solve for your customers?

I think retail is both an interesting and unique industry. Trends come and go quickly, and that includes technology. It’s so easy to fall behind competitors, and that leads some retailers to make snap decisions, working to meet unrealistic deadlines by any means necessary.

In my experience, there are two types of retail tech projects. The first is an urgent request to remain competitive. We saw a huge number of these during COVID thanks to a massive shift in how people were buying. If a retailer wanted to stay profitable, they had no choice but to offer a number of new avenues for customers to buy their products–and quickly. This project type is all about speed, and retailers are likely to cut corners and come up with creative methods of delivering the shopping experience they’re aiming for–whether that be manually routing a product through 8–10 different platforms because they don’t have a robust PIM, or having customer service teams make appeasement requests on paper to pass to a member of the accounting team because they don’t have an OMS to manage orders.

The second project type is what I like to call a “do it right” project. Using 8–10 different platforms for product creation gets old quickly, and over time, it becomes obvious a retailer can no longer support these kinds of inefficiencies. This is where digital transformations come into play. Retailers turn to organizations like Orium to advise and consult on where new, best-of-breed platforms can solve company-wide pain points and cut down on task redundancy. There is no better feeling than taking a retail customer from the older-model sedan to the bells and whistles of an in-year supercar. Both vehicles can get you to the same place, but one is far more comfortable, reliable, and efficient in doing so than the other.

When expanding your ecommerce business internationally, how do you determine the right balance between localizing your offering (tailoring products, prices, and promotions to each market) versus maintaining a consistent global brand presence?

I think market research goes without saying. Let’s talk about a concrete example. Imagine you’re a Canadian retailer selling luxury coats, jackets, and other winter accessories, and you’re looking to expand into the United States. Expanding into other cold-weather markets is a no-brainer, right? After all, New York city isn’t all that different weather-wise from a city like Toronto or Montreal. The market in New York City can afford luxury goods and the shoppers in that market respect and remain loyal to high-end brands. As a luxury retailer trying to make a splash, the New York market presents few disadvantages.

Now let’s talk about a slightly different market: Seattle, Washington. While not quite as frigid as some of the other US cities, Seattle presents a different opportunity in that it’s wet and rainy. I would advise you to focus on your waterproof jackets and accessories and underlayers, and to lean into that offering in your marketing. Essentially, we’re tailoring the shopping experience for each market so that it’s personalized (I will use that word lightly here, as there are far more detailed personalization opportunities that we can talk about later) to the shoppers of that market.

Now let’s talk about a very different location. As a Canadian retailer selling luxury coats and jackets looking to expand into the United States, is Miami, Florida going to be high on your list of target cities? At first glance, probably not. With winter temperatures that get pretty close to what I consider a warm summer here in Montreal, Florida in and of itself doesn’t support the environment needed to see expensive winter coats flying off the shelves. However, it isn’t the worst market to target either. As a destination for many snowbirds escaping the wintry cold of Canada, Russia, and other chilly locations, there are a decent number of shoppers in Florida with money for luxury goods and a reason to buy a winter coat–even if they have no reason to wear it until they get home. Understanding the Florida market, I would advise a luxury coat brand to offer a healthy mix of warmer weather goods, such as vests, sweaters, and light jackets, as well as a small selection of the heavier winterized coats and accessories.

So what does this mean for tailoring products? Expanding a brand’s presence outside of its current borders is no easy thing. I have expertise in regions and categories, but one person is almost never going to be a silver bullet in terms of best practice knowledge. I would advise anyone attempting a move to a new region — especially one outside their national borders — to work with a market research firm for best results.

How do you approach understanding and adhering to the regulatory frameworks and trade tariffs of different countries, and what tools or resources do you recommend?

Every time I work with a retailer on expanding their offering cross-border, I recommend bringing on a consultant that specializes in the new target market. So many countries have rules and regulations, and then many countries have sub-divisions of rules or regulations.

A great example of this would be the fur laws in the US. Fur can be sold most places in the US, but some states–like California–ban the sale of fur, meaning that a retailer’s platforms need to manage available selling regions for fur-based items. This doesn’t necessarily sound difficult, but automating this process can be tricky. Products with fur need to be flagged in various systems, including POS, PIM, ERP, OMS, and ecommerce, which means each of those platforms needs a field or attribute to map automations and logic against.

A tool I highly recommend for any business looking to sell in more than one region would be a tax manager, like Avalara. Selling in the US alone would warrant tax management, since the US is notoriously complicated when it comes to sales tax, but there are use cases in other markets as well. Canada’s sales tax system is far simpler–with some caveats. Sales tax is province dependent (of which there are ten) but some provinces mandate lower taxes for certain items, like children’s clothing. Any retailer looking to operate in multiple markets would also highly benefit from a robust ERP.

How do you determine which payment methods to support in a new market, given that payment preferences can vary from country to country?

You’ll hear these words from me again and again: market research. Payment methods have evolved exponentially in the last decade. While cash is still a legal tender in most markets, I can’t tell you the last time I carried around paper money or coins. In fact, I can’t tell you the last time I actually took my wallet out of my purse–why would I, when I can double tap the button on the side of my phone and pay with that? But my payment experiences are mostly limited to the markets I shop in.

Thanks to the pandemic, I went several years without visiting the United States, and I quickly found myself shocked when, on a recent business trip, I went to pay in a restaurant and realized the waiter wanted to take my card into the back and run it himself. In Canada, restaurants have been bringing a terminal to the table for years. Writing a tip on paper felt almost surreal. But that moment in an American restaurant doesn’t hold a candle to my shopping experience in China, where the primary payment method is WeChat. Did I know that before I arrived? Yes. Was I aware that I wouldn’t be able to sign up for WeChat and connect my payment information immediately? I did not.

Imagine my surprise when I walked into a store with a business associate and realized I couldn’t buy anything. There were no associates in the store to take my cash or run my alternate payment methods. There was nothing but a lone tablet where shoppers were expected to scan their own merchandise and pay, not unlike our self-checkout experiences in the West–with a couple of notable differences. With no loss prevention in the store, this brand was relying on trust with their customers, and this brand was not going out of their way to cater to tourists. Seeing as how I was far from one of China’s many tourist destinations, I suppose I couldn’t blame them, but it goes to show how different markets can vastly change their offerings when it comes to what they accept as payment methods.

What are your five best practices for cross-border ecommerce?

1 . My first and most important best practice is simple: don’t rush it. Setting sights on a new market is exciting, and expanding your brand internationally is a great way to increase brand awareness and–more importantly–increase revenue, but it’s so easy to make a mistake somewhere that can tank the whole initiative. I’ve spoken a lot above about my experiences going from a smaller Canadian market to a larger US market, but there are risks going both ways. Look at Target’s attempt to establish themselves in Canada. Target’s expansion into America’s northern neighbor should have been a no-brainer. Zellers had recently shut down in Canada, leaving a network of empty stores for Target to move into. With Target being such a strong brand and shopping experience in the United States, it came as a shock to almost everybody when they announced their withdrawal from the Canadian market only two years later, filing for creditor protection. So what happened? Well, I’ve heard it described as death by a thousand cuts. Logistics were messy out of the gate, and Target’s store launches quickly became an ambitious and hard to achieve timeline. From there, it only got worse. Target Canada quickly became the retail industry’s warning tale of why not to rush it when it comes to cross-border expansion.

2 . Ask the right people. You may have noticed from my earlier answers that I am a big fan of consulting the experts. It is so easy to overlook something, and I may or may not have been quoted saying “you don’t know what you don’t know.” This applies to everything from making decisions around technology to understanding how much inventory to stock and what products to focus on in a new market. It’s easy to assume the POS you’re currently using can be extended to a new country, only to discover very late in the process that your POS doesn’t support south-east Asia. It’s also easy to assume that sales trends will look similar to home-markets when looking at northern European countries, and realizing mid-summer that a large portion of the population isn’t working and likely vacationing isn’t the best time to recognize low sales volume. Both of these examples are real-life scenarios that I’ve witnessed, and speaking to market experts ahead of time can save a lot of time, money, and headaches.

3 . Set yourself up for success. I work in technology, so I might be biased, but I think it’s highly important to invest in the right technologies when expanding into new markets. Managing the complexities of international fulfillment, customs and duties, product selection, market personalization, etc. becomes overwhelmingly untenable when done on paper (or excel, or email). The longer a retailer uses workarounds, the harder–and more expensive–it is to insert process and automation down the line. Understanding up-front product and accounting needs, and then using the right technologies to fulfill those product and accounting needs, saves enormous time and money both in the short-term and the long-term.

4 . Dedicate resources. Having worked in retail, and now working with a large number of retailers, I cannot stress enough how important it is to dedicate time and energy to something as complicated as cross-border expansion. Project management isn’t most retailers’ specialty, so we see a lot of people working on large digital transformations off the side of their desks. This, in my experience, is the largest reason for delays and oversights. Essentially, I’m suggesting that retailers treat cross-border expansion like a project in and of itself, and operate within a project framework to ensure budget and timeline success. Whether it be formal tickets or a to-do list in a spreadsheet with assigned resources, organization and oversight is key.

5 . Plan for the future. When a new market is identified as a potential “cash cow,” it’s hard not to jump in feet first without considering the implications down the line. This best practice might be a bit of a culmination of the first four, but it’s an important one nonetheless. Imagine, as a retailer, you launch into a new market. You start small because you’re not eager to over-invest, but to your surprise, your business takes off and demand is at an all-time high. If you had invested only minimally, the stretch between your intention and the reality becomes overwhelming and, sometimes, insurmountable. So when it comes time to make those plans for new market penetration, make sure you leave yourself room to scale, and put together an action ladder based on measurable units of success so you know when it’s the right time to take the next step.

What are the best practices for managing international shipping, handling returns, and dealing with customs? How do you decide whether to use local fulfillment centers versus shipping internationally from a central location?

I think the decision between local vs international fulfillment centers tends to be a cost analysis. If a retailer is planning to open one store in Europe and expect to see a small number of online orders, it likely makes sense to ship from a local fulfillment center–and by that, I mean local to the retailer. However, if that same retailer is opening 10+ stores and launching and supporting two separate brands internationally, with a likely larger order fulfillment load, it absolutely makes sense to look at carving out some space in a 3PL (3rd party logistics). The use case for a retailer-owned warehouse that is anywhere other than local would require a massive order volume that most retailers won’t see when penetrating a new market. As far as international fulfillment, there are a lot of things to consider, duties being a big piece of the puzzle. Some retailers prefer to include estimated duties in the price displayed online, whereas some prefer to leave the duties to be paid at delivery by the customer. There are arguments for both, though I’ve been seeing more and more retailers move toward including the duties in the displayed price, most of them citing the reason as a brand decision. (Essentially, shoppers view a brand more favorably when there are no surprise costs at the time of delivery.) Of course, including the cost of duties in the display price can be tricky. I’ve seen retailers rely on technology that specializes in handling fulfillment, customs, and duties, such as Global E or Flow.io. If a customer prefers to handle it themselves, there is still a reliance on other technologies, like ERP and OMS for declarations and international fulfillment.

How can ecommerce businesses effectively provide customer support in multiple languages and time zones? What are some pitfalls to avoid when setting up international customer service operations?

Something I’ve seen becoming more and more popular are chatbots and–more specifically–chatbots with the help of AI. Automating some of the simpler transaction requests, such as order cancellations or returns and refunds, can minimize a retailer’s headcount when it comes to customer service. Hiring agents that can speak multiple languages is far from easy, but translation technology can cut that need down. In the case where a chatbot isn’t strong enough, there are clienteling technologies that can solve this need as well. Outside of the technology, retailers are presented with other options. A retailer could contract support out to contact centers that specialize in third party customer service, which could solve time zone and language issues. A lot of these decisions shouldn’t be made lightly; brands need to balance personalized customer service experiences with keeping overhead costs down.

How do you decide which products to introduce in a new market? Are there certain product categories that universally perform well, or is it highly market-dependent?

Are there products or categories that universally perform well? Sure, there can be. Everybody needs socks, but if you sell car tires, that isn’t going to help you. Additionally, while everyone needs socks, there are a number of sock types that might be more popular in one market compared to another. As someone who lives in colder weather, I am partial to warm, thick socks that roll up my calf. Would I bring those socks on vacation with me to the beach? No. Everything is dependent on the retailer and target market.

Furthermore, retailers would do well to consider taking this analysis a step further and consider variants of products, such as color. A great case study on product market responsiveness that I’ve heard is the popularity of lipstick colors across the US. If anyone had asked me how to stock lipstick colors nation-wide, I would have stocked every store similarly. However, as it turns out, there is a huge discrepancy on what is considered a “base color” in one state versus another. Miami, for example, favors coral-based colors, whereas New York favors brighter red tones. The same product in different variants would perform differently due to market trends in New York and Miami.

Looking ahead, what are the biggest challenges and opportunities in cross-border ecommerce, and how do you plan to address them in the coming years?

I think one of the biggest challenges moving forward is that cross-border growth is becoming more accessible to more businesses. It’s going to be difficult to remain competitive in both local and global markets when any retailer from anywhere in the world can move in and sell very similar products at potentially different prices. How is this going to be solved? I think the answer is branding and in particular, brand loyalty, and I see a lot of retailers moving in that direction.

As a shopper myself, I absolutely have preferred brands that I opt to shop at when given the chance, and that preference is dependent on a lot of factors. The in-store experience is the most obvious. Are the associates helpful? Are they too helpful? Can I easily locate the products I’m looking for in the store? Online shopping poses a raft of additional questions. Is shipping free? If not, how much do I need to spend? What does the return policy look like? Is the site navigation intuitive, and does the search function locate what I’m looking for?

A newer trend that I’ve been seeing when it comes to retailers focusing on their brand is the “unified shopping experience”. I personally came to understand the benefit of a unified experience in-store and online was when I found a pair of pants in-store that I absolutely needed to have, though my size wasn’t in stock, but couldn’t find those pants on the website no matter how hard I tried. Options like QR codes on hang-tags or omnichannel shopping experiences extend the traditional purchasing processes of a retail customer, and that’s what keeps the customer coming back.

You are a person of significant influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

As a person who lives in predominantly capitalist societies, I would love to see a movement around financial education in school–and offered to those who want it later in life. I think a larger focus on managing one’s own money and making more critical decisions when it comes to buying items in stores would be beneficial to a large portion of the population, especially with the cost of living only getting higher every year.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can find me on LinkedIn, and I make an appearance every now and again on Orium’s LinkedIn as well, though I’m not nearly as popular as my puppy.

I want to thank you so much for your time and for sharing your expertise with us. I wish you continued success!

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