Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, once said that “a big business starts small.” In 1970, Branson opened a mail-order record business that eventually became Virgin Records. Many businesses followed and the Virgin Group now controls over 400 different companies.
What Branson didn’t have at his disposal in the 1970s was the e-commerce ecosystem that exists in 2021. That ecosystem allows nearly any business – regardless of size – to reach a global customer base, almost instantaneously.
“Whether you’re a mom-and-pop operation or an established brands, a good portion of your site traffic, if you can see where they’re coming from, is actually from outside of your domestic market, outside the U.S. if you’re a U.S. brand, and that could be as much as 30, 40%,” Rob Keve, CEO and co-founder of Flow Commerce, told Modern Shipper. “And the reasons are obvious – online doesn’t recognize any borders.”
But for many potential customers, the shopping experience is as important as the product. If a product displays prices in a foreign currency, if the checkout page does not accurately account for costs associated with tariffs and local taxes, or it doesn’t represent the true shipping timeline, a customer is often lost – likely forever.
“We need the whole experience to be as good internationally as it is domestically,” Keve said. “And that’s not easy because now you have to worry about how do we make sure our pricing is in local currency. If you’re crossing borders, it would incur or may incur duties and sales tax. You, as a brand, may not know what that is for different countries for your entire catalog.”
Flow offers cross-border shopping technology for brands, helping them meet local shopping requirements, including customs and duties charges and payments, and manages the global shipping process in 200 countries. Its API platform is optimized for both smaller and larger brands, allowing smaller sellers to grow with the platform to become a big business.
“Our approach is unique in two respects,” Keve said. “One, we’ve built our own in-house solution to deal with this. It leverages machine learning to analyze what the products being sold are and then calculates all of the different shipping destinations, 200 of them, and what the correct duties and tax would be for that product to each of those countries. So, when we get a consumer from any country, whether it’s a major one like France or a lower-volume one like in the Caribbean, we already know what the duties and taxes are, and they’ll be displayed on the site, not just at checkout but on the product pages. And then we’re doing real-time calculations, which in many countries there are minimum thresholds [above] which you don’t have to pay any tax.”
The Flow platform also taps into real-time inventory, ensuring that a product displayed is in stock.
When it comes to getting that sold item to the end consumer, the Flow logistics machine kicks into gear. The company offers shipping through most of the world’s top logistics providers, but Keve said the company remains neutral in recommending the proper shipping partner.
“We uniquely see ourselves as independent of all carriers, so we take a nonpartisan approach to what is the best partner for any one merchant,” he said. “And we are pre-integrated into all of the important ones, so we can route their traffic and manage the labeling and the relationship with the carriers on their behalf.”
All data for international transactions is collected and displayed on a dashboard or fed into the brands systems, allowing for transparency and analytics reporting. This includes duties, taxes and shipment tracking details. But importantly, Flow handles all foreign tax collection and payments, alleviating the brand of that responsibility.
“Part of the value we provide is we can help you increase your international sales quite dramatically, but we also can take over a lot of the challenges you have internationally and manage all of those tax remittances on your order consumer’s behalf,” Keve said.