The German eCommerce market is full of tantalizing potential. We explore how to succeed by connecting with shoppers – and which pitfalls to avoid.

Der eCommerce. Die SEO. Das Internet.

You don’t have to be fluent to work out what these German words mean.

The German language has been borrowing English words for years (there’s even a song about it), which can create the impression that there is little difference between Germans and Anglophones. However, this could not be further from the truth.

In fact, there are a whole host of differences between the two. For starters, Germany only ranks 10th in a European comparison of English proficiency, so you really can’t just assume German speakers will understand English. On top of that, their attitudes to delivery methods, payment options, security and even social media are all vastly different from the UK or US.

Without understanding and embracing these cultural differences, any attempt to break into the German eCommerce market is resigned to limited success. Here are some words of wisdom we’ve acquired from 30 years in global marketing.

WHAT DO GERMAN SHOPPERS WANT?

It’s not enough simply to tell German shoppers that they’ll want your product – you have to show them why. In fact, there’s a list of things they’re looking for, and it’s up to you to prove you have what it takes:

Low cost

The top-selling products that Germans purchase from abroad are clothing, books, CDs, DVDs and video games. These are not high-value items. Indeed, Germans were driven to begin shopping online in part because of the low costs associated with it. They will regularly compare prices across several websites to ensure they are getting the best deal, so if your product and pricing information (including delivery rates) are not easily accessible and digestible, they’ll go elsewhere.

Flexibility

44% of German consumers want greater flexibility when choosing a delivery date, while 33% want more options for collecting a package at a convenient retail location (source: Comscore). Clearly, then, flexibility is important, especially when it comes to delivery. In fact, German businesses have long been seeking to gain a competitive edge by striving to improve delivery and return options; just take Zalando’s 100-day free returns policy as an example.

The result is that consumers are spoiled for choice and expect overseas companies to provide the same level of service as their domestic rivals. If you can’t keep up, they’ll find someone who can.

Security

German shoppers have deep-seated reservations about putting their personal details online. Data privacy is a huge issue in Germany, exemplified by the huge fines placed on social media companies by the German authorities in June this year (source: Business Insider).

Germans are generally reluctant to create online accounts to buy things, or to pay via credit/debit card. In fact, “Schulden,” the word for debt in Germany, originates from the word for guilt, “Schuld.” So it’s no surprise that Germany remains one of the most cash-intensive economies among developed nations.

Contactless payments and mobile payments via smartphones are facing resistance due to trust concerns. Therefore, we strongly recommend offering direct debits and invoices on delivery payment options, especially if you’re operating overseas – concerns about payments abroad are particularly acute.

Humility

In Germany, less is more. Brash slogans claiming to be the biggest, the brightest and the best will have little impact. Instead, Germans prefer understatement and modesty. You may think your product is the best ever, but you don’t need to be boastful. Instead, prove it through the product information you provide and the product’s functionality, not through loud slogans without substance. The same goes for brand logos – German brands, such as Adidas and BMW, favor minimalist designs.

Localization

18% of German shoppers wouldn’t buy from a foreign website due to difficulty understanding the language, so if you want to be heard, you’ll need to speak in German. Not only that, but you’ll need to speak in the right way. For a start, content should be natural and adapted for the market. The same goes for keywords. It’s better to generate these from scratch, especially as translations could eat up your character count – you don’t want to end up with one of these words taking up all your space. For example, “summer sale” in German is “Sommerschlussverkauf”. That’s a lot of characters in each description line!

The German language also uses two forms to address people: “du,” which is largely informal, and “Sie,” which is reserved for more formal, professional contexts. Although businesses in fields such as IT are abandoning the more formal “Sie,” it still holds a great deal of sway. It’s important to think through your company’s approach to this carefully. In some industries, such as the automotive industry, status is important, so it would be inappropriate to begin addressing customers casually. You don’t want to put them off by not appearing serious.

How do I connect with them?

Customer interaction also differs vastly between Germany and Anglophone countries. Although social media is growing in popularity, usage figures are still well below those of other developed countries, partially due to a fear of oversharing information online. But it is still possible to foster strong customer relationships online. Here’s how:

Website

Research is an important part of the customer journey, so it’s essential that your website provides easy access to the information shoppers are looking for. This includes product information and pricing/delivery details, which should be clearly visible from an early stage. But to really appease your customers’ concerns, you could have your website audited by TÜV, a technical inspection association, to receive an official quality certification, as well as indicate your compliance with German data privacy regulations on your website.

Content Marketing

According to a YouGov survey of German consumers, 80% of people who responded positively to content marketing went on to make a purchase, with 63% going on to make a long-term switch to the brand (source: eMarketer). Clearly, then, content marketing can make a huge difference.

To capitalize on this, provide meaningful, data-driven content that avoids showing off, but don’t be afraid to add some humor, which will go down well with your customers. It would also be good to mention your delivery/returns policy directly in these ads. Germans are less fussy than shoppers in the UK about ad positioning, so feel free to play around with its location on the page to find out what works for you.

Social media

Despite lower usage figures than other countries, social media in Germany shouldn’t be ignored. Over 80% of German millennials now use Facebook, so it should be a pivotal part of any online campaign. Other platforms such as Snapchat, Instagram and Xing are popular with different demographics, so use them in addition to Facebook to target your market more specifically – see our blog on German social media for more information on which platforms to use, and when and how to use them.

FINAL THOUGHT

Invoice on delivery and an easy returns policy could be seen as an opportunity, not a potential obstacle. Let’s take Kahneman & Tversky’s principle of Loss Aversion and the notion that losses are twice as powerful as gains. Firstly, being able to order a product without handing over payment makes it easy to order. Then, once the product has arrived and been tried, a sense of ownership occurs, which makes giving up (returning) that product “painful.”

As a result, it could be argued that an invoice-on-delivery policy will increase order volume, while still having a high return rate. That’s exactly what they’re banking on at Amazon Fashion, with an “only pay for what you don’t return” policy. That, and trying to remove the apparent need for brick-and-mortar stores!