West Marine wanted to sail into new markets overseas, but the costs of the Internet kept it from entering new markets. It was too expensive to re-build its Web site for each foreign country.
New software that generates multiple Web sites from its home Web site has made it possible.
"It lets us redeploy to other countries, get into multiple currencies and languages," says Marshall Freiman, Founder and Chief Technology Officer, Web Emporium, a consultant that worked with the boat seller using a new IBM product.
Other businesses are looking to join him overseas, as they look for the high growth rates that have been disappearing in the U.S.
Businesses have certainly paid attention. IDC estimates that 60 percent of business-to-business companies have at least started to globalize their Web sites. The firm also estimates that these companies earn 15 percent more foreign revenue than companies who have not.
The problem has been cultural barriers that have made it too expensive. Now software vendors are rolling out products to flatten those barriers and smooth paths to profitability.
"The center of gravity is shifting overseas. To maintain growth, they have to look at international markets," says James Owens, spokesman for Uniscape, which "internationalizes" software and content for foreign use.
Uniscape is one of several companies working in the market. IBM just rolled out an upgrade of its e-commerce software that handles multiple languages, currencies and other factors such as shipping and taxes. The week before, the Atlanta software vendor APower Solutions introduced its platform for creating multilingual Web sites using the same look and feel of a current Web site.
The software vendors have started working on this because customers are crying for more solutions, says one analyst.
"It's something that hasn't been taken seriously up until now and has hampered companies entering international markets. It's becoming more important in the minds of senior executives," says Fran Haworth, research director with Aberdeen Group.
The problem extends to delivery of content, handling payments and currency exchange, customer relations, delivery and more.
"There are many, many levels. Logistics is a major problem," she says. "Companies should not try and take all this on board themselves. It's not really a core competency."
Even the simplest things can be the most complex. The look and feel of a Web site needs to change according to the cultural context, says Ed Kilroy, general manager of e-commerce solutions for IBM. That's one thing that IBM claims its e-commerce suite can do.
"Handling cultural nuances from a single solution helps businesses control their costs while focusing on designing more compelling marketing campaigns that increase sales reach and improve return on investment," he says.
The problem can take root in the technology itself. Businesses used to think that they only needed to update the content, capitalizing on the Internet's flexibility. But the applications have proven a barrier, because they were written with the U.S. market in mind. Both need to change, says James Owen, spokesman for Uniscape. The company was hired to convert Commerce One's platform to a culturally neutral setting.
"It must go into code that is culturally neutral. The Java code might refer to U.S. weights and measures, or software can't support double-byte characters like those in Asia, only Roman or ASCII characters," Owens says. But not to change the basic application to run the Web site is to invite trouble, he says.
"The alternative is to create five or six versions for five or six local markets. That's when you have problems. You have to update each version whenever you make a change," he says.