How to conquer a niche internationally

March 23, 2017 by
Janine Nothlichs

20161031_CrossBorderBUFF_Leon van Bon_1J1B2141 (1)A high-quality accessory with international brand recognition, facing challenges around increasing volumes and growing order values is a typical scenario for a niche product. Customers from all over the world want to order online, but how can you make this feasible? In Barcelona, we met David Girones, Head of E-Commerce at Original Buff, a company producing multifunctional headscarves for sports and leisure. Original Buff has identified and conquered the challenges of internationalising sales of a niche product online and share their solutions with us.

This article orininally appeared in Cross-Border Magazine Nr. 2Pictures: Léon van Bon, BUFF S.A.

Original Buff S.A. is situated in Igualada, 60km inland from Barcelona in Spain, this is also where the company history started in the early nineties. Being already part of the family business, producing the necks and cuffs for t-shirts and sweatshirts, founder Joan Rojas invented a microfibre tubular wind protection for his hobby motorcycling. He soon noticed the business opportunity and started selling in ski resorts in the Pyrenees, and quickly expanded to all renowned international ski resorts thereafter. In 1992, the brand BUFF® became widely known. It began with a basic product than can be worn in 12 different ways, including as a scarf, bandana, helmet lining and a beanie. The collection has since expanded with various additional products and is now even moving towards a more lifestyle-oriented collection.

Being in a niche
We asked David Girones whether he thinks being a niche brand is an advantage or a disadvantage, and he was torn between both: “You are able to know your customers well and offer them exactly what they are looking for, which is a perfect situation. However, in terms of scalability and ability to grow, when volume is key for reducing costs, being a niche player becomes a problem. Therefore, partnering with a solid cross-border service provider, moving more products and being able to negotiate good conditions, can be a perfect solution.”

Distributors and resellers
As a brand that was sold internationally from very early on, BUFF® is represented by a network of distributors and resellers. Operating only one single brand store at Barcelona airport, the e-commerce venture that started in 2012 was one of the first steps to sell directly to consumers. Today, BUFF® ships to 18 countries and operates websites in four languages; Spanish, English, French and German. In China, the local distributor is a top-seller on Alibaba and Ali-Express. As many of the distributors also sell online, there is sometimes confusion which site is the ‘real’ brand site. David Girones explains: “Now, we try to find a beneficial solution for everybody. We want to work on an organic traffic and SEO strategy to make this clear to the customer.” On top of that, in order to keep relationships smooth, BUFF® sells online using the same pricelist as the distributors. “Our brand site is not the place to go price-fighting. We have to weigh many components, including brand image and distributor relations.”

Demand all over Europe
Demand has always existed all over Europe: “The question our customer service has to answer the most is whether we can ship to a certain country. We have a network of distribution worldwide as well as a strong brand image worldwide. It is now our goal to make BUFF® available in more places online. We are currently opening up in Norway and Switzerland, where our brand is very popular. However, as they are not part of the EU, there are taxes and other regulatory obstacles. We needed to handle this without increasing the costs, as our order value and volumes are not huge,” explains Girones. Through technology solution provider eShopWorld, taxes and delivery costs to foreign countries are calculated upfront, so people are charged the complete price at the checkout, without any bad surprises at the time of delivery. This is important, stresses David Girones: “We sometimes hear that a customer has to pay more duties and taxes afterwards than the total worth of their order. These things are unacceptable.”

Service quality and feasibility
At the moment, BUFF® has decided only to sell online in countries where they are able to provide a good experience. 90% of the production is located at the same facility as the headquarters in Igualada, and 10% is produced elsewhere because it consists of special materials. As everything is shipped from a centralised location, delivery is a key factor: “Our biggest challenge is the low order value. Delivery prices are important to make the business sustainable. We currently serve 15 countries and are now expanding to Poland, Norway and Switzerland. Basically, we operate in all countries except Spain and France through eShopWorld, where we can benefit from their negotiation power with other providers. In addition, the eShopWorld technology allows us to easily open and close countries and to figure out which approach fits our brand best”, explains David. Also for customer services, BUFF® has decided to outsource bigger markets to an external partner: “We now do France and Germany with Salesupply. These are important markets and it is important to localise customer service in order to further improve and build a solid brand image.”

Costs, speed and brand image: Outsourcing as a solution
Spain is a strong online market for BUFF®, generating 30% of the revenue, followed by France and Germany, together accounting for 45%, and all other countries generating 22%. “It makes sense to heavily invest in the countries that are doing well or show signs of strong growth. Right now we are working in four languages for all 18 countries served: Spanish, French, German and English. This year, we also translated the site into Italian. Other countries will follow in the long run,” says David Girones. However, it is vital in all countries to offer the right payment methods and delivery options. That is where working with eShopWorld comes into play again: “A country like the Netherlands for instance, isn’t an enormous size. If we had to integrate the local payment method, iDeal, into our systems ourselves, it would absorb too many resources. Working with eShopWorld, we can start offering iDeal immediately.” But what about the investment in the partner, is that a sustainable solution in the long run? David Girones is convinced that the advantages of this choice go beyond conversion: “Yes, using an outsourcing solution costs money. From a brand perspective, we want to offer great quality. Our brand site should not focus on quick wins in terms of money, but on representing the brand in the best way possible. Offering the right payment options in the Netherlands and preferred delivery options in France, helps to create the image we want to convey to our customer.” In the long run, affirms Girones, a good cross-border solution will increase conversion exponentially and ultimately deliver a good ROI.

Cutting costs and serving the international customer in an adequate manner are valuable ingredients for a successful niche strategy, but sector-related branding efforts are also very important. From its HQ, BUFF® manages several larger event-sponsorships, including the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. Together with the French distributor, this effort is backed up by a special landing page and a dedicated collection. Other, smaller event-partnerships are managed locally by the distributors. “It is sometimes a challenge to keep the brand story harmonised, but working with distributors is a big benefit because they know the market better and can determine what is relevant,” says David Girones. In addition, BUFF® works with brand ambassadors- usually sports personalities- in various countries and is starting to focus on events related to ‘softer’ activities, such as hiking, to broaden its audience. Sometimes, branding is also influenced by local preferences. Whereas in Europe, BUFF® is totally established as a winter brand, in America it is preferred by a broad group who love fishing and need to cover their head and arms with breathing material against the sun. As a niche seller, it is important to be receptive to these dynamic forces of the markets and adapt to it.

The future
The future still holds a whole world to conquer for BUFF®, the journey into international e-commerce has just begun. Being a niche accessory player, growth is important for BUFF®. Together with eShopWorld, the company will explore possibilities to enter the US market. Next to new markets and expanding the assortment to kid’s products, hats and new materials. BUFF® is eying to penetrate the lifestyle and fashion sector and make the products popular also ‘off-piste’. “The quality is so good, many people own one BUFF® for years, and then buy a new one once it is worn out. I would like to see people wear BUFF® while skiing and mountain biking, but also in the restaurant when they go for dinner after. That stimulates them to own more BUFF® wear. We don’t strive to become a fashion-player, but we want to expand our audience and the scope of use for our products.”

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