International Ecommerce: Bilingual Online Stores – 4 Quick-Start Options

This is a guest post by Tristan King, Self-Confessed Ecommerce Nerd and Founder of Shopify Ninjas, a small web development business which specialises Shopify Ecommerce and building Bilingual Ecommerce Stores. Tristan was a guest on podcast episode #19.

When diving into Ecommerce on an international level, there can be a lot to consider. You’ve sold some products to your mom, your friends and family, and now you want to scale into a bigger customer base – in other languages. This post will outline four options for scaling into multiple languages.

Rather than provide the entire suite of options, I’ll attempt to narrow it down to the best solutions available based on my experience of 12 years working with the web, and 50+ Shopify store builds.

Before We Start: Why Bother Creating a Bilingual Store?

There are several reasons you might want to create a bilingual store. There are also some situations in which you might not want to create one.

It’s probably worthwhile creating a bilingual store if one or more of the following apply to you:

1) If your customers speak more than one language in one country. This opens up your product suite to a whole new set of potential customers that previously would have struggled to buy from you.

Example: You have both Spanish-speaking and English-speaking monolingual customers in the USA.

2) If your customers live in countries which speak different languages. This allows you to market to two different audiences – and potentially twice as many customers.

Example: You sell Bratwurst to customers in Germany and Australia. Mmm, bratwurst.

3) If you have a legal requirement to show content in both languages. This is the case in some parts of Canada, for example.

4) If you are likely to sell more products if people can view your store in their own language. This is often the case. Would you rather struggle through Store A in a language you don’t know (e.g. using Google Translate), or in Store B clicking one button to see everything in English? I know which store I would buy from.

5) If you want your business to appear larger than it really is. Looking to scale, improve your presence or impress bigwigs? Having a website in two languages was only reserved for hot-shot companies with huge marketing budgets. Not any more.

You might not want to create a bilingual store if:

1) At least one of the above isn’t true. For example, if your customers only speak one language, obviously it won’t return your investment to have a bilingual website.

2) You don’t have the time or budget to do it properly. Customers will know if a website has been ‘thrown together’, with only some parts of the website translated, and others left in disarray. Either have all key pieces of your website translated, or have none at all.

There’s nothing wrong with isolating small pieces of content (like your About Page) into two langauges, but it’s unprofessional to have only half your products available in both languages.

With that said – what are some good options for making your store bilingual?

Your Store In Two Languages: Options for Building Bilingual Online Stores

First Up: There is no perfect solution. Yet.

I’ll be honest: Even for a developer like me, there isn’t a perfect solution on the market yet.

This is because providing a fully bilingual website along with all its components, is a complex beast.

We have to give translatable text for product descriptions, product names, menus, customer login details screens, inventory levels, messages to customers, page content, forms, SEO, confirmation messages.. the list goes on.

While building our Bilingual Shopify Theme, we found hundreds of places with text to translate within one website. Whilst it made our brains go numb at times, it also gave us deep insight into what’s needed to create a bilingual store.

Option #1: Bilingual Theme + Shopify Store

Shopify has been in business since 2006. Up until about two years ago, there was very little bilingual support, and a host of forum topics across the web echoed the need for better support for multiple languages.

This – in addition to being a big language geek – is what prompted me to envisage the Bilingual Shopify Theme, a first for Shopify.

The theme allows you (as the store owner) to input text in two languages in all of the places mentioned above. It’s also good to be able to see a demo store before you get started, so you can envisage how your store might look if you went with the theme.

You can also see exactly how you’ll set up bilingual sections before you dive into it.

Pros: Easy way to get two languages on your Shopify store, almost everything can be in two languages, no programming needed, no monthly fees such as there can be with apps, probably the easiest way to set up a bilingual store on Shopify right now.

No technical knowledge needed. So far, not one client has had trouble setting this up.

Cons: Only works with the Shopify system, supports a maximum of two languages (not three/four), up-front cost.

Resources:

Option #2: Custom Built Online Store

Hiring a bilingual developer to create a custom store is another option. This would mean building the website and its content management system from the ground up, starting from design and ranging through to how you’ll manage the content on your website.

It gives you greater control over the design & functionality – which is good – but is also significantly more expensive.

By way of example, here are two custom-built stores on Shopify:

Site note: I didn’t build these. They were done independently.

Pros: Custom look and feel, extensive bilingual support, ability to change almost anything while working with your developer.

Cons: High cost (estimate: $5-$10K plus), can be difficult to maintain/adjust if not set up in a scalable way, need to find your own developer, need to choose a specific platform, unknown as to exactly how you’ll enter text in two languages.

Starting points:

Option #3: WordPress

I have experimented with various Plugins for WordPress,claiming to be Bilingual. I didn’t find a Plugin that I loved, and I didn’t find one that worked well with E-Commerce.

With that said, it could be worth investigating if you’re already familiar with WordPress, or if you don’t mind spending a lot of time setting up your store.

After you’ve set up your WordPress store and installed a WordPress Theme, Bilingual Plugins provide ways for you to enter text in multiple languages, either on the same page, or by linking pages between languages using a unique ID or interface in WordPress’ backend.

Pros: Less monthly fees than hosted services, less learning curve if you’re already familiar with WordPress.

Cons: Some plugins only work well with the “Paid” version and are limited as ‘free’ plugins; can be complex to set up, because you need to configure WordPress + the Theme + Ecommerce + Language Plugin; more time-intensive than hosted solutions.

Resources:

Option #4: Dual Websites Which Look The Same

You can set up multiple websites which look the same, but each in their own language.

This means you are essentially running two separate websites with a similar look-and-feel, and you provide links between the two, for customers to choose the site in their preferred language.

Example: Groovboard.co and Groovboard.de is a great example of this. You’ll see that the websites function well together – one in German, one in English.

Pros: Fairly easy to set up the second store once you’ve built the first; clear separation between two languages, flexible because everything in your store (e.g. images) can be specifically tailored for each language.

Cons: Not super-smooth, because when you click the other language you are sent back to the home page; can be expensive because you have to pay for two websites (and in the case of Shopify, two monthly subscription fees), managing dual inventory can be complex.

Wrap-Up

Whichever system you decide on, expect to put some serious time into creating your bilingual store. There’s a lot of preparation involved in engaging a translator, making sure your content suits your audience, and creating the store itself.

If it expands your market share – and in turn your sales – and allows you to reach a greater audience, the benefits can be huge.

Final Note: There are other options on the market, that’s for sure. Above, I’ve attempted to summarise the best options in my experience, and for the Build My Online Store audience.

Magento, for example, has been recommended for businesses doing over $1M annually, which wouldn’t apply to most people just starting out.

If you know of other feasible bilingual options on the market, I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

Questions about running a bilingual store? I (Tristan) will be happy to answer in the comments below. You can also find me at www.shopifyninjas.com.

Subscribe to Build My Online Store in your favorite podcast player, or check out the episode list of our eCommerce podcast.

  • Hi Terry,
    Thanks for having me on the blog. Hope this post is useful for some folks looking to get into multiple languages, and happy to help with any questions here in the comments.

    Cheers
    – Tristan.

    • ilakk

      Hi Opencart and woocomerce is good

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  • karenine74

    There is an other good solution. PRESTASHOP. It is a free open cart and the transition between the different languages is smooth.

    • Hi Karenine,
      Good to know – I’ll look into it. Thanks for the tip!

      • Chantal

        I just went through a setup with Prestashop. Had to translated over 3000 words myself to make it fully bilingual and the support is lacking especially if you hook up with a payment module like Desjardins. I am considering going with Shopify now. Prestashop may work if you are a programmer but I would not recommend it for someone who doesn’t have strong programming skills.

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  • I run an online store that is bilingual via zencart, but opencart which is open source looks interesting as well.

    • Hey Joy,
      Good to know. Care to share the link to your Bilingual Store on Zencart? Love to have a looky-look 🙂
      Tristan.

  • Option #5 is now available – use my Bilingual Javascript, built originally for a Shopify client of mine. It works with any two languages, works on ANY theme, is truly plug ‘n’ play – install it and start translating your product names and other text immediately.

    http://www.affiliatewebdesigners.com/product/bilingual-javascript/

    • Hi Dave,
      I saw this on the Shopify Forums the other day. Nice to see another option.

      What’s a little alarming is that this seems to work in almost exactly the same way as our Bilingual Shopify Theme pioneered 15 months ago (yours uses slashes //, ours uses pipe characters | ), except without the theme itself. I was a bit surprised at this when I first saw it. Our Theme already does this for Shopify, but it seems like a good option for Squarespace which, to my knowledge, doesn’t have any other Bilingual options right now.

      In any case, good luck with it and good to see other language options.

      Tristan.

      • Rest assured I wrote this from scratch for a client of mine – http://www.likekids.gr – she needed to handle Greek and English and this is what I coded. It’s pretty standard practice to use ‘double of something’ for special characters. I used slashes simply because before I started coding this for her, she was using a single slash to separate English/Greek on her shop (i.e. she was doing bilingual by just displaying in both languages – it looked very messy!)

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  • Jonathan Wu

    If you’re looking for a full service solution that’s both an app add on in the Shopify Marketplace, feel free to check out Localize. We specialize in client-side delivery of translations, so that your text and HTML is never altered at the source level.

    We offer integrated translation ordering and live managing. I think the other options such as the Bilingual Javascript, works well if content is static, and rarely changes

    https://apps.shopify.com/localize

  • Hi Terry, I read your post Its great tips to staring an online store quickly. Thanks for your sharing. Please keep updates. Here I have written answer on what is the best step by step strategy to start an online shop? If you want to see just go here. https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-best-step-by-step-strategy-to-start-an-online-shop/answer/Ramesh-Mariyappan

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