New Zealand’s hopes of emulating the success of US online retailer may have been grounded when Flying Pig crashed last year but the internet is proving a goldmine for exporters targeting expats.

Several websites specialise in supplying homesick Kiwis anything from pineapple lump confectionery to Buzzy Bee toys.

Overseas-based New Zealanders also use the internet to buy gifts for relatives and friends in their home country.

Auckland-based businessman Regan Welcich, owner of the website, has been targeting the expatriate market for three years.

Welcich started by offering services such as electronic postcards and a New Zealand-operated alter-native to the Hotmail web-based email service but recently established an online shop selling local “icon” products.

These include native bird soft toys, local foods and sweets and giftware containing native timbers.

According to Welcich, a homesick Kiwi stranded in London thinks nothing of going online to order a bottle of Wattie’s tomato sauce. Shipping costs are not a concern, he says, because the exchange rates are in the customer’s favour.

“When you compare the New Zealand dollar to the pound or the US dollar, it blows the shipping costs out of the water. There are Kiwiana shops in Britain but they have all sorts of import costs, so it ends up more expensive to buy the same items overseas.”

As Welcich came from a computing background, he found it relatively easy to set up his website.

“The biggest hurdle was shopping around for the right way to do it rather than actually doing it,” he says. “There are lots of different ways to tackle the payment problem, for example.”

Welcich eventually settled on credit card payment only.

“When we get the order, the payment has already been processed. There’s no catch-up time, there are no cheques in the mail and we don’t have to worry about converting foreign currencies at our end.

“As soon as an order is paid for, that’s the amount we have got.”
The biggest expatriate market by country is Britain by far but also attracts orders from customers in the US, Denmark, Ireland and Korea.

Brent Connolly, who runs the NZ Gifts Mall website from Wellington, is also active in the expatriate market.

Connolly maintains the website and processes orders on behalf of a range of suppliers in return for a commission, usually 10%-15%.

Part of the secret to success on the web is getting a good position on search engines, he says.

“If you can’t be found, it doesn’t really matter what you are doing. Awareness is a big issue on the net because it is such a vast place.”

That’s a problem faced by many exporters using the web.

A survey by internet consultancy First Rate found 56% of the websites of NZ’s top 100 exporters could not be found by their name.

According to First Rate, the answer is to put a lot of thought into submissions seeking coverage by particular search engines. For example, care is needed in the choice of key words that will describe the content of your site.

Connolly says the number of visitors to his site doubled after he improved its position on the site.

“We used to get in the vicinity of 500 visits per week and now I am getting up to 1,000 a week. You are looking at 1%-2% who end up buying – but it can be higher.”

The NZ Gift Mall’s best-selling items overseas include bee pollen, royal jelly, tiki and other greenstone items.

The bulk of expatriate orders are gifts to relatives and friends in New Zealand, says Connolly.

Paula Garratt runs the website for Wellington gift shop Beautiful Baskets, which delivers gift baskets within New Zealand only. When the website opened two years ago, most orders were from overseas.

The busiest times are the traditional gift-buying occasions such Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day and, of course, Christmas.

“The website pays for itself threefold at that time of the year,” says Garratt.

Though the shop deals with buyers at the other end of the world, Garratt says so far there has been only one payment problem – when a customer’s credit card was declined.

“She eventually paid. It just took a little bit longer to get it. People seem to honest, especially if they are Kiwis.”

Garratt says the time difference between New Zealand and the Northern hemisphere is a much bigger problem.

“People in the UK are ordering in the night time when I am asleep. When I get the order the next day, I often find the customer wants it to be delivered that day.

“We do have a notice telling them to allow 48 hours for delivery but obviously people don’t read that.”