The RedEye Guide to International Retail: What Can We Learn From It?

    Elizabeth Chesters | UX Consultant

    The Western world dominates online experiences. Almost everything we see is on trend for the West, like our preference for flat design and the way we cater for mobile first. To uncover resources in other languages takes a lot of time and effort, for example when searching for a cultural clothing item like a Kaftan, a long dress worn in the Near East, Google prioritises results from Western clothing retailers, like River Island, New Look and White Stuff.

    The way we communicate in terms of language, devices and traditions is constantly changing. Different markets each present their own challenges and solutions to problems that we also face. This guide focuses on three different markets, allowing us to discover the design trends from across the globe and how solutions in other markets could potentially help us all.


    While the West aims for a one-size-fits-all approach to devices, China already appreciates that each platform is different. Statistics show that mobile users have now surpassed desktop users in China and therefore they treat the mobile experience as completely separate. In fact, companies are now deciding to skip the desktop experience altogether and going mobile only.

    In China this has led to a new genre of websites called qing ying yong (light apps). Designed for ‘grasshopper minds’, they offer a single page with a focus on one goal and their captchas are gesture based, relying on users swiping the screen. On desktop we also see a preference for using SMS to verify and create accounts, in a similar manner to how the West uses email for two-factor authentication.

    Swipe gesture for security on desktop site

    Chinese design has a ‘cute’ style, with sites targeting both adults and children through the use of animations to draw the attention in. Components are also more likely to move, compared with Western websites: for example, the website has animations across the navigation to let you know what’s hot and what’s new in the shape of comment boxes that bob up and down.

    Another retail site,, uses icons floating over the navigation element and within the shopping basket icon to draw attention. 

    Even simple icons have adapted to this ‘cute’ style. The Chinese ‘happy shopping bag’ can be found across the majority of retail sites, from music and gadgets to clothes.

    As users are constantly connected via mobile, QR codes took off in Asia in a way they failed to do so in the West. QR codes were introduced to China just as mobile user numbers rocketed. Desktop websites also directly promote their mobile app using QR codes by offering coupons to incentivise the download. WeChat, a Chinese messaging service, heavily promotes QR codes and has 639 million users accessing via mobile so it’s no surprise that QR codes can be found everywhere in China.

    Middle East

    In the Middle East websites offer more of a browsing experience, with the aim of inspiring consumers. In Egypt, where postcodes don’t exist and having a letterbox is rare, offering postal services is heavily discouraged. This means online shopping is not that popular in retail and communications via post don’t exist. Instead retailers offer immersive browsing and a prominent store locator function. The Lookbook on many Egyptian websites is focused on inspiring customers rather than pushing them into a purchasing journey. Product images usually fill the screen and are more in line with what we would expect to find in a magazine. Even for the rare websites that have an online shop, the experience is still centred on their seasonal collections and lookbooks. Lookbook Men's Lookbook

    The Lookbook approach is also popular further East for Emirati websites. The United Arab Emirates is another country which doesn’t have a postcode equivalent system, instead it’s common for people to use PO boxes.

    Recent Emirati shopping trends have seen retail move away from buying as the focus. Shopping centres now offer a whole range of experiences. Malls in Dubai not only offer over 600 retailers, but tend to offer indoor skiing, snorkelling, ice rinks and more. This trend continues on their websites, where entertainment is just as much of a priority as finding shops and restaurants.


    In the West there is a clear divide between the iPhone and Android markets when it comes to apps. The Apple app market may have an advantage in exclusivity and paid for apps over Android, but users are still concerned with cluttering their phones with apps. In both the West and India, we see the same reluctance to download apps.

    India’s communication preferences are similar to China's with mobile dominating. SMS is the preferred method of contact over email. In India some people don’t own any other internet connected devices. While light apps haven’t made their way to India yet, businesses are already choosing to skip desktop and build mobile only, or at least first.

    Another trend across many retail sites is the increased range of payment methods. Instead of forcing users to pay straight away, retailers like Myntra, Chumbak and TrendIn offer cash on delivery. While the West has PayPal and Apple Pay, India have their own versions like PayUMoney and PayTm Wallet.

    Chumbak payment options

    Myntra payment screen with six options

    The checkout breadcrumb progress on these sites also suggests a simpler journey. Both TrendIn and Myntra have a three step checkout. Compared to Amazon’s seven step checkout. Indian websites are cleaner, quicker and more straightforward, demonstrating just how quick, flexible and simple checkout journeys can be.

    TrendIn checkout screen and breadcrumb journey

    Amazon checkout breadcrumb journey

    What do these trends mean to you and your business?

    Despite the differences in our use of technology, the underlying problems that face these markets are often ones the West also face.

    Shopping online can be a long process when you don’t know what you are looking for. Perhaps this could be addressed by copying the approach of Middle Eastern retailers by offering a more inspiring experience, showing full outfit ideas rather than each item individually?

    The West has also noticed an increase in mobile users. Even without signal, people on London’s Tubes are tapping away on apps. In the two Asian markets we saw the separation of concerns with their customer’s experiences, skipping desktop altogether with a new genre of mobile web apps. Perhaps London’s commuters would benefit from the same focus on apps, specifically ones that have useful functionality when there is no signal?

    China’s ‘cute’ style also hasn’t gone unnoticed. The English retail site White Stuff, has both a great example of Western use of gifs, and its own take on the ‘happy shopping bag’ icon.

    Different cultures offer us different solutions that clearly work and have been tried and tested over time. It allows us to not only learn about the different issues they’re facing, but also discover new solutions. Breaking out of our online bubble encourages us to keep an open mind and hopefully keep us ahead of the game.