How big a priority should cross-border expansion be for retailers?

By Ben Sillitoe

I recently got my hands on a pretty substantial report looking at the benefits and challenges related to expanding ecommerce operations internationally – and it acts as a strong manifesto for international expansion and cross-border trade.

The Visa Global Merchant eCommerce Study, published in January, suggests 87% of business leaders view foreign online sales as one of their top growth opportunities. Two in three of those that do not currently sell cross-border plan to do so in the near future.

Visa questioned 1,000 leaders from ten different countries, including China, the UK, and the US, and found, on average, those already trading across borders generate 31% of their revenue from outside their home nation.

However, the Visa research cautions that no two retailers, regions, or consumers are the same, making it absolutely critical merchants understand the landscape of the new territories they plan to set their sights on next.

Indeed, Joanna Bedward, ecommerce product manager at global payments provider Elavon Europe, notes: “UK retailers should take advantage of the European market – with many countries growing more strongly than the UK. But it’s important to research which market, as there are many differences in how consumers want to pay.” 

“The UK shopper is generally happy with cards and e-wallets, but across Europe there are many different popular local payment methods, including local card schemes, bank transfers and e-wallets.”

The question retailers should probably be asking themselves, then, is not whether to prioritise cross-border expansion; instead, it’s perhaps a case of understanding which borders to prioritise based on their respective propositions.

Below are a few tips for UK retailers from Elavon Europe’s fellow IMRG members.

Strategic planning

The considerable sales already coming from cross-border trade, cited by Visa, and the fact lots of businesses are doing it or planning to do it, suggests it should be a priority for retailers. But that shouldn’t necessitate a gung-ho approach.

Joe Farrell, vice president of international operations at PFS, a fulfilment services provider, certainly advises retailers not to rush into anything.

“Through short-term leases and modern equipment, fulfilment via pop-up distribution centres allows brands to provide customers fast, in-region order fulfilment at a fraction of the cost and time required to set up permanent operations,” he says.

“Brands can then determine if regional demand warrants more permanent operations, or continue utilising pop-up solutions during peak demand periods.”

Bobbie Ttooulis, group marketing director at GFS, a delivery technology company, says Brexit should prompt retailers to put global growth high up the agenda.

“With the UK having now left the European Union, cross-border expansion absolutely should be a priority for retailers,” she notes, adding that remaining domestic “would be a misstep for retailers”.

“In order to remain competitive, at times of upheaval, brands need to evaluate how they can tap into new markets to expand their revenue streams,” Ttooulis says, recommending fast-growth markets such as India, China and Latin America.

market growth

Global growth strategy cannot be considered without reference to Brexit – it is an issue that has dominated business chat over the last three years. Indeed, the Visa research says the uncertainty in Europe is a concern for 64% of UK leaders.

Brexit has had another impact, though. The relative strength of the euro has caused the UK retail market to capture the attention of European shoppers.

Worldwide, more than 715 million consumers made a cross-border purchase in 2018, spending $676 billion in the process. These figures are slated to rise to 943 million cross-border consumers spending $994 billion this year, according to figures published in a recent eBook by Akeneo, an open source product information management company.

What a massive market for UK retailers to tap into. Brendan Murray, content marketing manager at Akeneo, argues: “A strong euro isn’t the only reason for expansion – the recent increase in international commerce has provided additional incentives for those selling across borders.

“However, some sellers remain hesitant to expand internationally despite these incentives, in large part because of the burden that comes hand-in-hand with expansion.”

Whether it is relisting products per country, additional marketing costs, delivery infrastructure, or other administrative elements, there’s lots that might put retailers off making cross-border expansion a priority.

Patrick Frith, cross border business development director at Avalara, a software company helping retailers with tax compliance issues, encourages retailers to “cash in” on the opportunities of international growth, but agrees there’s a lot to consider.

“To make cross-border ecommerce a successful initiative for your business (i.e., profitable), you need to be prepared to deal with the complexity of processing transactions, including shipping, for international customers,” he comments.

“By having the right partners, systems and technologies in place from the start, you give your business the best chance of success.”

Complex Planning

The Delivery Conference

Many of these potential partners, systems and technologies were on show at The Delivery Conference (TDC), an event hosted by delivery management software company MetaPack, on 4 February.

IMRG was a partner for the annual event, which gathered the industry together in London once again – including this editor – and brought to attention the key issues facing retailers distributing products in the UK, internationally, or both.

Representatives from Transport for London, Yodel, P2P – a FedEx company, An Post, Loqate and Amazon Shipping were in the spotlight, on stage.

Dave Dowman, head of fulfilment at P2P, used his presentation to underline the importance of being close to customers and, emphasised how third-party fulfilment partners can help extend a retailer’s global reach.

He said: “The successful players in the fulfilment sector have grown and adapted in harmony with retailers, offering new fluid channel integrations, economical and scalable warehousing options, [and] enablement opportunities – with fulfilment facilities worldwide – to bring brands closer to their customers.”

Summary

The presence of Dave Ashwell, managing director of electricals retailer AO’s logistics division, at TDC served as both inspiration and a warning to retailers considering cross-border expansion. The UK-based business is doing so many things right, as it develops its proposition in the UK, but growing losses in Europe in 2019 prompted the company to exit The Netherlands and focus its global operations solely on Germany, for now. 

AO launched its Dutch service based on the infrastructure of its German business in 2016, but pulled the project three years in, underlining the challenges of international growth.

Visa comprehensive research’s is encouraging in its outlook for cross-border expansion activity over the coming years, but clearly success will only come to those who prepare and prioritise accordingly.

By Ben Sillitoe

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