How British businesses can make the US a gravy train, not a graveyard

It has been a question asked in the music world ever since The Beatles took the US by storm in the early 1960s.

Okay – you’ve had a few number one singles and albums in the UK but can you crack the US? That is the sign of true success packing out the big stadiums of Philadelphia or LA.

Many have tried and flourished – Bowie and Coldplay are two such examples but others have perished – Stone Roses, Blur, Robbie Williams.

It has been a similar tale for British business.

You’ve had success in home territory, a household name loved by millions but then you start to think of the US. A similar consumer culture you think. An appreciation also of the British way of life – James Bond, stiff upper lips, Jaguar cars and the Queen.

Also there is the money. All those major cities and their downtown blocks glistening and shimmering in the sun. If only we could get a few stores over there it would transform our business.

But it has been a huge struggle for some major corporate names. Marks & Spencer was so bruised by its attempts to develop its business in the US that it severely curtailed its overseas operations for years.

WH Smith’s US travel retail business was also battered particularly after the September 11 attacks in 2001.

More recently Tesco tried its Fresh & Easy format but it also failed to capture the imagination of the US public.

There have been successes such as Topshop, Ted Baker and Pret a Manger. These companies have captured Americans’ imaginations and wallets.

Read more on British businesses targeting the US:

Primark, Irish but still UK-listed, is the latest company aiming to crack America with the opening of its first store in Boston.

How will it fare?

First signs were slightly worrying. The company put up crush barriers outside the store but it didn’t need them. Apparently there were only 11 people queuing 90 minutes before opening.

But from such small acorns something big can grow.

Primark needs to follow the actions of Philip Green and the Baker boys if it wants to succeed.

The first step surely is to do your research and open in the most appropriate site. Primark has picked well in Boston. It has Irish heritage and is very much as close to an English type city as you are going to get Stateside.

It has come in without too much fanfare – there are no bombastic predictions of growing to 200 stores and travelling from east to west coast.

That kind of talk doesn’t sit well with Americans despite people telling you that they like confidence and ambition.

They have to be open and willingly take on customer feedback from their American customers. What do they like, what do they not like? Which styles are most popular there, is it harder to attract middle class shoppers to a discount store in the US than in the UK?

How often do they make a trip to the shops? Do they browse and buy – do they expect online and digital technology to be in store?

Tesco perhaps opened up too many Fresh & Easy stores – 199 at the last count and every one of them looking fairly similar to the other. That didn’t take into account that US cities are vastly different – New York and Kansas City say may as well be on different continents.

One style will not suit all.

Also it brought in devices Americans were not used to such as self-checkouts and people offering to bag goods for you. One trick is to adapt to local culture before you try anything truly innovative – you can’t make them adapt to you.

There is so much more competition in the US than in the UK and disaffected shoppers will soon go back to their old shop or service.

So what are the keys – location, understand the consumer, unaggressive marketing and being able to adapt to their tastes and demands.

Don’t treat the US as one country – you’re unlikely to crack it all. Be smart and you can succeed there. Remember money can’t buy you love.

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