International Trade

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Why eBay knows more about export than the UKTI

7 Mins

Chris Webster loves his job. You can tell by the excitement in his voice. And eBay’s director of EU cross-border trade carries the key to unlocking Britain’s growth-boosting export potential.

“Most sellers on eBay export – many of them by accident,” says Webster. Some 20 per cent of ebay’s business is cross-border. The renowned marketplace has 110 million buyers around the world to show for, spread across almost every country. With 14 cited markets, its scale is enormous. From this kind of experience, and the data extracted from it, ebay draws huge information about what buyers in any market really want.

“We don’t compete with our retailers or sellers. We ask, ‘how can we help you understand which markets you should be in’?” Webster explains. “All the support you need for shipping and payments is in place.”

Advice is the big void for businesses with the appetite to export, but that hesitate to go through with it. In a survey conducted earlier this year, most sellers said they preferred to go to friends and colleagues for advice on growing their business internationally, before turning to the UKTI or other trade bodies.

Export is a daunting subject for a growing business. The first instinct is to find practical, hands-on experience and personal tips from a trustworthy adviser. Government bodies don’t always have that reputation. So what can eBay, a global business not necessary associated with the challenges facing mid-sized companies, offer?

“People prefer a platform such as ours because it’s so simply laid out, and everyone knows it,” says Webster. “Those sellers have the energy and the idea, they just need that little bit of support to make it happen.”

The support eBay offers is not just advice, but also a network of hundreds of millions of buyers around the world. A mid-sized shoe retailer jumped on the eBay bandwagon earlier this year, after the UK had become too small for their ambitions.

“They asked us what their European opportunity might be, so we initially helped them to improve their visibility on the [eBay] UK site, then provided them with shipping options that enabled them to sell anywhere in Europe.” Sales picked up, and ebay worked on listing the products directly on the French and German markets, followed by a marketing campaign. Sales jumped by some 60 per cent.

A West London media seller, on the other hand, came to eBay to understand the differences in regulations in other markets – an area usually reserved for trade bodies, such as the UKTI. In this case, their revenues increased by an impressive 200 per cent over a space of six months. They’re now one of ebay’s multi-million pound businesses.

eBay is seeing its cross-border numbers rise and rise. The numbers conflict with much of the news we hear about the UK’s export under-performance – and shed light on what it takes for an SME to take the international step. The two barriers facing export-hungry businesses are the very two barriers an online platform such as ebay takes down: lack of advice, lack of funding.

Welcome the new international commerce

By leveraging the platform eBay has built over the past decade, the online giant can fund growth quickly and cheaply. Chris Webster: “one of the big shifts we’ve seen over the last 15, 20 years is that this idea that cross-border is something that’s done by big corporates, or governments, has faded. It’s no longer cross-border trade; it’s international commerce, and it’s done by you and me.”

Smaller businesses have realised they can engage in international commerce and, with the eurozone in crisis, recognise it as a necessity. eBay is being smart: they’re pushing it, heavily. Last month the platform announced new translation services and free international listings.

In the next few years, ebay will be increasingly merge the high street with online, mobile, and interactive TV. The interplay between mobile, traditional high street and online will become increasingly important in simplifying international trade.

“The hight street will continue to play a big part in the social structure of the country. We are looking to work with some of our retail partners to leverage the ebay platform to drive their sales back into their physical form. Online, offline, mobile – it will never be just one or the other, it’s about how all those parts of the jigsaw create a great brand experience.”

Who holds the key to unlock our export potential? It’s platforms that already hold the scale and knowledge to reach all the markets UK businesses want to reach. Business leaders who know where to find that support will make it happen.

Chris Webster’s export advice:

  1. Always make sure you have the appropriate shipping and payment options set up. A lot of people start going international by buyers from around the world coming to the UK and finding their items. So make sure that if the buyers arrive, you’ll be able to sell;
  2. Understand the customer in each market, but also the different market dynamics: are returns the same or higher in the respective market? Do you need to take different buying habits into account? and
  3. Be aware of the legal and regulation frameworks. Different markets have different rules. Make sure you understand them before you start working on more complicated areas, such as tax compliance.

Who would you go to for export advice? If you have an export success story to show for, you should nominate yourself for the Growing Business Awards, as Export Champion of the Year. 

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