There was a time when international sales were the reserve of large corporations. Throughout the 20th century, only brands with global appeal, big marketing budgets and far-reaching distribution networks could realistically sell to customers across the globe.
Today, however, the situation is very different. Every business – including sole traders and startups – can now sell their products cross-border. And this is all thanks to the proliferation of various technologies, which have levelled the playing field between little and large in the world of commerce.
Technology has, in other words, democratised commerce; this has been a gradual process, but it has gathered pace over the past decade. Here I explore how different tech has empowered any business to sell to customers anywhere.
The Dotcom boom
The rise of eCommerce has opened up huge opportunities to small businesses. Electronic transactions are, of course, only available thanks to technology.
The dotcom boom in the late 90s and early 00s gave birth to eCommerce; but that is not to say that any business could easily capitalise. There were still sizeable barriers and costs associated with setting up electronic sales and global distribution networks – both things remained out of reach for smaller merchants for a number of years.
Over the past two decades, though, the complexity and price of developing a virtual store – or an online shopfront, as it is often referred – have decreased significantly. It is now relatively painless to set up your own website to promote and sell your goods to online shoppers.
Social media and digital marketing
Coupled with creating the necessary online infrastructure, vendors must also market effectively to attract potential buyers. Again, technology has helped smaller firms to compete with larger ones in this regard.
Huge marketing budgets and global advertising campaigns will still give an advantage to big companies when they are looking to get their products under the noses of prospective customers. But smaller businesses that are savvy with digital and social media marketing can still secure traction to their eCommerce platforms.
Indeed, being smaller often means being more nimble – being able to respond quickly to digital trends and trial new forms of marketing. Whether it is retargeting online browsers, paid search results, promoted social media postings or using content and SEO to grow an organic following, applying a marketing budget in the right way can still ensure visibility for your products among online shoppers across the globe.
The digital marketing and social media spaces change at such a pace – with new innovations and platforms emerging and dying away – that this in itself acts a leveller between big and small
businesses. While large enterprises might have the financial resources to throw at their marketing strategies, smaller businesses can act quicker and respond to new trends while corporates are still scratching their proverbial heads.
Even sole traders with a storeroom full of stock can realistically create an online store and attract worldwide shoppers to it. However, in the UK, many eCommerce websites will state that their goods cannot be shipped to addresses outside of the British Isles.
According to Government data, some 10% of UK SMEs export abroad, while 42% of large companies are doing so. Putting to one side the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the general trend was that these figures were on the rise; indeed, exports have generally been increasing quite steadily. For example, the Office for National Statistics reports that UK exports increased by £9.6 billion (5.4%) to £188.3 billion in the three months preceding January 2020 when compared with the preceding quarter.
It begs the question, therefore, of what is holding businesses back from exporting?
Firstly, we must obviously acknowledge that for many companies, it simply not something they can or want to do. Their offering might be too niche or too localised; they might be perfectly content with their business as it stands, with no desire to branch out into new markets.
Yet for others, they will have a product – stock currently sat in storage somewhere – that is just as desirable, necessary or beneficial for markets abroad as it is here in the UK. It would seem that in these instances there are two key perceived barriers to exporting: knowledge and cost.
In fact, in May, One World Express released a new study that was conducted independently among over 900 UK businesses. Just over half (51%) cited a lack of knowledge about international markets as a key barrier preventing their organisation from expanding outside the UK, while 43% felt the cost of doing so would be prohibitively high.
Taking the all important first step
Expanding overseas and trying to sell to customers in markets that are completely new to them is understandably daunting for a business leader. However, it is not nearly as complicated or costly as most would assume.
Logistics firms take much of the pain out of the process, and by comparing rates of different carriers, the costs quickly become very competitive. Technology holds the key. It makes engaging with carriers, assessing tariffs and controlling the supply chain far easier than it was ten, twenty or thirty years ago.
Furthermore, tracking software makes it easy for vendors of all size to monitor where their goods are on their journey to the customer. This provides them greater control and comfort as they ship products to customers on the other side of the world.
Like every business decision, expanding into overseas markets will require research, strategy and investment. That is true of growing a company in general though. As long as the appetite for global growth is there and you have the right mindset, it can be achieved more quickly and more easily than many would think.
Atul Bhakta is the CEO of One World Express. Founded in 1998, One Express is a global logistics, eCommerce and IT solutions provider. The London-based company provides fulfilment, warehousing and final-mile delivery solutions for companies large and small around the world.