Comment: Capitalising on the UK’s online retail popularity

Mobile shopping is helping fuel the UK's appeal from overseas. Picture: PayPal.
Mobile shopping is helping fuel the UK's appeal from overseas. Picture: PayPal.
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We may be a leader in attracting foreign shoppers, but digital retailers must not be complacent, says Nicola Longfield, PayPal UK’s director of small business.

Whatever your views on the UK’s economic outlook in a post-Brexit world, the future looks increasingly bright for Scottish retailers. Having worked with Ipsos on a study into international ecommerce, we’ve found that more foreign online shoppers are buying from online businesses in the UK than from anywhere else in Europe.

Of the 34,000 consumers we spoke to across 31 countries, one in seven has bought goods from the UK in the past 12 months, eclipsing the likes of Germany, France, Italy and The Netherlands – the other countries in Europe’s top five.

Leading the way when it comes to buying British is the US, where shoppers spent an estimated £12.5 billion on UK exports in the last year – more than ever before. Chinese shoppers, too, show a growing appetite for UK goods, spending approximately £5.7bn during the same period. Meanwhile, consumers in France, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Spain and Sweden all list the UK as one of their “top three countries to buy from”.

Brexit bargain-hunters

As for why, nearly three quarters of international shoppers admit it’s all about price. Our data shows the pound’s falling value since the referendum is helping make retailers’ goods in Scotland even more attractive to foreign wallets.

Meanwhile, overseas consumers’ other top motivations for cross-border buying are the chance to get hold of products not available in their own country and the opportunity to discover new things to buy. For Scottish retailers specifically, this is translating into greater demand for clothes and consumer electronics – foreign online shoppers’ favourite products to buy globally – along with toys, jewellery, watches and cosmetics.

Mobile power

It may not surprise you to hear the rise of mobile shopping is also helping power the UK’s international popularity. Indeed, while the majority of online purchases are still made via desktop or laptop, the proportion of smartphone purchases has nearly doubled since 2016. Being able to shop online when the mood or moment takes them is pushing more foreign shoppers to convert Scottish browsing into Scottish buying.

Also working in British retailers’ favour is the fact the nation’s top two export markets – the US and China – are at the forefront of this mobile revolution. Here, smartphone shopping accounted for 61 per cent and 84 per cent of international online purchases respectively in the last year.

Seize the opportunity

So, what does all this mean for the country’s online retailers?

First and foremost is the need to resist any temptation to rest on their laurels. Sure, the fact the UK is punching well above its weight when it comes to global ecommerce is to be applauded, but just like a top athlete or sports team, complacency is a recipe for being overtaken. Instead, now is the time to explore the barriers still placing a cap on sales. To build a deeper understanding of foreign consumers’ buying habits and preferences. And, above all, open the doors even more widely to international shoppers all over the world.

For example, a quarter of overseas buyers cite shipping costs as the top barrier to purchasing from foreign websites. So, when considering the question of pricing, Scottish retailers should think beyond just flash sales or discounts, and also consider how to make international delivery and returns more cost-effective for everyone involved.

Similarly, around half of online shoppers say they feel uncomfortable buying from a website in a different language or foreign currency. Ensuring a translated version of their online store for key markets while offering a range of currency options can thus help retailers of all shapes, sizes and sectors unlock more sales.

And, last but not least, is security and data-protection – something very much at the top of the public agenda. Globally, 44 per cent of international shoppers want a “secure way to pay”, which means it’s vital to reassure visitors that the only thing they will be parting with at checkout is the money required to pay for what they’re buying.

As the UK’s Department for International Trade recently told me: “PayPal’s global study is great news for Britain – a clear sign of the strong demand for our goods and the success that UK retailers are already having online.”

From Austria to Australia, Belgium to Brazil, the nation’s online retailers have taken more steps along that journey than most. Now, with 42 per cent of global online shoppers saying their spending is likely to increase over the next year, it’s time to quicken the pace.