Small beginnings, big dreams: How SMEs can take their e-commerce offer cross-border and supercharge growth

Chilly’s Bottles are going places, quite literally. Today the beautifully-designed reusable water bottles are being shipped to 32 countries[1] outside the UK, to the delight of online shoppers in Sweden, Hungary, Portugal, Hong Kong, Qatar and many more destinations.

The British company is on a mission to ‘accelerate the everyday use of reusable products’, with ambitious plans to expand its eco-product range, and widen its geographic reach, so that more and more people around the world become fans. Many SMEs would love to emulate this kind of international growth via e-commerce, but how easy is it to crack completely new markets, in terms of physically getting goods there? And where are the best places to head?

Shipping overseas as a growth strategy

When expanding e-commerce beyond the domestic market, most UK-based companies tend to focus first on neighbouring EU countries and the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia – close proximity and English-speaking countries. These are relatively ‘easy to do’ markets, even if Brexit red tape and geographical distance, (and therefore costs) are currently posing challenges.

But it’s important not to overlook opportunities in less obvious places such as India, Israel, and, increasingly, Southeast Asia. These all need careful research and planning by retailers and brands, because of language, customs, cultural and location challenges. It’s vital to find logistics partners who are well-versed in shipping into destinations that are quite simply ‘harder to do’, but that will give you a great return once established. If your partner operates a network model, whereby there are already commercial relationships in place with air freight operators, postal services and last mile couriers around the world, so much the better.

For instance, Chilly’s began shipping to European countries first and added farther-flung destinations over time. Asendia runs their European fulfilment service via our Bedford facility, including the pick and pack operation, and distribution for overseas orders. As with all fast-growing SMEs, Chilly’s needed flexible storage, and full scalability, so that they never missed a sales opportunity as new countries came on stream. And because Asendia has a global network for shipping, and fulfilment centres in Asia and the USA, Chilly’s were able to build these markets.

Key delivery considerations for SMEs

A common mistake for e-commerce SMEs is to rush into sending all orders out ‘express’ to ensure customers are happy, but there’s a risk of losing margin doing this. It’s better to only offer a basic delivery for overseas shipments – receipt in five working days, for example – which is cost-effective. Then as soon as volumes are high enough, shipping partners can be negotiated with for a good rate. SMEs planning international e-commerce logistics should take returns into account too, checking that couriers have adequate systems in place to manage that vital service, factoring in international borders.

Post-Brexit, sending parcels overseas and managing returns is far more complex, but it’s necessary if you’re serious about growth. Retailers need to have the right commodity codes, and understand duty and VAT rates[2]. If the chosen logistics partner doesn’t manage this well, it can lead to parcels being stuck in customs for weeks, and facing possible customs fines because the paperwork is wrong.

A good distribution partner will be able to recommend where in the world your products would sell well. For instance, at Asendia our data makes it very clear that France is a hot spot for fast fashion, while shoppers in Israel love British childrenswear brands. If you can ship to countries where there is a niche market for your product, sales can really take off rapidly.

Flexibility wins sales

The ongoing global shortage of shipping containers and air freight flights has led to painfully high delivery costs and long wait times. One work-around is to find warehouses nearer to your overseas customers, and stocking them ahead of time, so shoppers can get their orders in just a few days.

E-commerce shipping and fulfilment specialists see a bright future as enablers of retailers’ cross-border plans and are investing in international fulfilment hubs, similar to those operated by the likes of Asos, Amazon and Alibaba. Shipping specialists understand international shipping lanes, can advise on the quickest, or safest cross-border routes, and have access to highly sought-after warehouse space and specialist fulfilment services. Proactive shipping companies will also find alternative routes and new ways of reaching customers when unexpected problems arise along traditional supply chains – often at very short notice.

For fledgling retailers with big dreams, it will pay to work with logistics partners who can fully support their plans to scale up cross-border operations in the most cost-effective, and flexible ways, and let sales fly.

[1] https://chillysbottles.zendesk.com/hc/en-us/articles/206908929-Do-you-ship-Chilly-s-Bottles-outside-of-the-UK-

[2] https://www.asendia.co.uk/asendia-insights/new-vat-rules-for-eu-ecommerce

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