There are many benefits to exporting, increasing profitability through expansion, avoiding seasonality issues and stimulating fresh demand, but obviously when you decide to do business overseas you can face a degree of risk. And is your business one that will benefit from exporting its product anyway? We look at the key considerations of exporting, and how you can minimise the risks.
An increasing number of companies are beginning to export, often because of the increasing globalisation of markets, or new opportunities that the Internet has opened up. But there are other reasons why, as a business, you may want to consider exporting your goods and services:
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- To increase your revenue and profitability by expanding your business.
- To shield you from fluctuations in your domestic market. A downturn in one country’s or even continent's economy isn’t always repeated worldwide. And the more dispersed your customer base is, the better.
- To smooth out your annual workflow. Businesses that focus in one product area may experience seasonality in sales. But this effect can be lessened by widening your market. For example, selling your summer-friendly products in hotter climates during the winter season at home.
- To stimulate fresh demand for your product. A product with moderate sales in the UK may prove to be a great success elsewhere.
Is my business right to export?
To start to answer that question, you should begin by looking at two areas. The first deals with factors specific to your own company and its current circumstances; the second looks at more general factors relating to your industry’s position in the international marketplace.
Ask yourself some questions about your business:
- Are UK sales increasing and profitable? Most companies that start exporting successfully are already doing well at home.
- Do you have the necessary financial reserves to develop your export market potential?
- Are you already receiving a high number of overseas enquiries about your product? This can suggest potential demand.
- Are your production capacity and human resources able to meet the increase in demand that international trading may bring?
- Does your product meet the required overseas regulations and standards? If not, your capital outlay will have to be reviewed.
Ask yourself the following questions about your industry:
- Is your product already being exported by other UK companies?
- Do any of your trade association reports recommend exporting?
- Are similar products to yours being imported from overseas for sale in the UK?
Building on your research, the next thing your company will need is an effective export strategy that complements your overall business plan, particularly if you are seeking outside finance to support your expansion. A commitment to exporting must be evident throughout your company and your vision should have a truly international perspective.
Ultimately, only you can make the final decision about your suitability or readiness for exporting, but there is plenty of guidance available to help you reach that decision. UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) have a self-diagnostic exercise to help you to identify your suitability.Back to top
Selecting the right market
With global markets becoming ever more accessible, the skill lies in identifying which opportunities offer the best chance of success. Market research will be key to identifying the best foreign markets for your business.
To help you analyse the main differences between markets, we’ve included some questions dealing with the key issues. They can be summarised under the following headings:
- What is the makeup of the population?
- Is it growing or shrinking?
- What is the state of economic development?
- Is foreign investment incentivised or are imports restricted?
- What is the balance between free enterprise and public planning?
Political and social factors
- What is the political system of the country?
- How stable is it?
- What are the other strong influences (e.g. military, religious)?
- How does the government view free trade?
- What are its monetary and credit policies?
- What is the administrative set-up (e.g. efficient or bureaucratic)?
- Do they have strong trade unions?
- Is bribery or corruption widespread?
- What are the main cultural influences (e.g. religious, tribal)?
- How does the local population split their expenditure between food, housing, leisure, etc.?
- What trends are there in current spending patterns – is more money being spent on leisure activities, for example?
- What trading pattern is there?
- What distribution methods are used?
- How are these changing?
- What legislation will affect your manufacture or trading (e.g. trading methods, company structure, and performance)?
- Are advertising and promotions restricted?
See the Useful links section at the end of this guide for how to source this key information.
Many exporters start by identifying and targeting a small number of key markets. Look for nearby markets with low entry barriers.
Trade exhibitions are a good place to meet potential representatives of an area, and discuss a market's merits with other exporters. In addition, market visits are an excellent way to personally experience the local cultural environment and help you understand how to conduct business in a particular area. Back to top
How do I start exporting overseas?
There are four main ways that you can get into a market:
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- From your UK base
This is usually most suitable where:
- each customer's requirements are different and a high degree of custom-building is needed;
- only a small number of orders, usually at a high value, are expected;
- customers are very thinly spread throughout many different countries.
- With overseas agents/distributors
Using a retail or distribution specialist in your product or service area has a number of advantages, not least that they take on a good deal of the overseas legwork. Taking this approach, it’s important to draw up pre-agreed contracts, which clearly define the division of responsibilities and the channels of communication between you. It’s common for the success of a distributor to be in direct proportion to their commitment to their particular product. Be aware of your agent or distributor’s other commitments and spend a good deal of time making sure they understand and appreciate the specific benefits of your product or service.
- Using an overseas sales base
This requires a significant commitment to one country or area. It often happens when, for a specific reason, sales are very high in that country or area.
- License Agreements
In this situation, a local business produces and sells your product under licence, and on your behalf. It’s often used when there appears to be no other way of making profitable returns from an area. For instance, many developing countries insist on the highest possible level of local manufacture as this represents the best long-term commitment to the region.
Research and planning
We’ve mentioned it already, but the importance of doing advance planning and research before implementing your export strategy can’t be stressed too much.
Research needn’t be expensive, or all originated by you. Plenty of data is available publicly. Governments and international trade bodies, for example, publish reports that could answer many of your questions. A word of caution though - check the report’s date. Find out how many people were interviewed for the research and who they are. Also, try to establish the original purpose of the research. This may be free information, but it needs to be relevant, recent, accurate and objective to be of use to you.
When you find that you need to conduct some research of your own, be very clear about what information you want from it. Try to achieve too much and the costs will soon mount up.
Among other things, your research must:
- assess current market potential for the sale of your products or services in your chosen export markets;
- help you identify and target a small number of key markets;
- reveal the level of competition in your export markets and tell you how you need to modify your products or services for export;
- flag up any barriers to entry in your chosen markets (e.g. import restrictions, national standards).
Successful planning will help to ensure that adequate resources are always available to your business at the right time, to develop your export markets. Your business plan will be critical for gaining any additional funding required for export-led growth. Your export plan should be constantly reassessed and refined, so that your business is always ready to respond to, and take advantage of, new opportunities.Back to top
Your product must comply with all the relevant regulations and standards that apply to the countries you are exporting to. You might choose to introduce changes yourself – cheaper materials for different marketplaces. Remember that product modifications will affect your production processes, and your budget.
Exporting may lead to changes in the way you manufacture and supply your product. When transferring manufacturing overseas or granting an overseas licence that includes production, you’ll need to keep a close eye on maintaining standards. Always ensure that your designer's specifications are strictly adhered to.
If you are exporting to countries with different languages, your product packaging, advertising, literature and point-of-sale material will all need to be re-designed. You could also need to review your marketing materials for cultural differences, even in other English-speaking countries. For example, if your advertising relies on a very British sense of humour, the American market may not always respond to it in the same way. Back to top
A key risk for you, as an exporter, is that a customer will fail to pay promptly (or at all). It is vital you protect yourself against this.
Here are some of the measures you can take:
Insure yourself against non-payment
You can insure against non-payment of export invoices with a specialist provider, or by arranging for your bank to take over the risk. For example, discounting your export sales ledger.
Try to negotiate payment up front
If you have the slightest concern over your potential customers' ability to pay. If it’s a big project you are working on, ask for stage payments.
Ask for a Letter of Credit from the customer's bank
This effectively means their bank guarantees the payment. Be aware, however, that over 50 per cent of letters of credit are turned down, when first presented to a UK bank, usually because of failures in the documentation.
Consult the British Chambers Of Commerce
If you require further reassurance on a customer's financial security, they can help trace companies in the UK and worldwide. They can also conduct press searches on companies or personalities, for a small fee, and can provide credit ratings or in-depth financial accounts for a UK or international company.
Ask your suppliers for extended terms
While you are developing demand from overseas and establishing a trading pattern.
Familiarise yourself with international settlement terms
These vary greatly from country to country: 30-60 days is typical in Germany and Norway, 90-120 days in Greece and Turkey, and 120-150 days in Uzbekistan.
Take advice about what is normal for the markets you move into
Generally, Western Europe operates on an open account basis, whereas Eastern Europe tends to use letters of credit. As far as possible, protect yourself in any pre-agreed partnership contracts.
Investigate the UK Export Finance Schemes
These were introduced in 2011 to provide additional support for exporters. You can find out more at UK Export Finance. If you are in any doubt, you should seek professional guidance to help you manage your credit. The British Chambers of Commerce can point you in the right direction.Back to top
Exchange rate risk
The profitability of your export orders can be affected by fluctuations in currency exchange rates. There are a number of ways you can protect yourself against this:
- Match income received in a particular currency to your expenditure in that currency, to offset any adverse financial implications.
- Another rising trend among UK exporters is borrowing money in the currency of the country of export - this is particularly effective in the Eurozone (the 12 countries participating in the euro) which has low interest rates. Such borrowing is repaid on receipt of the foreign currency sale proceeds.
The British Chambers of Commerce can advise you as to where to get help with managing your exporting finances.Back to top
Mastering international trade procedures will be key to maintaining a successful export operation. You may need to invest in both specialist training and computer software, to aid your management of international trading (and payment) processes. Exactly what you are exporting and where it is going will determine the kind of procedures you need to have in place, but these will normally include:
Chambers of Commerce offer advice and training courses on paperwork for the movement of goods. Certificates of origin are often required to meet customs and quota requirements in the importing country. The Chambers of Commerce are the designated authority for the issue of EU certificates of origin. The service is open to all businesses in the UK, at a reasonable cost, and there are beneficial rates for Chamber members.
Organising the physical movement of your goods will play a key role in your export operations. First-time exporters can discuss their plans with their local Chambers, to ensure the mode of transport and packing is best suited to your product, and to check that you haven't missed anything. A forwarding agent can also give you help with the packing and shipping of your goods. Finally, although there is no legal obligation to do so, it is generally advisable to get your goods insured. Marine insurance is the general term used to describe cover against damage to goods and loss while in transit. Policies will also cover road, rail and air freight.
The export of certain types of goods and technology is administered by governments, primarily to control the transfer of arms. This includes many items designed for civil use but termed 'dual-use', because they could be used for military purposes. These include:
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- machine tools
- electronic equipment
- telecommunication equipment
- related components and spare parts.
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