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June 27, 2023

How e-commerce exports can be the catalyst for UK SME growth worth billions

An export bonanza awaits small businesses willing to harness digital sales platforms, argues the Institute of Export & International Trade’s Marco Forgione.

By Marco Forgione

In the UK, e-commerce is big business. In fact, the British market for digital products and services is the fourth largest in the world, behind only China, the US and Japan. It’s also a huge potential growth market for British business abroad. A recent report from the Social Market Foundation concluded that an additional 70,000 small businesses in this country could be exporting to the rest of the world if they improved their e-commerce capabilities – a potential boost in output of £9.3bn for the UK economy. 

It also found that among retail businesses selling overseas through a website, e-commerce exports generate £100,000 a year in annual revenues on average. Among firms with ten or more employees, the average is about £950,000. How, then, should British SMEs best harness their e-commerce potential? There’s no simple answer. Multiple approaches are needed from the public and private sectors to kick-start the Great British e-commerce export boom – and the Institute of Export & International Trade (IOE&IT) stands ready to assist in the transition. 

Kemi Badenoch addressing the opening event for the E-Commerce Trade Commission.
UK Secretary of State for Business Kemi Badenoch addressing the opening event for the E-Commerce Trade Commission. (Photo courtesy of The Institute of Export & International Trade)

E-Commerce Trade Commission

It’s with this goal in mind that we recently launched the E-Commerce Trade Commission. Running with a two-year mandate and led by industry experts, its aim is simple: to help UK small businesses – which form the backbone of the British economy – to take advantage of e-commerce trade opportunities.

The commission brings together some of the world’s largest e-commerce platforms, with board members including Amazon, Alibaba, eBay, Google and Shopify. Its membership also includes the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales and the Association of International Courier & Express Services. There are also permanent representatives from the Department for Business and Trade (DBT), so policy ideas can be fed straight into the heart of government.

As the commission’s first chairman, I see this as a unique opportunity to promote and implement positive changes that truly support small British businesses. Buying goods online has fast become the norm for consumers, and UK businesses have the opportunity to take advantage of new trade agreements being signed by the government which have specific provisions relating to e-commerce.

The commission officially launched with an inaugural board meeting at County Hall, London earlier this month, with the Secretary of State for Business, the Rt Hon Kemi Badenoch MP, giving a keynote speech. Helping more UK firms, she confirmed, was a government priority. “The UK is home to the most advanced e-commerce market in Europe and the fourth largest in the world,” said Badenoch. “Our new E-Commerce Trade Commission is going to build on that position and bring government and business together identifying clear and deliverable changes to boost UK e-commerce trade.”

Trade agreements are only effective if businesses understand the areas that apply to them, if they can see the growth opportunities. It is our aim over the next two years to engage with as many businesses as possible across the UK and to give them the practical skills and tools they need to fully realise these opportunities.

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The E-Commerce Trade Commission has very clearly set out a challenging program of action to ensure that this doesn’t just become a talking shop. In a year’s time, we will publish an interim report and in two years’ time, at the conclusion of the commission, we will come forward with a fully researched, insight-led report with practical recommendations for regulatory reforms and a collaboration structure to provide the tools and the skills for UK businesses to seize the opportunities for international trade using e-platforms.

Read more: Trade is on the cusp of a digital transformation. Here’s why that matters

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