Whichever side of the various Brexit arguments you took, the departure of the UK from the EU has added a new degree of complexity to cross-border trade between the UK and its closest neighbours.
Consumers and businesses alike have found it confusing to deal with new delays, taxes and duties, not to mention more costly and time-consuming.
Yet confusion for one is an opportunity for another, and agile, digital companies are well positioned to be on the right side of that equation.
These companies will be the ones that keep up a strong level of trade across the English Channel, despite the additional red tape. While the UK government looks to establish formal trade agreements with countries outside of the EU, they will be among a host of UK companies waiting expectantly to see which new markets might open up.
This creates the unusual – and possibly unique – situation of companies fully expecting to start trading in new languages, but not yet knowing which languages. This requires them to create an unprecedented degree of flexibility and adaptability, but the potential benefits are certainly worth the effort of making sure their services are available to a global audience.
A proven appetite
E-commerce is deeply embedded in the EU-UK relationship, and this type of trade will play an important part in driving growth as UK companies expand into new markets. And we know firsthand from our own research that consumers have a keen interest in using ecommerce sites based in other countries.
Studies commissioned in France and the UK revealed an appetite for cross-border commerce in both countries. UK consumers (68%) were far more likely to shop internationally than the French (35%), but arguably because English is a much more commonly used language for global ecommerce stores.
Foreign ecommerce brands appeal to consumers because they hold the promise of potential bargains and product ranges that might not be available at home. With big players like Amazon dominating the market, direct to consumer vendors that offer something exclusive and different can feel like a breath of fresh air.
Slick and experienced UK ecommerce brands are well placed to tempt customers in new markets. Yet we also see a lot of consumers put off on their first attempt to buy from foreign ecommerce operations by language barriers. As many as half are reluctant to order in a second language – a reluctance has been highlighted here by fear of unexpected tariffs and duties being placed on orders since Brexit.
It should be noted that two dozen languages are officially spoken in the EU. While English is the most broadly understood – with 44% speaking it to some level – it is not the most widely spoken first language. That is German, spoken by 18% of EU citizens. And duties aside, entering your credit card details into a website you don’t fully understand requires a leap of faith most people aren’t willing to take.
Providing websites that are fully optimised to function in a number of languages addresses these issues. It also ensures SEO optimisation, to make sure consumers in overseas markets can find sites and products more easily through search, and creates a truly localised offer that will keep shoppers coming back for more. In addition, it means that companies are fully in control of how their brand is presented across multiple channels and markets.
To further muddy the waters, the full impact of the changes created by Brexit is emerging as we undergo the biggest earthquake to hit consumer behaviour in a century, as we adapt to life after the Covid-19 pandemic. We are all shopping online more often, changing our expectations of service elements such as delivery and returns as we become more experienced.
For businesses, there is a lot at stake: a fifth of UK ecommerce players currently sell within the EU. Meanwhile, EU ecommerce brands are conscious that UK consumers spend an average €3,000 more every year online than any other consumers in Europe. Companies on both sides of the Channel need to protect as much of that business as possible, as well as seeking out new partners in emerging markets.
The benefits of clear communication always apply in business. They are perhaps more important than ever when it comes to cross-border trade between the UK and EU.
As shoppers, there is only mild surprise now when we order clothes from an ecommerce vendor for the first time and note that our new outfit has travelled overnight from Spain or Germany. Online stores have been personalised and localised so well that we don’t even notice the difference between those based in the UK.
Little wonder, however, that there has been tabloid outcry at consumers receiving demands for duty from HMRC. It has become vital that customers know what to expect, whatever language they speak and wherever they live.
It may not be the fault of an ecommerce vendor that duties have been added to a purchase – but it is surely their duty to warn customers. And it might well be the vendor that customers choose to blame for their shock.
Periods of great change have a fundamental impact on what consumers expect. With the changes brought by Brexit further accelerated by Covid, customers expect more information and the same – or better – service from ecommerce brands.
Just as the restaurant sector refers to hygiene factors as the bare minimum required to operate – issues which customers should not even have to consider because they are so fundamental. Ecommerce brands are now expected to offer a localised service relative to the consumer’s background and location.
Companies which fail this test may not get a second chance to impress, while those that pass open up a new world of opportunities.
About the Author
Augustin Prot is the co-founder and CEO of Weglot, a website translation software. Following a degree from Paris-Dauphine University, Augustin started his career in Finance at Lazard. Three years later he met business partner Rémy Berda and together they developed and launched Weglot. Created in 2016 – Weglot has helped 50k+ businesses translate and display their websites in multiple languages.