The fast-growing British luxury market is likely to attract still more customers with the recent downturn in the value of the pound. The UK was already one of the world’s leading online exporters when the international value of sterling slumped during summer 2016, and a number of retailers went on to report a lift in sales as a result.
Since then, the currency has stayed relatively weak against both the euro and the dollar – presenting shopping opportunities to international luxury customers and, by extension, to international luxury brands. This may prove a short-term spike but it’s an apt illustration of just how attractive British goods are to overseas shoppers.
Only the best
UK luxury brands are highly sought after. The market has been dubbed the world’s leading online export market by Google and OC&C Strategy Consultants. Figures from Google and the British Retail Consortium have detected rapid expansion in the number of searches for UK brands, particularly from emerging markets such as India, China and Mexico. The fastest search growth, found the figures, came via mobile devices, with the smartphone playing a growing and important role in international luxury sales of typically British products, from fashion and footwear to food, and beyond.
Before the downturn in the pound’s value, the forecast from luxury analyst Wealth-X and the Walpole group of luxury retailers, was that the UK luxury retail market, worth £32bn in 2015, would grow to £51.5bn by 2019. It’s not yet clear how fast the market will develop, but what is fast becoming clear is that many believe there are opportunities amid any disruption. Global consumers want to buy British, and British products are now at their cheapest for years. The retail potential is enormous – and now is a great time to make the most of it.
Luxury is one of the top-selling categories across borders. People who are willing to spend their money on luxury goods are a little less influenced by difficult times because they have more disposable income. However, they are seeing the decline in sterling as the equivalent of getting a good bargain.
International success stories
The many luxury retailers that have already taken steps to build their international businesses, both online and through a network of stores, are now well-placed for a future in the world of global retail that continues to open up. Sometimes relatively simple changes can make an important difference to a merchant’s ability to meet the appetite of global consumers.
London-based luxury clothing and accessories retailer Avenue 32, started to attract international customers to its luxury fashion site, which was enjoying triple-digit growth. It responded by developing a delivery performance that met the expectations of the luxury consumer. It used global trade APIs to add a duty calculator that enabled a fully pre-paid duty payment at checkout.
Leather handbags manufacturer Mulberry interacts with its customers on social media channels around the world in order to win their attention – and their orders. It has invested in omnichannel to deliver a joined up experience between its network of shops, and its online website. In its annual results, retail sales of £118.7m in the year to March 2016 were 8% up on the previous year, with international sales totalling £21.7m. Over the year, digital sales grew by 19% to account for 14% of all sales.
More recently Waitrose has been building its international network fast, selling quintessentially British items, from afternoon tea to the Prince of Wales’ Duchy Originals brand of organic biscuits, to shoppers in more than 60 markets around the world. Its markets include Germany and the US, both being Waitrose targets for new exports.
Although there are compelling reasons for UK luxury retailers to sell overseas, with the opportunity that the weaker currency presents, it’s wise not to overlook the challenges of doing so.
There are a number of barriers standing in the way of international trade. First and foremost, it’s important to win the trust of international shoppers, especially where they are buying expensive items.
Meeting the export challenge
Luxury retailers are increasingly localising their global websites for the markets they sell in and building engaging websites from which it’s easy to browse, search and order. They also know how important it is to offer the local payment and delivery methods with which shoppers are already familiar.
Limiting options for payment alienates a significant number of would-be consumers. On of Pitney Bowes’ recent research has exposed that credit cards and e-wallets like PayPal and Alipay are the most preferred method of online payment for cross-border purchases. As well, taking into account factors like service fees and purchase protection plans will also go a long way with consumers.
It’s likely that many shoppers will want to buy in their own language, if only to ensure that they are buying the item they really want – and their search hasn’t got lost in translation. The same principal applies to currency. Not accepting the local currency means that shoppers will probably incur conversion fees, which ultimately will make merchants’ products more expensive and less competitive with local brands.
Successful luxury brands maintain their relationships with their customers over time, learning about them through their behaviour and buying patterns as they focus beyond the single purchase on lifetime customer value.
Luxury retailers are also making a point of knowing beforehand what requirements they need to comply with, including understanding of prohibited and restricted items, for each market. Those who are knowledgeable of the time and costs of local controls and consider this when estimating arrival dates and final price of their products will make for a swifter and easier shopping process.
A helping hand
Although it might seem overwhelming to research and apply the necessary changes to make for successful crossborder selling, the good news is that retailers do not have to face this challenges alone.
Today, technologies exist to make it easy for luxury merchants to manage the technical and cultural barriers involved in selling overseas. Different solutions help retailers to offer a choice of payment options and delivery methods through local language websites built on an easy-to-integrate ecommerce platform. Alongside this sits the ability to check local taxes and tariffs in real time, so customers know the exact landed cost for their purchase, from merchant site to their homes. Some boast integrated tools to help with integration, translation, multiple payment options, tax, duty, compliance, changing rules, merchandising tools, and has the capacity to offer websites in many languages.
Brands like Harrods, the most iconic of British retailers, The Dune Group, global leader of affordable luxury fashion footwear and accessories, and Harvey Nichols, unique luxury retailer of designer fashion, beauty, food and wine, for instance, are using Pitney Bowes’ Borderfree Retail global ecommerce platform. The platform has proven useful to remove barriers to trade, make international trade easier and grow in markets such as South America, Africa and Asia.
There are always challenges in selling overseas. Selling cross-border can be complicated because of factors from currency and payments to logistics and customs duties vary substantially from country to country. But the opportunity to do so is now so compelling that most luxury retailers will jump at the chance to make the most of their international potential in a new world of globalised retail.
More information and insight on crossborder commerce and online global shopping, can be find in Pitney Bowes 2016 Global Online Shopping Study.
First published in Drapers
 BRC-Google Online Retail Monitor, Q4, 2014