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An international neighbourhood

The world is a lot smaller than it used to be. Nevertheless, businesses will do well to push the envelope with clear, country-level strategies that engage local shoppers

International Neighbourhood

Despite a rocky start to the 2020s, trade is back. People, ideas, services and goods are making their way across borders and with relative ease. 

As companies lean into globalisation, the ‘why’ may be clear but the ‘where’ and, crucially, ‘how’ of it all are harder to pin down. “There are two sides to this,” says Michael Irwin, director of international projects and programmes at Royal Mail. 

First, he points to the firm economic case for exporting. “If the UK’s growth rate is not where it should be, there’s plenty of scope to build new revenue streams across borders,” he explains. “And most businesses expect it to be a lot harder to get started than it actually is.” 

If the UK’s growth rate is not where it should be, there’s plenty of scope to build new revenue streams across borders

Finessing the technical job of settling into a new region can give businesses a strong foothold across territories with growing demand. Irwin continues: “Some countries that used to be referred to as emerging markets (although they have now matured), such as Dubai, Saudi Arabia and India, have large and increasing middle-class populations with significant purchasing power.”

To pull market share from well-entrenched local competitors, British businesses are better off ditching an off-the-shelf approach. Cultural nuances, infrastructural limitations, currency fluctuations, and market accessibility can vary significantly at the country or even regional level. Even fundamental operating models that run smoothly in stable markets may lack the agility required for success in dynamic emerging economies. 

Irwin advises newcomers to the international community to start with the basics. “Even giving your website a local look and feel” can deliver an advantage, he says. For more engagement, firms may consider translating their content into the relevant language and investing in SEO to ensure high visibility in search results for the target country’s residents.

He notes: “To begin with, businesses might want to concentrate on English-speaking countries.”

Getting accustomed to new processes

For some, international sales can be as easy as flicking a switch, Irwin says. This is particularly true of SMEs and individuals using Amazon, eBay, Etsy and their ilk as their online shop window. Royal Mail integrates solutions to those platforms that accurately calculate delivery and other associated costs for the sellers.

Irwin highlights the substantial investments the company has made in refining its international shipping solutions over the past couple of years. Data validation technology sits behind the website and helps guide users on how to accurately describe the contents and value of their parcels. “It will say things like ‘you’ve described this as a shirt but based on the full information you have provided, it’s more likely it’s a jacket’”, Irwin adds. He urges businesses to get the simple customs processes right before delving into more complex localisation strategies. 

Each country has nuances, so while the EU is a single trading bloc, members have differing rules on the goods they allow through. If in doubt, market research is the first port of call. “You don’t have to spend thousands of hours reading through the minutiae,” says Irwin. “But every time you add a new country, just do 10 to 15 minutes of desktop research. Our country sending guides are a good first step.”

Royal Mail maintains and updates a database on its website, including information on price changes to allow businesses to integrate these into their margins, as well as trend insights. One notable shift is increasing awareness of “the green agenda”, which may be influencing shoppers to buy fewer smaller low-cost items from overseas. 

Irwin argues that research on local competitors and regional variations in international and domestic purchasing trends can deliver strategic food for thought. 

For example, a UK customer buying from a UK company online might buy one T-shirt every month. A US customer buying from that same business might buy four T-shirts every four months. By and large, the international shopper is more likely to adjust their purchasing pattern to leverage these economies of scale.

The local feel, worldwide

Market selection, for the most part, comes down to where the customers are. “About 85% of what we send overseas goes to just 20 countries, including the US, Australia and key EU destinations,” Irwin confirms. This bulk allows the company to negotiate the best rates for postage, meaning it can pass on those savings to its customers.

Equally, saddling buyers with hidden fees from the other side of the world isn’t a good look. To avoid shocks, the shipping should be presented as a fully landed cost at checkout. “From our customer’s point of view, it’s got to be transparent. There should be no extra duties that might sting the recipient,” Irwin adds. 

There’s an extent to which businesses can and should flex to fit diverse markets and submarkets. This concept isn’t new, but businesses are finding new ways to push personalisation. Because Royal Mail has contractual arrangements with many of the world’s national postal services, when a UK-sent parcel arrives on foreign soil, it will be delivered as if it had been ordered from a company based there. This will often be on foot via a ‘local postie’. 

“All our research shows people like to have someone deliver to them in a uniform,” Irwin says. “That familiarity at the point of delivery and the experience the receiving customer has when they’ve bought an item from a UK website are important to us. The experience will be pretty identical to buying something from a company based where you live.”

That’s not to say those ambitious about exporting must have all their ducks in a row right away, tiptoeing an arbitrary line between familiarity and novelty. Instead, small meaningful steps to meet customers where they are at a country level will take firms a long way. 

For more information on how Royal Mail can help you export with ease, visit

Illustration and graphics: Samuele Motta and Celina Lucey / Audience analyst: Tony Bennison