UK SMEs plan to boost European sales despite Brexit uncertainty

Small businesses are keen to boost sales in Europe, despite uncertainties around Britain's upcoming departure from the EU.

The majority of British small businesses expect to increase overseas sales in the next year – especially with Europe.

According to data released by international payments company, OFX, they are increasingly optimistic about international trade, despite uncertainty surrounding the terms of Brexit.

OFX’s annual survey of 500 small business owners and senior managers found that 62 per cent feel confident about doing business outside the UK. In addition, the majority of small businesses (46 per cent) said that Brexit-related uncertainty around the UK’s future trade deals and customs arrangements had no effect on their appetite for international trade, with only 15 per cent reporting that it had reduced their interest.

Their confidence is not just talk. Since 2017, 47 per cent of these small businesses increased overseas sales, growing international revenues by an average of £50,000.

This year, 40 per cent said that they expect to increase overseas sales in the next twelve months – a substantial jump from 2017, when only 17 per cent expected to do the same.

Europe regains popularity as an export market, the Commonwealth splits opinions

Surprisingly, with just nine months until Brexit and continued uncertainty around its outcome, western Europe became SME respondents’ favoured export market this year, with the USA falling dramatically in popularity.

It was a completely different story last year, as small businesses looking abroad for growth singled out the USA as the most attractive market for exports (62 per cent), with Western Europe lagging far behind in popularity at just 20 per cent.

A significant 45 per cent chose Western Europe as their favoured market, suggesting that Brexit-related uncertainty is no longer holding small businesses back from their EU trade ambitions.

With the Brexit transition deal now in place, small businesses may feel on surer footing when approaching trade with Europe.

Meanwhile, 20 per cent chose Eastern Europe, up 14 percentage points and the second-biggest climber since 2017.

Only 36 per cent favoured the USA – down 26 per cent, and by far the biggest faller this year, perhaps because President Trump’s tough trade strategy has spooked foreign businesses.

As a potential target for trade after Brexit, Commonwealth markets split opinion. Younger entrepreneurs were optimistic about future trade with Commonwealth countries, with 61 per cent of those aged 18-40 believing that this was a viable option for their company.

However, those aged over 40 disagreed, with more than half (51 per cent) saying Commonwealth trade was not an option for their business.

Businesses outside England have less confidence selling overseas

Though the overall findings were positive, this year’s survey uncovered a regional disparity in small business’ confidence around international trade. In England, 72 per cent of small businesses said they feel confident about doing business overseas – but this fell to only 40 per cent in Scotland, 48 per cent in Northern Ireland and 58 per cent in Wales.

In addition, the majority of respondents in Wales (50 per cent), Northern Ireland (46 per cent) and Scotland (36 per cent) believe that there is not enough support available to small British businesses trading internationally.

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Anna Jordan

Anna is Senior Reporter, covering topics affecting SMEs such as grant funding, managing employees and the day-to-day running of a business.