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UK retains its crown as Europe’s largest exporter: study

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The UK remains Europe’s largest online exporter, according to a new study that looks at what overseas shoppers buy from UK retailers and how they want to buy it. 

More overseas shoppers have bought from UK online businesses than from other European countries, according to PayPal’s fourth annual Global Cross-Border Commerce report, which which questioned 34,000 people in 31 countries. Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands complete the top five.  

One in 10 of global online shoppers have bought from retailers in this country, says the study, with the US the UK’s the largest export market. American shoppers bought an estimated £12.5bn worth of goods from the UK in the last year. It’s followed by China (£5.7bn), while shoppers from France, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Spain and Sweden all rank the UK among their top three countries to buy from.

Seven in 10 (72%) of cross-border shoppers are looking for a bargain – PayPal says the fall in the pound following the EU referendum has made UK goods more attractive. Almost half (49%) are looking for products they can’t find at home, while 34% are looking for new goods, 29% for higher quality, and 24% say shipping costs are affordable.

What do overseas shoppers buy – and how?

The leading categories that overseas shoppers buy are clothes (68%), consumer electronics (53%), toys and hobbies (53%), jewellery and watches (51%) and cosmetics and beauty products (46%).

Most cross-border shoppers buy via desktop and laptop but more are moving to smartphones: in the US 61% have bought from an international retailer via their phone, while 84% of Chinese cross-border shoppers have done so. 

But there are barriers that prevent shoppers to buying across borders. A quarter (25%) of those questioned said shipping costs were the top barrier to buying from international websites. Around half of online shoppers said that they would not feel comfortable buying from a foreign website in a different language (57%) or paying in foreign currency (47%).

Nicola Longfield, director of small business at PayPal UK, said: “As growth in the UK economy remains modest it’s time for all British businesses to open their doors to the international shopper. International shopping is increasing at a rapid pace, and this study highlights the small adjustments that businesses can make to capture more global sales. If you set a border around your business, you are simply putting a limit on your sales.

“Shoppers from Austria to Australia, Belgium to Brazil have all bought from UK online businesses in the past 12 months. With the UK punching above its weight and leading Europe when it comes to global ecommerce, we hope that other businesses are encouraged to sell their products online and overseas.”

UK Government strategy

Baroness Fairhead, Minister of State for the Department for International Trade welcomed the study as “a clear sign of the strong demand for our goods and the success that UK retailers are already having online.”

She added: “To build on this achievement, the Department for International Trade is making it easier and cheaper for UK firms to sell online to customers around the world – with face-to face support from our eCommerce Advisers, negotiated preferred rates on online marketplaces and information via

“Our recently published Export Strategy sets out our ambition to grow exports as a percentage of GDP to 35%, and getting more UK firms to sell online is key to achieving this.”

Liverpool-based sportswear brand Castore, founded by brothers Tom and Phil Beahon (pictured) in 2016, expects to see its sales rise to £2.7m this year, from £750,000 last year. In the past three months it says more than half of its sales have come from North America and Asia.

Tom Beahon said: “The speed and ease of online buying and selling has changed the retail game. It’s meant that UK start-ups have been able to quickly grow and thrive on a global scale.”

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