A one-stop shop to help SMEs in the UK and France enter new e-commerce markets, by providing them with the tools, resources, and knowledge to do so, has been successfully completed by an EU funded project, E-Channel.
SMEs in the UK and France have comparatively less engagement in exporting, compared to other EU countries. (Eurostat: 2016). E-Channel was set up to provide a technology support package with advice and guidance to help SMEs in the Channel area overcome these challenges.
The cross-border project, which was funded via the Interreg France (Channel) England programme and which began in summer 2019, has had to grapple with various challenges since its launch, including uncertainty around Brexit and of course, the Covid-19 pandemic, which demonstrated the increasing importance of e-commerce to businesses.
The micro-project brought together two partners in the UK and France; Vertical Plus, based in Devon, UK and Soledis, based in Vannes, France. Both companies are SMEs themselves and understand the challenges that SMEs face when considering new market entry through e-commerce.
Sara Stone, project coordinator at Vertical Plus, lead partner for E-Channel, said: “E-Channel provided e-commerce new market support to SMEs in a joined-up package which would otherwise have required them to work with a wide range of unconnected businesses and agencies; many of which would not have been specifically focused on the needs of the individual SME.”
“Some of the businesses we worked with were not sure where to start when it came to interrogating or understanding their own data. Some had not used e-commerce analytics or carried out an evaluation of their inventory to really understand what their customers needed to know, what they were searching for and which items were most profitable.”
Over the course of the 2-year project, the E-Channel team has worked intensively with 24 SMEs from a range of sectors in the UK and France, including homeware, technology and food and drink.
The E-Channel project produced three new services for the participant SMEs:
This data was used to help the participant SMEs develop new marketing approaches and product offers, or scale back on certain product lines, and to optimise their websites to sell their products or services.
Data was collected throughout the project, from beginning to end, to understand the challenges and opportunities faced by the participant SMEs on their journey towards e-commerce new markets. This was a dynamic process with the participant SMEs actively involved as partners.
At the start of the project 50% of the French SMEs were or had been involved in B2B, increasing to 67% by the end of the project. In contrast, 100% of the UK SMEs wanted to focus on B2C at the start, but by the end of the project B2B interest increased with 34% stating interest in this market.
Other key lessons learnt included that 92% of UK SMEs were far more focussed on using e-commerce to consolidate their domestic market share and to grow new markets in the UK. 75% of UK SMEs said that, because of Brexit, they would find it significantly or moderately less likely to find new customers in Europe.
93% of French SMEs were more interested in exploring new markets across the EU and Asia as well as America and Australasia. 59% of French SMEs were put off from targeting the UK market due to low level institutional support for this market and lack of visibility and guidance on the UK market after Brexit. However, French SMEs were generally pragmatic, were still interested in the UK market (65%) and were optimistic about entering the UK Market in the longer term (43%).
Sara Stone added: “Because of Covid-19, we found that the participant SMEs were very interested in e-commerce new markets and wanted as much information as possible to help them make informed, strategic decisions. But they also wanted to wait for the post-Brexit dust to settle”.
“So, we focused on equipping them with what they needed, so that once we know more about what the post-Brexit landscape will look like, they can take the next steps. We helped them to understand their inventory and what sells, to understand their data and ensured they had access to information on tariffs for export and import, for when their business plan allows them to exploit their opportunities.”