The first evidence session of the E-Commerce Trade Commission took place in Cardiff yesterday (16 October), featuring discussion from a host of businesses from Wales on their experiences of using e-commerce platforms to export.
Convened by the Institute of Export and International Trade (IOE&IT), it saw firms contribute insights to the E-Commerce Trade Commission, which will gather all such insights and make a clear set of policy recommendations for how to unleash the export potential of the UK’s SMEs through e-commerce.
This was the first of several regional evidence sessions that will take place over the duration of the Commission, which is due to run until June 2025.
An early theme in the session was the suggestion that the advice on the UK government website on exporting to the EU could be more helpful, especially in the section dealing with how to obtain an Import One Stop Shop (IOSS) number.
The IOSS, which came into use in July 2021, is a measure designed to show that all necessary VAT has been paid on an item being exported to the EU.
While the government’s website says that those trading into the bloc need the number, one attendee said it could do with offering more information on how to obtain one.
After a surge of interest in their product, due to a social media endorsement, they were eager to begin exporting to catch that demand. But found it hard to work out how to get the number. They eventually went through an American company to retrieve an IOSS number to trade in Europe, an experience described as “mind-boggling”.
The human touch
Another speaker made the case for improved online resources for SMEs looking to trade, calling for a “simple and user-friendly” website with all the necessary information and, crucially, someone human available to offer advice.
“[There should be] someone to talk to. It’s an issue with modern life where everybody wants to help, but nobody wants to give you a real person to talk to. Talking to a human makes a huge difference when you’re trying to solve problems.”
Abrupt changes in customs requirements were also highlighted as a challenge. This included the recent introduction of a requirement for those using steel in their products to prove that steel is not Russian in origin.
“Nobody knew this was coming,” one delegate said, and providing evidence had already proved challenging when the provisions were not in place.
A suggestion at this point was made to consider working with a customs intermediary, who specialise in this area and would be aware of any such changes in advance and able to notify their clients.
Issues with clearing customs ranged from broader ones, such as access to advice and customs changes, to the highly “granular”, with one speaker noting it’s possible for one customs officer to raise a problem that might not exist for others.
“Sometimes [it is] individual customs officers causing the problems if they don’t like your product or documentation.”
Another delegate agreed, noting the possibility for disruption by “individuals with an idiosyncratic understanding of how the rules should be applied” to goods being exported.
Several attendees described their experiences working with platforms to deal with some of their exporting problems. Reviews were mixed, with some describing how they eased the process while others were less positive.
One common complaint was the frequency with which such platforms changed the rules they operate and their fee structures.
Financing the future
Ultimately, one delegate said, “we’re asking [these platforms] to find solutions that the government should have found”.
Others suggested that the real problem for firms looking to export is “often financial rather than logistical”, with small companies often finding they “just don’t have the bandwidth” to start.
Export financing can be obtained from a bank according to the Department for Business and Trade, one speaker noted, but they added that banks often “have their hands deep in their pockets”.
There needs to be financial support not only for those looking to export, others said, but also those looking to fund registration of new trademarks — a financial cost which can stop new businesses and ideas getting off the ground.
The next evidence session is due to take place in Scotland on 23 January 2024. The location is still to be agreed, but if you would like to take part or receive further details as they become known, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.