Localisation and flexibility required in international retailing

Not one international market is the same as another, localisation is crucial and flexibility is key were the three clear messages to emanate from an international retailing event in London, on Thursday.

Representatives from a host of retail businesses, including online bike retailer Wiggle and baby and maternity products retailer Mothercare, were among the industry experts to speak at the British Retail Consortium's International Retailing 2014 event, which provided best practice advice and case studies about growing a business in foreign territories.

Wiggle's director of international & pricing, Derek Bouchard-Hall, highlighted the importance of localisation, telling delegates that entering a new international territory is "much more than language translation".

Operating 11 different sites in ten languages, Wiggle ships to more than 90 countries and is still eyeing further growth, and Bouchard-Hall said currency knowledge is crucial when entering a new market – as is understanding that each territory brings its own unique challenges.

"The importance of localisation [is important], it's about doing the guides, blogs and social media and sponsoring events," he explained.

An international growth strategy requires a business to understand its source of competitive advantage, he added, which could be around price, range, shopping experience or service – but is all wrapped up in the accompanying marketing and branding.

"It's so easy to forget that and have a Field of Dreams mentality of 'if you build it they will come'," Bouchard-Hall remarked.

ECommerce is just one way of establishing a brand abroad, and this is a strategy that sports equipment retailer Sweaty Betty is undertaking as it looks to grow beyond its UK base. It launched online in the US prior to opening stores there, and it will be rolling out European and Australian websites later this year.

Mark Smith, finance and operations director at Sweaty Betty, said: "We are a huge believer in omnichannel. If [the new sites] support our instinct, we'll follow it up with stores."

Other tried and trusted methods of international expansion, which were discussed in detail during Thursday's event, include franchising, concessions or joint-ventures. Although it operates some of its own stores abroad, one retailer that is generating significant results through the franchising approach is Mothercare.

The retailer's director of international development, Sohail Shaikh, said that "the biggest decision" the company ever makes when it moves into new territories revolves around choosing a franchise partner. Once chosen, Mothercare focuses on staff training and development, with Shaikh saying the more hands on his team are at the outset, the more successful the stores will be.

Richard Aquiliana, head of international franchising at fashion retailer Blue Inc, commented: "Brands need to be flexible and appreciate the different needs in each market.

"The lesson to be had is you have to do anything you possible can to mitigate risk, but you will make mistakes."

From the discussions throughout the day, it was clear there is significant potential for UK retailing – especially with its globally-leading expertise in eCommerce – to expand its footprint on an international scale. The emerging markets of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia have the biggest growth projections in the coming years, and could be new battlegrounds for growth-hungry retailers in the imminent future.

As Sir Eric Peacock, an experienced retail executive and current non-exec for UK export finance at Gov.uk, said when summing up the morning's proceedings: "The opportunity is huge, the prize is great."

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The British Retail Consortium