Exporting can bring many opportunities to your business. There will also be challenges to overcome along the way. This guide explores many of the pros, cons and vital information you should know to export successfully and scale up.

The benefits of exporting

The increasing globalisation of markets and the opportunities of digitisation have made it more attractive to export goods and services. As well as increased revenue and profitability, exporting can be an opportunity to:

  • Shield your business from fluctuations in your domestic market

An economic downturn in one country (or even one continent) may not affect other markets. So, the more dispersed your customer base, the better.

  • Reduce your reliance on seasonality

If your business focuses on one product area, you may experience seasonal ups and downs in sales. Widening your market could help with this. For example, you could sell summer-oriented products in hotter climates when it's winter at home.

  • Stimulate new demand for your product

A product with moderate sales in the UK may be a greater success elsewhere.

Pros and cons of exporting goods and services

Pros

  • An opportunity to grow your business by expanding your market
  • Greater resilience due to less dependence on one market
  • Economies of scale and better margins due to increased production
  • An opportunity to learn and innovate

Cons

  • The possibility that you neglect your core market and customers
  • More time and money spent on compliance with export regulations
  • You may have to manage relationships in remote locations with different languages and customs
  • Harder to control your business overseas compared to your home market
  • A big learning curve around discovering how the new market sees your products – often differently from the home market.

How to research your market

To identify the best overseas market for your business, you’ll need to do some research. So what do you need to consider?

Your product

Is there a demand for your product or service in that country? Perhaps you'll need to modify your product to suit local requirements, regulations and standards. If so, remember to adapt your marketing and advertising accordingly.

Demographics

If you are selling consumer products or services, consider the demographic makeup of a potential export country. Start with questions like:

  • What age group does your product appeal to – are they a big enough market?
  • What is the gender split in the country?
  • Is the population shrinking or growing?
  • How does the local population split their expenditure between food, housing, leisure, etc.?
  • What are the trends in current spending patterns – is more money being spent on leisure activities, for example?

The competition

You need to know if you already have competitors in that country. If so, would this market still be viable for you? You should consider:

  • Who else, if anyone, is selling your product there?
  • Can local suppliers match what you offer?
  • Does your product have a strong enough unique selling point (USP) to stand out there?

Ease of trade

Trade is easier in markets with minimal trade barriers or tariffs and manageable logistics. Many exporters start by identifying a few nearby key markets with low entry barriers. Here are some questions to consider:

  • Is foreign investment incentivised or are imports restricted in your country of choice?
  • What are the tax and administration costs you need to be aware of?
  • What distribution methods are used?
  • How are payment terms managed and how could this impact your business?

Political and social environment

Research the political system and social customs of the country and how they could influence trading there.

  • Is the country politically stable?
  • How bureaucratic is it?
  • Does it have strong trade unions?
  • Are there any trade sanctions in place?

Culture

Research the cultural considerations of your target export countries. Cultural preferences will matter, especially if you’re exporting consumer goods. Also, consider what languages are spoken in the country and the religious and ethical landscape. How might this affect the way you present and market your product? Visiting your target country is a good idea. You can experience the local cultural environment and see first-hand how business is done there.

Legislation

What legislation will affect your manufacturing, trading or performance? For example, what are the laws around trading methods or company structure? Are advertising and promotions restricted?

Export market research

You can get the background knowledge to plan with confidence, plus practical resources, from targeting the right market to making your first shipment when you sign-up to our International Trade Portal

Market visits are an excellent way to personally experience the local cultural environment and help you understand how to conduct business in a particular area.

Are you ready to start exporting

You have two important considerations before deciding whether or not to export: your business and your industry.

Ask yourself the following about your business:

  • Do you have the financial reserves to develop your export market potential? Or can you access funding and support from your bank?
  • Are you already receiving substantial overseas enquiries about your product?
  • Can your production capacity and human resources meet the potential increase in demand?
  • Do you know where to find the necessary skills and knowledge?
  • Does your product meet overseas regulations and standards?

Ask yourself the following about your industry:

  • Is your product already being exported by other UK companies?
  • Do any of your trade association reports recommend exporting?
  • Are similar products to yours being imported for sale in the UK?

Our customers can also use the Bank of Scotland International Trade Portal which provides a gateway to explore international trade opportunities and detailed market information.

The Department for International Trade (DIT) provides a range of helpful diagnostic tools plus a wealth of information.

Create an effective export strategy that complements your overall business plan

It can be helpful, especially if your expansion will need external financing. Investors like to see a commitment to exporting and an international perspective.

What are the risks of exporting?

Understanding potential exporting risks will help you mitigate them.

Product risk

Your product must comply with the regulations and standards of the countries you export to.

Exporting may lead to changes in how you manufacture and supply your product. If manufacturing overseas, keep a close eye on standards. You must also protect your intellectual property (IP) rights overseas, which can be complex as IP rights are territorial.

See guidance for protecting your rights abroad and country-specific guidance

When exporting to countries with different languages, take care to redesign your:

  • Product
  • Packaging
  • Advertising
  • Literature
  • Point-of-sale material

You may also need to review your marketing materials for cultural differences, even in other English-speaking countries. For example, if your advertising relies on a very British sense of humour, the American market may not always respond in the same way.

Credit risk

A major risk, as an exporter, is that a customer will fail to pay promptly (or at all). Protect yourself against this possibility by:

  • Insuring yourself against non-payment
  • Negotiating payment upfront
  • Finding ways to vouch for your client’s creditworthiness
  • Doing your research on the company, the country and the sector

Protect yourself against international credit risk

Get insured

You can insure against non-payment of export invoices with a specialist provider, or by arranging for your bank to take over the risk. For example, discounting your export sales ledger. However, this is usually an ongoing arrangement rather than being done on a one-off basis.

Negotiate payment upfront

Consider negotiating payment upfront if you have the slightest concern over your potential customer's ability to pay. If it’s a big project you are working on, ask for stage payments.

Ask for a Letter of Credit from the customer's bank

This way, their bank effectively guarantees the payment. Be aware, however, that discrepancies in the correct documentation can result in letters of credit being rejected when first presented to a bank.

Consult the British Chambers of Commerce

A good place to start, whether you’re researching a business in the UK or worldwide. For a fee, they can:

  • Help trace companies
  • Conduct press searches
  • Check credit ratings
  • Find in-depth financial accounts

Ask your suppliers for extended terms

This can be helpful while you develop demand from overseas and establish a trading pattern.

Take advice about standard practices in the markets you move into

For example, some nations operate on an open account basis, while others use letters of credit. As far as possible, protect yourself in any pre-agreed partnership contracts.

Investigate the UK Export Finance Schemes

UK Export Finance is provided by the government. If you are in any doubt, you should seek professional guidance to help you manage your credit. The Department for International Trade can point you in the right direction, or speak to your bank.

Exchange rate risk

The profitability of your export orders can be affected by fluctuations in currency exchange rates. To protect yourself, you can match income received in a particular currency to your expenditure in that currency. This could, however, incur additional costs, so it’s always worth speaking to your bank to identify the most appropriate foreign exchange solution for you.

UK Export Finance can advise you on where to get help managing exporting finances. To find out more about Bank of Scotland’s support with foreign exchange and interest rate risk, visit our International pages

Changes in the exchange rate may increase the sterling equivalent of your debt. We will refer all enquiries for foreign currency accounts to a specialist manager, who will provide more information about the charges for these services upon request.

Environmental risks

Expanding your trade will increase the scale of your production and the potential for more pollution. It could also increase your energy use in areas such as transportation, which will add to your environmental impact. These are points to remember if you have plans to meet the government’s net zero targets. Read more about reducing your impact on our Sustainability hub

Political risks

The ongoing impact of Brexit, and political instability in other countries, should also be part of your calculations around exporting.

How to get things moving

There are several ways you can get into new markets. Determining the right method for your company will depend on your products, the markets you are entering and your own circumstances.

Some of the most common options include:

Exporting from your UK base

Manufacturing your products in the UK and then shipping them overseas. This approach is scalable and can work well if you want to trade with multiple markets.

Using an overseas sales base

If sales are strong in a particular location, consider establishing a base there. It could reduce costs, increase market penetration and help you comply with local regulations. Most countries have government-backed economic development organisations that can help with this.

Using licence agreements

A local business would produce and sell your product under licence and on your behalf. Licence agreements are often used when there appears to be no other way of making profitable returns from an area. For instance, many developing countries insist on the highest possible level of local manufacturing as this represents the best long-term commitment to the region.

Using overseas agents or distributors

When you use a retail or distribution specialist in your product or service area, they often do a lot of the overseas legwork. So, it can be a good way of testing the market before making a greater commitment, such as setting up an overseas base.

However, it’s important to draw up pre-agreed contracts. These should set out who does what and how you will communicate. The success of a distributor often depends on their commitment to their product.

Be aware of your agent or distributor’s other commitments, and take the time to ensure they understand the benefits of your product or service.

Understanding international trade procedures

Success in exporting requires an understanding of how international trade works. It may require investment in both specialist training and computer software, to aid your management of international trading (and payment) processes. The nature and destination of your exports will determine the procedures required, but will usually include:

Export documentation

The Chambers of Commerce offer advice and training courses on paperwork for the movement of goods. Certificates of origin are often required to meet customs and quota requirements in the importing country.

Logistics

Organising the physical movement of your goods is critical to your export operations. If you're a first-time exporter, your local Chambers can advise on the transport and packing of your product and everything you’ll need to include. A forwarding agent can also give you help with the packing and shipping of your goods.

Although there is no legal obligation to do so, it is generally advisable to get your goods insured. Marine insurance is the general term for cover against damage to goods and loss while in transit. Policies will also cover road, rail and air freight.

Any shipments you send out should conform to the INCOTERMS (International Commercial Terms). They are an internationally recognised set of trade term definitions developed by the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC). The terms define the trade contract responsibilities and liabilities between a buyer and a seller. For example, they state who is responsible for:

  • Paying freight costs
  • Insuring goods in transit
  • Sorting out any import/export duties

They are invaluable as, once importer and exporter have agreed on an INCOTERM, they can trade without discussing responsibilities for the costs and risks covered by the term.

Our International Trade Portal can help you manage your shipment, understand trade customs and calculate the cost of exporting.

Licences

The export of some goods and technology is administered by governments, primarily to control arms exports. This includes many items designed for civil use but termed dual-use because they could have military purposes. These include:

  • Machine tools
  • Electronic equipment
  • Computers
  • Telecommunication equipment
  • Related components and spare parts