I was pleased to pop along to the heart of the British Government on Tuesday, with my Tamebay hat on, for a discussion at 10 Downing Street with one of the Prime Minister’s key advisors, Daniel Korski.
Enterprise Nation svengali and avid Tamebay reader (that’s what she says!) Emma Jones took a small delegation of SMEs and online traders for an informal discussion about the opportunities and difficulties for businesses marketing and selling online.
Needless to say the discussion ranged more widely than that and considered other small business issues. And I was pleasantly surprised by how receptive Daniel was to lots of the suggestions and ideas presented. It is worth noting that he was both knowledgeable on the issues and genuinely enthusiastic about small business. We expect nothing more from a graduate of the LSE. (Ahem.)
Some of the points raised by the small business people who attended included:
– The difficulties of establishing, marketing and getting traffic to business websites.
– Some of difficulties of dealing with HMRC. Although one business owner, says she found them always friendly and helpful. (?!?)
– Concern that High Street retail is held in higher esteem than online.
– Discussion about international trading and the challenges there. Praise for UKTI.
In such a packed meeting, I knew we wouldn’t get everything said so I prepared some notes before the meeting which I have emailed over to Daniel Korski. I’m glad I made the notes because we didn’t much discuss marketplaces. I include some choice cuts below. Of course, Tamebay isn’t a lobbying group so it’s best to consider my notes as personal. But I’d be very happy to hear your comments on them. You’ve never held back before. 😉
Overall, it was a valuable experience. I don’t suppose we’ll change the world or indeed achieve much at all. But I must say it is reassuring that some SME voices are being heard in the corridors of power and that online traders are, at very least, on the radar at Number 10.
Some of my notes:
Don’t confuse the multi-national marketplaces with the UK SMEs
It’s vital to be clear that SMEs trading online are different from the marketplaces they trade on. 100% of goods sold on eBay UK are from individuals, SMEs and retailers. The sellers range from consumer clear-out sellers, sole traders and home-based micro-businesses right through to High Street chains.
The SMEs range from sole traders to multi-million pound turnover Ltd companies. The nature of the spread is not known. Ecommerce sellers will often be multi-channel and sell on eBay, Amazon, their own websites and on other marketplaces.
Many are Bricks & Clicks businesses who have similar overheads to a Bricks & Mortar High Street operations. Before profits, that will include Business Rates, Employer NI contributions and VAT at 20% (largely an issue regarding cashflow).
Claims by organisations like the BRC that online sellers have a tax advantage are largely untrue. Sure, the old school don’t like Amazon much. But their ire shouldn’t be directed at the estimated 40% of Amazon sales that are made by SMEs and other retailers. An online sales tax, which BRC members have called for, would be punitive to ecommerce SMEs.
It is also worth noting that a great many of the smaller ecommerce SMEs are not VAT registered. Their turnover doesn’t require it. 20% UK VAT is a big pain point for them.
Cross Border Trading
For any ecommerce SME, growing their CBT is the biggest opportunity. Both eBay and Amazon are encouraging their sellers to trade more internationally. But there are numerous barriers:
Fear – there is a lot to worry about. Payment, insurance, returns. Most are surmountable but it can be bewildering. Recent experience suggests UKTI aren’t giving particularly focused, useful advice.
Within the EU – Even in the EU with free movement of goods there are headaches. VAT for bigger traders is complex and requires the services of specialist accountants. Some nations have poor postal services (partic. Greece and Italy). Guaranteeing returns can be patchy. Language is a problem for all international traders.
Outside the EU – Tariffs and duties vary widely. As do carriage costs and returns. Canada has fantastically complex import duties. Australia and US are better.
Emerging markets – Russia and China are touted as huge opportunities. Alas, seller trust (not without reason) is low. Not least because of theft and fraud concerns.
Possible policy steps:
Win – Raising the personal income tax threshold to +10k is the single biggest boon that the Coalition has given to ecommerce SMEs. With so many sole traders, husband and wife teams and micro-businesses trading in the ecommerce space, it means so much more than lowering corporation tax. Consider raising the personal income tax threshold further for sole traders/self-employed to encourage micro-enterprise.
Business rates – Not just an issue for Bricks & Mortar firms but Bricks and Clicks too. Plenty of firms trading online keep business premises. Business rates are not a tax on trading success or profit but a tax on just operating. 50% of rent (over £1k pcm) is too high a rate and a disincentive to expand, especially for firms in the boot-strapping phase. It stifles investment in nascent businesses. Unlike tech start-ups, ecommerce traders need warehousing and storage space. Not just a few desks at Silicon Roundabout.
Nudge the off-shored marketplaces – If the big boys Amazon, eBay/Paypal and Google are allowed and want to keep their off-shore status, can’t they be nudged quid pro quo? They should do more to help SMEs use their services. Not least because their dominance does, in a sense, make them quasi-utilities that have duties to the nations they operate within, beyond CSR.
Royal Mail: maintain the universal service at all costs.