Widget chairman Mark Needham explains some of the benefits of selling to locations in the 'near abroad'

Exporting to the ‘near abroad’

Just outside UK shores, there’s a number of markets that could be good opportunities for retailers and distributors, if they only open their eyes. Widget’s Mark Needham explains…

Recently I wrote about some of the opportunities for distribution businesses in the booming territories of the UAE.

But for every opportunity far abroad, there is also usually one under your nose and this summer I have been looking to increase our sales in the ‘near abroad’ – the areas which are part of the British Isles but not part of the United Kingdom.

Despite the downturn in its economy, the Republic of Ireland remains one of the top five trading partners for the UK. As a rule of thumb, its purchases of consumer electronics is generally reckoned to be about 5% of those made in the UK. Part of this market is already addressed by UK stores like Tesco or Currys which buy in the UK, but also sell through branches in the Republic.

One of the key roles of a distributor is to offer a consumer electronics vendor better reach than it could gain by selling directly to retailers and resellers. So it makes sense for us to reach out to the Republic and try to access all that additional 5%.

In a recent visit I found that while the love affair with Brussels seems to have waned, the atmosphere was surprisingly pro-British. I went into a store just outside Dublin to buy a tube of toothpaste and pulling a mixed bag of coins out of my pocket, found myself a few cents short. I handed over all the valid coins I had, and explained that the rest of the coins the shopkeeper could see were not euros. 

“True enough,” he said looking at the pounds and ten pence coins. “It looks like real money.”

Despite the downturn, I found enterprising Irish companies creating new markets. Bloc Buy, (www.Blocbuy.com) is an Irish e-commerce startup founded by Noel Brennan, whose experience includes setting up audio-visual artworks for leading galleries in Europe and North America. “One of the benefits of being in a small market is that we can set up something new, without being instantly attacked by larger competitors,” he told me. 

Blocbuy has a deal with the Irish subsidiary of a major insurance company to bring new and innovative products to the attention of its policy holders. Its first mailing included the first direct sale of the Fitbit activity tracker in Ireland. 

None of the biggest UK electrical or supermarket chains are present on the Channel Islands and, apart from HMV, all the electrical retailers are independents. The islands have a population of around 170,000 – about the same as Colchester – but average income is high and the market is boosted by a large number of holidaymakers. 

The IQ Apple store on Jersey (below). Serving a specialist market where almost all businesses are independents. 

I spent a morning on Jersey, visiting IQ, an Apple reseller with branches on both Jersey and Guernsey, and the Jersey Electricity retail showroom, an out of town store with computing, white goods and audiovisual ranges which made it a natural outlet for the Orbitsound range. 

In both Ireland and Jersey, Widget has appointed sub-distributors to carry our range to these small parts of the home market not served through the standard channels. With the UK market so tight over the last year, expanding our home market by a few extra percent without having to address the issues of multi-lingual product has been useful. Emboldened by this success, we are looking at opportunities across the North Sea.

Mark Needham is chairman and founder of consumer electronics distributor Widget UK Ltd.

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