On June 23, Britons will vote in a referendum to determine if the UK will withdraw from the European Union.
This British Exit—or more popularly known as the “Brexit”—is a hotly contested topic, and will have meaningful ramifications on the UK’s economy, should a withdrawal be approved.
How will this affect contemporary, online-based industries such as retail e-commerce? We examined our proprietary data and discovered some compelling key findings, particularly for companies invested in the online sector.
But first, some backstory. What's the Brexit, anyway? The conversation surrounding the topic has become increasingly heated, but the perspectives on either side are pretty straightforward.
Proponents of the Brexit believe the EU’s size and bureaucracy have reduced Great Britain’s influence, and creates countless local economic challenges such as contested fishing grounds. Proponents also wish to “reassert national identity in the face of immigration,” a New York Times analysis recently said. (EU citizens have a right to live and work in other member nations.)
An annual post-rebate contribution of £12.9 billion to the EU budget stings too, many say.
However, Pro-EU pundits say staying in the Union will preserve UK influence and security on the world stage. Exiting the Union could wreck the UK economy, a perspective many economists share. (Indeed, the pound fell to a seven-year low in February, a by-product of recent Brexit-related uncertainty.) The International Monetary Fund warned last Tuesday in a statement that a Brexit would create “major challenges for both the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe.” Multinational banks including Goldman Sachs have warned that a Brexit would spark a departure of their jobs and headquarters from Great Britain.
Even proponents of the exit say growth would be affected for the next 15 years.
If Great Britain votes to leave the Union, a two-year exit negotiation will take place, focusing largely on the UK's future relationship with the Union-particularly regarding trade. Economists expect that exports will get clobbered with tariffs and other economic measures, if the UK continues trade within the EU's common market.
Making the topical pivot back to online business and revenue, it’s clear that a Brexit would impact e-commerce—a sector that’s become an increasingly important contributor to the British economy.
Last year, the UK generated £60 billion in B2C e-retail sales alone. Projections last September suggested that “the UK will remain the world leader when it comes to retail e-commerce’s share of total retail sales,” eMarketer wrote, adding that the UK’s global share of e-commerce sales would rise from 14.5% in 2015 to 19.3% by 2019.
Western European markets presently represent over 50% of UK e-commerce exports.
But those projections and percentages won't be so rosy, should the Brexit occur. But by how much? We recently spoke with Erdem Tokmakoglu, a Global Online Strategist with our Global Growth team, to find out.
Erdem examined the website performance of key UK websites we localize for fashion retailers. Fashion retailers are generally more exposed to risk in situations of economic flux, due to possible adoption of tariffs, non-tariff barriers and expected increase in costs (as a result of depreciation of British pound).
“After accounting for annual and predictable seasonality factors on the UK fashion e-commerce sites we operate,” Erdem says, “we’ve already seen an average 1% reduction of online visitors over the last month, when the dialogue about the Brexit has been most intense.”
That's barely a blip in lost visits and revenue so far-but it's a loss nonetheless. Erdem rightly points out that this fluctuation is based solely on market reaction to Brexit news, and not a Brexit itself.
If the withdrawal is approved in June, revenues will drop based on models provided by the London School of Economics and Political Science’s Centre for Economic Performance (CEP), Erdem says. In those models, increases in trade costs between the UK and EU could immediately reduce the UK’s income by 1.1% of GDP to 3.1% of GDP—or up to £50 billion.
However, these projected losses are "based on a conventional static trade model that does not take account of the dynamic effects of trade on productivity growth," the CEP wrote. "Recent research has found that dynamic effects may double or triple the size of the static effects."
MotionPoint’s benchmark for UK fashion e-retailers indicate that 50% of UK site traffic hails from EU markets, led by France (24%), Germany (14%), Italy and Spain. UK e-commerce is clearly dependent on EU markets.
We applied CEP's most optimistic scenario (a static 1.8% decrease in conversions) to MotionPoint's UK fashion e-retailer benchmarks. For an e-retailer with a modest 5 million annual sessions and a £50 average order value (AOV), a 1.8% reduction from a solid 3% on-site conversion rate could make a £135,000 difference, compared to its base value.
Sites with far greater traffic and higher AOV stand to lose exponentially more.
This projection also excludes any dynamic effects the CEP warned about, which could triple those losses.
"Another important source of loss will arise from increased rules and regulations," Erdem says. "We have seen that e-commerce shoppers in foreign markets are extremely sensitive to tariff limits-the maximum amount you can purchase before having to pay an additional cost to import the item."
We believe European consumers will likely spend less on UK e-commerce sites, in a post-Brexit world. We can extrapolate the impact of this sensitivity by examining consumers in other overseas markets, Erdem says.
Take South Korean consumers. Thanks to prohibitively costly local products, Koreans love shopping on Western sites. They follow sales on these sites, and take advantage of discounts to maximize their purchasing power.
"What's notable, however, is that even during sales events with the deepest discounts, the total price of their purchase approaches-but never exceeds-that free import threshold," Erdem says. "The tariff ceiling has effectively limited just how much South Korean consumers are willing to spend on UK sites. We expect to see a similar effect among European customers."
The takeaway: “We believe the Brexit will harm Britain’s fashion retail e-commerce,” Erdem says. “The costs for UK retailers will become large in scenarios with high uncertainty levels. The lowest costs come if the UK rapidly signs a free trade deal with the EU and with other major economies. But even then, there will be costs and losses.”