Posted: Wed 4th May 2022
As many sellers will know, Brexit has had a devastating impact on cross-border selling between the UK and EU.
However, over the next few articles, I hope to cover some of the ways that we have started to reconnect with our EU customers.
Over the last two years, I have immersed myself in guidance, webinars and training days, but none of it ever gave me a complete picture of how to continue selling into the EU after Brexit.
In fact, I have often declared that trying to keep my EU customers just wasn’t worth the hassle.
I am glad to say that my outlook is a bit more optimistic now.
It has taken a long time (plus sweat, tears and a LOT of swearing) to join up some of the dots, but I have a much better understanding of the options now – both the theory and the practice.
I still have much to learn, but I am definitely getting there, as is evidenced by the hundreds of EU customers that I am now serving again.
If you are still at the crying and swearing stage, then I hope that these articles might help. They are based on my own experiences of selling to the EU via Amazon, eBay, Etsy and our own website.
This first article looks at a little-known setting on Amazon that, if enabled, allows the platform to advertise and export your products to EU customers.
The good old days
Prior to Brexit, my eCommerce customers were an even split, with 50% ordering from the UK and 50% ordering from mainland Europe – mostly via our Amazon EU stores.
Everything was fine until Brexit, which was an unwelcome catalyst which triggered a catastrophic loss of all my EU customers and a near business-busting crash in income.
Let’s face it, Brexit has been a horror story for most eCommerce sellers in the UK.
Online retail has made it increasingly easy to buy and sell across the globe but, for many UK sellers, it has been our European neighbours who have provided a much-valued customer base.
With free movement of goods, relatively cheap postage and a range of European fulfilment services, selling into Europe was almost as easy as selling in the UK.
But - as I say - that was in the good old days.
In the glorious pre-Brexit days, I regularly sold to overseas customers through eBay’s Global Shipping Programme.
I also used Royal Mail, various courier accounts and online parcel brokers to ship individual orders from my website and other marketplaces such as Etsy.
Whilst these formed a valued part of my international order fulfilment, they were nonetheless a minor proportion of the bigger picture.
For me, it was Amazon’s EU selling programmes which gave me a European customer base and a growth in sales beyond anything I could have imagined.
The growth of European sales
In case there are any new sellers and readers out there I will quickly explain that my own expansion into Europe started when I signed up for the Fulfilment by Amazon model (FBA) in 2016.
The model was simple. I listed my products in the Amazon catalogue and then sent the bulk stock to Amazon’s fulfilment centres in the UK.
Amazon then took on the task of storing, packing and despatching our customer orders.
For me, sending bulk stock was far easier and more cost-effective than sending individual customer orders.
In turn, Amazon, with its wealth of resources, was able to process far more individual orders than I could have managed myself.
An added advantage of using FBA was the fact that my FBA products were then Prime eligible – with the badge to prove it and which then attracted Prime member customers.
As a result, I experienced a noticeable increase in sales.
As if that wasn’t good enough, a mysterious new customer also arrived without any announcement and began to place scores of orders.
In fact, this new customer was responsible for a rapid doubling of my sales. And the identity of this new customer?
It was Amazon itself.
At first, I was deeply suspicious and perplexed. Why was Amazon buying so many of my products without telling me?
Was this a good or a bad thing? The customer's name was ‘Amazon World Imports’ but a Google search revealed nothing.
I could only assume that these purchases were part of a wider buying programme operating beyond the UK.
Using a forensic breakdown of various reports and a close examination of Amazon stores in the EU, I eventually worked out that Amazon had translated my UK product pages and activated them in their stores in Germany, France, Italy and Spain.
Now I understood!
In simple terms, when a customer in, let’s say Germany, browsed their home Amazon marketplace, they would see my product page – as translated and activated by Amazon.
If they ordered the product then Amazon would, in a seamless transaction, order the product from me and then send it to the German customer using my UK FBA stock.
It was brilliant.
Without any insight or effort on my part, I could reach millions of potential Amazon customers in the EU.
Even better was the fact that my customer was Amazon UK - meaning that a Germany-bound shipment was not an export for me. It was a UK sale for me and an export for Amazon.
Allow Amazon to buy my products to sell globally
What is this amazing programme you ask?
Well, it was – and still is – one of the most elusive programmes on Amazon from what I can gather!
It is rarely promoted, and it barely has a proper name.
“Allow Amazon to buy my products to sell globally” is a bit of a mouthful but that is what the setting is called on the website.
In this article, I also refer to it as ‘Sell my Products Globally’ (SMPG) for the sake of convenience.
There is no sign-up or detailed action required of the seller who wishes to be part of this programme. One merely needs to tick a box in the account settings to enable it - or check if it has been ticked by default.
It certainly worked well for us but, aside from the other benefits, our participation in the SMPG programme provided a great opportunity to explore potential markets in Europe.
And, after a year, Amazon had demonstrated to me that my EU market was there!
That gave me the confidence to take the next step – which for me meant leaving SMPG behind and joining Amazon’s European Fulfilment Network (EFN) in 2018, followed by their Pan EU programme in 2019.
Such happy days. Just think - I wandered unknowingly into the SMPG programme and it became the starting point for my five years of successful exporting to new and treasured customers in mainland Europe; conversing cheerfully with them via Google Translate and merrily converting my many Euros back into the Great British Pound.
The golden rage of Brexit
Sadly, Brexit quickly put a stop to that.
A customs border sprang up on 1 January 2021 and our EU customers became unreachable.
Regardless of whatever guidance was out there – and there was a lot – the practical experience of exporting to the EU was, for many small businesses, impossible.
A thorny hedge of legislation, policy and charges.
There was little that Amazon could do for its UK sellers either. Despite remaining part of the Amazon EU unified market, Amazon UK sellers, particularly small businesses, with no other presence in the EU, found themselves very much out in the cold.
And cold it was. I could have wept during those wintry days in January and February 2021.
In the midst of a second pandemic lockdown, I watched the last of our EU customers fading away.
Our FBA requirements quickly dropped. The special products which I had overstocked for my French customers gathered dust in the warehouse.
There were no more hilarious misunderstandings on Google Translate and my final disbursement of Euros gave me no pleasure at all.
I lamented this terrible state of affairs with many other eCommerce sellers and I felt the same as they did. Sad. Angry. Despondent.
And then I saw it.
It was 28 March and my favourite customer had returned after years of absence.
Amazon World Imports had purchased one of my items. As before, they made no announcement, and they made the purchase under the even vaguer – but recognisable name of ‘Amazon’.
The delivery address was given as one of the UK FBA warehouses but I was pretty certain that this item was destined for a customer in the EU.
For Lord of the Rings fans, this was akin to the return of Gandalf. There was much whooping in the portacabin and for days we kept an eye on this most welcome buyer in case we were imagining things.
But we weren’t. Over the next few months, Amazon placed over 600 orders which I can only assume are now scattered amongst my old EU customers.
I presume the SMPG programme has found a new popularity in the face of post-Brexit export difficulties.
Amazon is famed for logistics and if there is a strategic solution out there, they will often find it.
After all, when an Amazon seller loses business – Amazon loses business too.
So, there we have it. And you can have it too!
If wishing to reconnect with EU customers, it is recommended that existing Amazon sellers consider enabling their account for “Allow Amazon to buy my products to sell globally”, whilst new or prospective sellers can commence their operations on Amazon knowing that this programme is available.
The programme does have its limitations and it is not guaranteed that you will be able to use it even if you enable your account. But you have to be in it to win it.
I conclude with some of my own observations which may help, but I stress that this list, along with this entire article, is based on my personal experiences.
Allow Amazon to buy my products to sell globally – personal observations.
Sellers can participate in the programme by enabling their accounts via a simple tick box in account settings.
The SMPG setting is ‘account level’ and so sellers can either opt-in or opt-out, but it is not possible to opt-in at the individual product level.
Sellers may not have any choice about which products are selected for translation and visibility in the EU stores. Amazon may select some products and not others.
There are no additional fees to pay since orders (and returns) will be charged and processed as a normal domestic order.
This programme is a global programme and is not restricted to the EU – however, it is of obvious interest to UK sellers who are trying to reconnect with their EU customer base.
Amazon will not resell your products under the SMPG programme if you are already selling them in that marketplace.
Orders received via this programme will show the buyer's name as ‘Amazon’ with a delivery address showing as one of Amazon UK’s FBA warehouses.
Sellers will receive separate invoices for any orders placed via this programme.
For selected products, note that any machine translation of UK page content can lead to various translation errors which may cause misunderstanding by EU customers.
This, in turn, may lead to higher returns and poorer product reviews. Sellers may solve this by creating their own EU product pages using human translations and the same ASIN and SKU as is used in the UK.
Sellers may be unable to edit a product page that Amazon has created in an EU store, particularly if the item does not appear in the seller’s own EU inventory. As per above, this may be solved if sellers create their own EU product pages.
Using this programme is not classed as an export, hence there are no implications for overseas VAT registration or any other export administration matters.
Amazon has provided new explanatory text in account settings (which was not there when I first participated in 2017!) but it should also help you get your head around it.