UK SMEs plan for international expansion post-COVID but payment hurdles threaten growth

Global fintech platform Airwallex today announced findings from a survey conducted on UK SMEs, revealing that more than three-quarters of them have plans for geographical expansion next year, with more than two-thirds believing that digital adoption will be important to enable accelerated growth opportunities.

The poll of business decision-makers considered the reality facing UK SMEs as they look to invest in, and grow, their operations in 2022.

UK SMEs push ahead with international expansion

Widespread UK SME global expansion is planned for 2022, with 77% of those polled having said they plan to expand their presence in Europe and/or other international markets. 62% (six in ten) of UK SMEs plan to expand into Europe next year, and 38% have expansion plans beyond Europe.

Expansions plans are driven by the need to extend their business networks:

More than half of UK SMEs’ expansion strategies for 2022 involve sourcing new customers
Over two-fifths are aiming to source new suppliers abroad
To support their growth, nearly two-fifths also plan to expand marketing activities, with the same figure opting to establish new trade partnerships in international markets

Hidden fees a pain point for UK SMEs

Despite the focus on international expansion, the survey also suggested that business decision makers within UK SMEs are largely resigned to making extensive payment fees and foreign exchange.

Cross-border payment challenges continue to have brought significant frustrations, particularly at a time when COVID has forced many to make and manage cross-border payments.

More than half of UK SME business decision makers view international FX fees on cross-border payments as a pain point that takes too much effort to work around, while 26% think they are a pain point which cannot be avoided
Over two-thirds agree the ‘hidden fees’ that come with dealing internationally with merchants are just a “necessary evil” of doing business across borders
Managing payments in local currencies is also an issue: over half agree that paying international suppliers in their local currencies is a headache

UK SMEs keen to invest in business growth

In addition to expansion plans, the survey also gauged the impact payment fees might have on UK SME growth. Over two-thirds of respondents agree that businesses which don’t take steps to cut down on unnecessary fees/charges around international trade are handicapping their growth.

Indeed, the survey revealed that losses from card fees specifically could otherwise be put to better use enabling business growth:
Three-quarters of UK SMEs would invest that freed-up budget back into their business
One fifth would invest savings back into staffing
17% would opt to invest in marketing, with the same figure opting to expand the product range
Around one in ten would invest in facilities, e.g., office expansion

UK SMEs show increased appetite for digital adoption

Two-thirds of UK SME business decision makers believe that organisations which don’t adapt their banking strategy for the digital age will struggle against competitors. For many, the visibility and transparency that a digital platform offers is key: 64% of respondents think businesses without a real-time view of expenses, transfers, and all other transactions to track are not firmly in control of their finances.

While 7% of respondents have already moved all or the majority of their finances away from traditional banking to manage them on a digital fintech platform, a further 68% would consider doing this in future. In fact, more than two-fifths (44%) are considering doing this within the next 12 months.

Jed Rose, GM, EMEA at Airwallex comments, “As businesses throughout the world have been impacted by the pandemic, more innovative, tech-driven strategies are giving them the opportunity to enhance their globalisation efforts. Whether it is the ability to open accounts in new markets within seconds, or combining all international payments into one platform for greater control and flexibility, identifying tech platforms that can enable end-to-end solutions which support business expansion across borders can facilitate sustainable future growth for businesses of all sizes.”

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