18 March 2019
UK E-Commerce Sector Braces for Brexit and Platform Obsolescence
While the Northwest of England may be emerging as one of Europe's key digital hubs, the region is not immune from the looming challenges of Brexit nor the forced upgrades to the architecture of certain essential e-commerce platforms.
E-commerce is something of a booming sector in the North of England, with many of the companies exhibiting at eCommerce North 2018 based in and around Manchester, the region's undoubted capital. Indeed, such is the scale of the local industry that both dedicated niche players and those with a more general remit seem well able to flourish.
Very much in the latter category is Mosquito Digital, a brand-communications specialist operating out of Manchester's Northern Quarter, the city's emerging creative hub. Outlining just what brand communications entail in the digital age, Laura Summers, the company's Senior Projects and Media Co-ordinator, said: "What we do extends across website design, social media, email marketing, web builds, B2B and B2C. We're attending this particular event to promote all the different aspect of our business, as not everyone is aware of just everything we can bring to the table.
"For us, it's all about making sure that whatever content we create is actually getting to the right audience and is not just adrift in a sea of social-media activity. It's really a case of making sure you're speaking to the required bespoke audience and making sure you're addressing them in the right way."
Focusing on the importance of creating usable website content, her colleague – Account Director Chris Webber – said: "It's not just about building a website for the sake of building a website – it's about building a website that will create a buzz, one that people will use, re-visit and recommend to their friends.
"Another major issue here is the increasing sophistication of search engine optimisation [SEO]. Despite that, though, any content still needs to be useful and interesting to a human audience rather than just being designed to have the maximum appeal to search algorithms. You have to do more than simply try to trick search engines into optimising your site's ranking. The current generation of search engines are smart. They measure engagement and dwell time, both of which will be miniscule if you fail to provide genuinely useful content."
At present, Mosquito's client roster includes Zoflora (disinfectants), Marigold (household rubber gloves) and the Manchester Airport Group.
Equally at home in the city centre – but far more of a niche player – was Pimberly, a three-year-old business that pitches itself as the purveyor of "the most powerful product information management platform on the planet". As keen to promote Manchester as a digital hub as he was to promote his own business, Chief Executive Martin Balaam said: "We're exhibiting at eCommerce North to support Manchester and to shout loudly about its achievements. We've always had great retailers here, but now there's also a great tech sector too, with the two supporting one another.
"Increasingly, you can find everything digital here, with a lot of the companies complementary to one another rather than just being competitors. We all talk to each other and even help each other out on occasion. It's all helping the sector – and the entire region – to spiral upwards."
According to Balaam, Pimberly's focus on product information management has seen it develop quite a unique offering. Outlining its USP, he said: "We're all about the product and all about giving it a voice and a sensibility.
"While a lot of e-commerce providers major on customer experience and customer intimacy, we take quite a different approach. We see it as our mission to make sure products find the right user and that they have all the ancillary products they need to get the best use out of the product in question."
Balaam was also notably upbeat about a number of issues other exhibitors clearly saw as looming threats, saying: "The are two big changes on the horizon that some genuinely regard as problematic. The biggest challenge is the ongoing paradigm shift from bricks and mortar to online. Both retailers and manufacturers are seeing their traditional supply chains changing beyond recognition and at an increasingly rapid pace. Many of them are yet to put strategies in place to deal with that. Those that fail to do so will just be squeezed out of the market by the likes of Amazon.
"Then, obviously, there's Brexit. That's something, though, that I see as an opportunity. Anything that makes life more complex for brands and businesses means they have a greater need for someone like us."
Not every exhibitor, however, was quite as sanguine about the prospects for the UK business community once the country transitions out of the European Union. Sharing the concerns of many, Ian Cassidy, the E-Commerce Director CTI Digital, a Manchester-based web development and digital marketing agency, said: "If the politicians have yet to come to grips with just what Brexit means, I'm not sure what the business community is meant to do.
"There are, however, certain steps that e-commerce operators can take in order to ensure they are ready. In particular, they need to be on the kind of platform that allows them to move quickly. For example, if someone wants to shut down their German operation and open in the US, we can help with that. We can set up a new website very quickly and configure the appropriate currency and payment options. Until the eventual outcome becomes clear, ensuring you have a degree of flexibility is the only sensible option."
While, even as the deadline for departure draws close, Brexit remains a nebulous and uncertain issue, a far more defined problem for the industry is the looming obsolescence of Magento 1, the world's most popular e-commerce architecture. Explaining just how big a concern this is for the operators of many digital market places, Cassidy said: "Technology is evolving at quite a rate of knots right now. This has led a number of platforms to take quite an aggressive approach to upgrades. Magento, for instance, has thrown its whole weight behind Magento 2, with Magento 1 set to be phased out by the end of next year. Basically, if you're reliant on Magento 1, you have no choice but to upgrade."
eCommerce North 2018 took place from 6-7 November at Manchester's Event City.
Catherine Jones, Special Correspondent, Manchester