How retailers can ensure frictionless trade despite Brexit paperwork boom

By Scott Wilson, director of customer experience, eFax.

Despite the promises, both anecdotal and data-backed evidence suggests that the UK’s transition out of the European Union has not been as smoothed as hoped. Official government figures state that exports of goods to the EU fell by 40% in January 2021, with imports dropping 29%. The Federation of Small Businesses said that 23% of small businesses had temporarily halted sales to EU customers, while a further four per cent had decided to stop selling to the bloc permanently.

Behind the numbers, stories are no less worrying. From bike manufacturers to whiskey distillers, businesses of all sizes are struggling to get their goods between the EU and UK. What’s causing this? Research by the Chartered Institute of Procurement & Supply (CIPS) points the finger at an increase in paperwork – 47% of supply chain managers in the UK said the main reason for border delays is that it is taking longer for customs to work through the new paperwork.

It isn’t just the bureaucracy either, but the cost of it; from customs fees to expensive health certificates, many of the businesses that sell across the EU/UK border are facing significant obstacles that were not there last year. 

In fact, the increase in paperwork is such that a majority of retailers (68%) surveyed by eFax believed that extra levels of paperwork required to do business across EU borders creates an additional security risk. Unsurprisingly, the same study found that 53% of UK retail IT decision-makers are accelerating the speed of digital transformation of paper-based processes as a direct result of the disruption caused by Brexit. 

What’s more, 70% of respondents would have accelerated digital transformation sooner if they had been aware of how much the extra paperwork would slow down cross border trade and transport. 

It is going to take some months for the systems surrounding the passage of goods between the UK and EU to sort themselves out, a process which is likely to have several more twists and turns as various extensions expire for different sectors and commodities. As we’ve seen, there is an element of being held hostage for fortune for many retailers – they can, to a degree, only react to their environment. 

However, there are opportunities to improve those parts of the puzzle that they have control over and do all they can to ensure frictionless cross-border travel and trade. So, for example, how they store and share documentation with employees and suppliers, irrespective of location.

Despite all the hype around digital transformation, there are many areas of life where physical documentation remains the norm. Logistics is one of those. Bills of lading, the piece of paper that proves cargo ownership, are often couriered from one party to another. New digital versions are available, based on emerging technologies, but on the whole many businesses are forced to overcome significant challenges to get paperwork into the right hands at the right time. 

However, there is appetite for change. The eFax study found that 89% of retail IT decision-makers believe workers travelling across borders would benefit from the ability to send, receive, and securely sign extra layers of paperwork on-the-move. 

A few years ago, this wouldn’t have been possible – neither the IT infrastructure nor the devices were available, at scale, for entire workforces to be equipped with the right tools to digitally share documentation appropriately. Now, however, high quality coverage, cloud computing, smartphones and tablets mean that whether a store manager, a stock-picker at a distribution centre, a truck driver or other personnel can access paperwork, sign for it and share it securely, all from the palm of their hand. 

The desire and the means are there – what retailers need to do now is ensure that their digital transformation, already being accelerated, covers all aspects of their operation. In doing so, they can ensure that they are well placed to optimise the transit of their cargo across borders. 

There are always going to be disruptive external factors. Last year it was the pandemic, this year it has been the UK’s exit from the EU. No one wants to see backlogs of trucks snaking out of ports, food rotting in warehouses or customers left disappointed by deliveries unable to get over the border. For retailers, that means ensuring that everything they control is as slick and frictionless as possible. With more paperwork than ever before, making sure it is in the right hands, at the right time, is critical to this process.

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