Brexit is an opportunity for UK firms

Brexit should be the catalyst for Britain to put a greater focus on its small businesses, according to the UK boss of eBay.

During an interview for Sky News, Rob Hattrell said that Brexit was “an opportunity” for the companies who used eBay’s trading platform.

“That opportunity comes mainly in export so we have seen a growth of export products from the UK from the moment Brexit was announced,” he said.

Hattrell, who took over running eBay UK earlier this year, claimed that response was not simply to do with currency movements, but also because of the “strong entrepreneurial streak” of British small businesses, creating products “that are loved and looked for all over the world”.

“These businesses are very agile,” he said.

“They are able to redevelop and reconfigure, and respond to macroeconomic challenges at enormous speed.

“That is crucial to being able to survive when you have a customer population that is changing how it shops on a constant basis.”

Hattrell joined eBay from Tesco, where he had overseen the grocery giant’s general merchandise business.

He had previously been Tesco’s IT director, giving him experience across both retail and technology – a combination that attracted eBay’s headhunters.

His challenge is to continue to grow eBay’s market, while also ensuring there is clear space between it and Amazon.

Industry sources say Hattrell intends to add “more warmth” to the eBay brand in the coming year, while also dealing with the ramifications of Brexit.

“We haven’t got clarity about Brexit yet but change is inevitable and it is just another change that is happening in the market,” he told me.

“Ebay has been around for 22 years and in those 22 years shopping has changed fundamentally – in terms of growth of mobile, how people shop and interact.

“Brexit is just another change on top of that. You just have to focus on customers.”

Around 80 per cent of deals on the company’s website are now being offered by businesses, selling to consumers.

The other 20 per cent are consumers selling to each other – an area that, he believes, may grow if there is “economic pressure on household income because then one of the ways people can relieve that is by selling things using our platform”.

Ebay is a global trading platform that supported $84bn of deals in 2016.

The UK business does not break down how much of that is done in this country, but Britain is the world’s third biggest market for e-commerce behind the United States and China.

In common with other American corporate giants, the company has attracted criticism for the low level of tax it has paid in this country.

Its last set of financial results shows the UK company paying tax of £1.6m, despite turning over more than £200m.

“We pay all our tax in all jurisdictions,” Mr Hattrell said.

“You have to look at broader contributions we make – at the people we employ and the businesses we employ.”

He also said he rejected claims that eBay was not doing enough to deter VAT fraud, saying: “We work closely with HMRC – we share data and if we are notified of sellers who are not paying VAT then we will shut them down.

“We don’t want them on the platform.”

Hattrell’s view of the future is one of increasing speed, technology, ease and security – of nimble small businesses increasingly outwitting existing retail giants.

And he thinks we may have already had a clue as to how that future will work – thanks to fidget spinners.

In September 2016, there were 650 searches on eBay for fidget spinners over the course of the whole month.

Six months later, there were 650 such searches every two seconds.

The speed with which fidget spinners turned from obscurity to global craze was a lesson in modern sales.

“The gap between invention and the market is shorter and shorter,” he said.

“Consumers are moving faster all the time, they engage on mobile phones, their time is precious and attention spans are shorter.”