Last reviewed 17 August 2023

A great many exporting companies miss some of their best opportunities, simply because they’re not looking properly. This is not surprising, as the world is a big and diverse place, and it is also constantly changing. However, a little time spent studying trade statistics can pay dividends.

The value of trade statistics is that they are officially measured (generally quite consistently) and are easily accessible. What goes on inside a country is often more difficult to gauge, but goods moving across national boundaries are classified, weighed and valued carefully. And that means there is valuable, reliable information for exporters.

Virtually all governments classify goods by a common method known as the Harmonised System (HS), and most exporters know which numbers under that system apply to their products. What many don’t appreciate, is that with a few clicks on the mouse, they can find out where products under their classifications are being bought and sold, and also see important trends.

Where to start

Croner-i Navigate-Trade carries a large amount of top-level data that subscribers can refer to instantly. There are Country Information pages for most countries throughout the world, carrying information on rules of trade and customs. For more than 70 of those countries (representing more than 90% of UK exports) there is a marketing and market research section on those pages, that carries top level data on the UK’s trade with that country over the last three years, and also statistics on what that country buys and sells and where they buy it from and sell it to. Each page looks at the top 30 items exported from the UK to that country, which typically covers more than 90% of all exports. It’s an ideal place to start looking for encouraging trends for your business.

A vital question to consider is what product code is relevant. The country information pages look at products only to a two-digit level (HS2), which is quite a broad definition. The data we publish on the country information pages will sometimes be sub-divided to four-digit level (HS4) for major items. But we can freely access more detailed data from the government website

Basic international market research

Effective research depends more than anything else on asking the right questions. Which levels of data are most significant for us? Let us consider a business that makes cheddar cheese. Its tariff number is 04069021. Is it necessary to look at data at such a fine level? Maybe countries that are importing any kind of cheese are interesting for this business, in which case looking at four figure level (0406 — cheese and curd) might be a better idea. Or, maybe, we should just look at all types of food? Unlike when we are classifying our goods for customs, when we have to follow strict rules, when we are looking for business, we can play fast and loose with the data, as long as what we get back is meaningful.

Another example. A company makes leather gloves for motorcyclists. The goods are classified under HS4203, apparel of leather. But that lumps the motorbike gloves in with every other kind of leather glove or mitten. A better approach might be to forget the gloves altogether and look at which countries are importing motor bikes. If people are buying the bikes, there’s a good chance they’ll buy gloves. Perhaps trade in the vehicles is a better guide.

The UK Trade Info site above provides data on goods entering and leaving the UK, and where it’s going to or came from. This is updated monthly, (about six weeks behind real time) and free to access. And we can drill down to as fine a level of data as we choose. It is a somewhat cumbersome website to navigate, but there’s a helpline and some online guidance.

A useful way to start is by doing an initial sift. We can quickly look at exports by country for our products, see which are the biggest markets for UK exporters and, if we collect the numbers for a few years, we can see which are growing and which are declining.

Trade between all countries

For trade between all countries, a convenient source is the International Trade Centre. Their Trade Map collates and publishes data from every country available. Most of the data can be accessed for free. If you register on the site, at no charge, you can get a bit more detail. Some of the finest detail requires a paid subscription. Here we can see, not just who’s buying goods like ours from the UK, but from anywhere in the world. The data goes back 20 years as well, so we can look at trends and see which markets are growing.

This is so simple and so quick to do, yet a lot of exporters rarely, or never do it. If a business is following a strategy based on assumptions or on data it acquired several years ago, the chances are it is missing opportunities that could transform its success. An experienced exporter can compare its performance with national and world trends. A new exporter can use the information to help choose the markets to try first. And the strength of this approach is, the data is fairly reliable (it’s collected in largely the same way in each country), it’s reasonably up to date, and best of all, most of it is completely free to use.

The trade data, of course, is only a starting point. At best, it will point to opportunities that might be worth exploring. But that alone can help an exporting business to focus its attention on markets that are most likely to deliver results. The country pages also provide a lot of background information such as hints on local culture and laws, caveats, major developments, links to major retailers and local market research companies.