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Irish traders on a year of Brexit: ‘It is a pain in the backside’

For retailers, the UK’s exit has complicated life but also broadened their horizons

Carlow woman Jane Byrne, who sells dance wear, has had to choreograph complex new arrangements since Brexit to make sure she has stock on the shelves of her shop for customers.

The UK's departure from the European Union has forced Byrne to look elsewhere for products because it has been extremely difficult sourcing stock from her suppliers, most of whom are based in Britain.

Before Brexit, she could have stock delivered in just three days; now it can take up to four weeks and often even longer. She has tried to find new suppliers in Europe but delivery can take just as long from them, if they have the products.

“It’s a pain in the backside and the problem is I don’t have a choice. I have to go to the UK because that’s where the main suppliers of dance wear are based,” she says.

In the year since Britain’s departure, it is hard to untangle the exact Brexit effect from the web of complications facing international traders since Covid-19 started to spread around the globe.

International supply chains have been badly disrupted during the pandemic with lockdowns, shipping container shortages and delays hampering routine schedules and routes.

Major changes to consumer demands and a shift to online shopping have added another layer of challenges, putting pressure on suppliers trying to predict orders and find storage space.

“It is not only Brexit. It is Covid. It is the whole situation. You add everything in and it is like the perfect storm. Everything is mixed in but Brexit is having a colossal effect,” says Byrne.

Byrne says many British exporters appear to have adopted an 'ah sure, it will be grand' attitude to Brexit

One of Byrne's UK suppliers, in response to Brexit, has opened a hub in the Netherlands, from where some of her products now originate, but it can take four to six weeks from placing the order with the British company before it reaches her shop in Carlow from the Netherlands.

Another supplier in Portugal makes the product only as it is ordered so this stock takes time to reach Ireland, too. Byrne has found that a French company sells a US brand of dance tights that she has sold for years but it cannot give her a date on when they will have new stock in.

Unprepared exporters

Tap shoes have increased in price because the steel used in the shoes has doubled in price, and the French supplier will only have shoes in stock from orders Byrne placed as long ago as July.

“The worst thing is UK suppliers don’t seem to get it. I don’t think they realised the amount of paperwork that was going to be involved and they just weren’t prepared for it,” she says.

Byrne says many British exporters appear to have adopted an “ah sure, it will be grand” attitude to Brexit, in contrast to the many Irish businesses who were quick to get “Brexit-ready”.

This is a common refrain, particularly among small Irish businesses, which, unlike large companies, were constrained from hiring new staff in the run-up to Brexit to prepare for working through the bureaucratic curtain that fell between Ireland and Britain at the start of last year.

"We had UK customers asking us: what is Brexit? What does it mean? Why are you charging me that?" says Caroline Horgan, managing director of Scatterbox, which supplies furniture stores with cushions, throws and art.

She says the company even lost products during the first months of last year in the transport chaos at depots and ports immediately after Brexit.

“We just had to suck up the extra costs of bringing the product in from the UK,” she says. “We had to take on two people for Brexit because Britain was just too important a market for us to lose.”

Annemarie Harte, founder of online home decor retailer Dreamz, says the impact was immediate as the clock turned to January 1st, 2021. A five-day delivery time for her most popular product – kitchen splash-backs – went to four weeks and delivery charges more than doubled.

A British supplier’s refusal to ship fire pits directly to Irish customers due to the increased costs after Brexit meant that Harte had no summer products to sell. Rising costs have hurt her business.

“As a start-up, suddenly all your budget for advertising, promotions and PR – whatever it may be – just dwindles,” she says. “It is the knock-on effect. It is not just difficult and costly, it knocks it on to everything you are trying to do.

“It is hitting the smaller businesses worst. Bigger businesses can weather an amount of it and have the personnel to try to source other ways of doing their business. But for the SMEs – and I am small, I am micro, it is just me – it is an utter headache.”

Large businesses

At the other end of the scale, larger companies have managed better.

In advance of Brexit, Dawn Farms, a major food distributor, hired and trained staff in the technicalities of customs clearance and tariff coding, digging out of its archives an old green tariff book that predated the EU single market in 1992 to prepare for a new trading world with Britain.

“From the get-go we felt the need to get ahead of it, and our goal was to be the go-to adviser for our customers on everything about Brexit. We decided to invest in the customs side of it and bring that in-house,” says John McGrath, head of business development at Dawn Farms.

Official figures show that trade, like water, sought the path of least resistance. Imports from Northern Ireland soared in the first nine months, unimpeded by the open trade border on the island thanks to the Brexit deal. The new Irish Sea border meant imports from Britain plunged.

Martina Lawless, research professor at the Economic and Social Research Institute, says "it was a very sudden and quite dramatic change in the importing process and a lot of firms importing smaller amounts delayed making purchases while they got used to the new systems. There was a very steep learning curve to that."

A slight recovery in imports from Britain last autumn suggests businesses are being flexible and adapting to the new trade border with Britain by organising fewer but larger consignments so shipments can be processed more quickly and have not got snared in border checks, she says.

Businesses have also discovered such a big market elsewhere and that the rest of the world is a bigger market than Britain. It has opened our eyes

Coping with Brexit has brought an added benefit to Irish companies. Being forced to seek alternatives to Britain, it has made businesses more focused on international opportunities.

“Brexit gave them a huge hurdle to overcome and they are a lot more prepared from a customs compliance point of view to be able to trade with other countries around the world,” says Simon McKeever, chief executive of the Irish Exporters’ Association.

“Has it made them go much more international then they were before? A little bit.”

Daniel Hickey, managing director of All in All Ingredients, a Dublin-based food company, says preparing for and coping with Brexit has broadened horizons for Irish businesses and they are now looking for new suppliers and markets beyond Britain. His company is now sourcing products directly from France, Germany, Norway and beyond, bypassing Brexit Britain.

“It has asked to be more efficient and more organised in working with our customers. We have won business and are hopefully winning more business from Irish companies who previously would have sourced from the UK,” he says.

“Businesses have also discovered such a big market elsewhere and that the rest of the world is a bigger market than Britain. It has opened our eyes.”

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