While the UK economy remains difficult for retailers, it may be tempting to simply wait for the storm to pass and think expansion should be off the agenda.

While the UK economy remains difficult for retailers, it may be tempting to simply wait for the storm to pass and think expansion should be off the agenda.

But it’s worth remembering that economic downturns can be precisely the time to broaden strategic horizons.

I spoke at a British Retail Consortium event last week on international retailing and it was encouraging to see about 100 retailers there.

They ranged from cycle stores to fashion chains and one specialising in sex toys - all at different stages of their international journey. What united them was the belief that their business had something to offer the global consumer.

There are several points to bear in mind when considering overseas expansion: the first is to be clear about the benefits.

At Kingfisher, we have found that these include a better geographic balance to the business, access to growth markets in Europe and Asia and the improved buying strength that comes with the additional sales.

The second point is, why now?

The key here is that acting counter-cyclically means that the opportunities can be greater and the cost of expansion lower.

In a downturn, assets become available that would otherwise not have been on the market, whether whole businesses or parcels of stores.

At Kingfisher, for example, we bought some former Focus DIY stores in the UK and recently acquired 15 stores in Romania, a new market for us, and for less than their freehold value.

Other retailers have been doing similar things, such as the expansion of Topshop in the US and Sports Direct’s move into Austria and the Baltic region. Kingfisher’s Brico Dépôt and Screwfix businesses have international potential so now is the time to look for opportunities for them.

The third point is to choose your model. Historically these have been the wholly owned route, a joint venture or a franchise agreement.

But the internet offers the online-only approach that we have seen taken by retailers such as John Lewis, Hobbs and our own Screwfix, which is now shipping to 23 countries.

Finally, a message to the Government - you can help. UK retailers have fantastic prospects abroad and it’s good to see UK Trade & Investment helping more, but regulation is getting in the way.

Online penetration is higher in the UK than in most developed markets at 11% of retail sales. That means British retailers are digital pioneers.

However, we face regulatory hurdles such as markedly different rules to set up domain names across the EU and numerous product merchandising and labelling regulations.

We need a more uniform approach. The Digital Single Market needs to be accelerated during the lifetime of this European Commission if the UK, and ultimately wider Europe, is to make the most of its digital opportunities.

There will always be winners and losers on the international path. Even the mighty Walmart and Carrefour have had international wobbles. But IKEA and Decathlon have enjoyed great overseas success.

The BRC event last week showed that domestic players including New Look, Costa Coffee and Hotel Chocolat are all doing great things abroad. Now could be the right time to join them by expanding overseas.

  • Ian Cheshire is group chief executive of Kingfisher and chairman of the British Retail Consortium