Business Secretary Vince Cable has stressed the importance of British retailers internationalising their businesses in order to benefit from growth opportunities abroad.

Speaking at an industry conference in London this week, the Secretary of State for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said that while the UK high street has been "under pressure" and "somewhat battered" of late, the industry remains important to the country's economy.

"The retail sector is like a bellwether of the economy as a whole," he told delegates at the event.

While Cable pointed to "anxiety", particularly around the business rate system, which he said the Government was looking to reform, he said digital retailing was an area of rapid growth. The UK currently accounts for around 17% of the global market for online retailing, he said.

"We are the leader globally, ahead of the rest of the world," Cable said, adding that there was "an evolution" of a new model developing of convenience and smart phones.

"The whole sector is becoming internationalised so rapidly. What is driving growth is the fact manufacturers operate in the online space. They no longer think in national boundaries."

Cable said there had been a 65% increase in overseas customers looking for British brands online and conversely, a 35% increase in UK consumers looking for international items. He predicts international online sales will grow to GBP28bn by 2020.

"Businesses are having to adapt to this. The UK is, so far, absolutely ahead of the game."

Cable said this was the context for the Government's International Retail Action Plan launched last year, which set out to help 3,000 companies break into international markets. 

After the first year, he said, 700 have managed this, including apparel retailers such as Ted Baker, which UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) has helped grow internationally. It also helped J Crew launch its first stores in the UK.

Going forward, Cable said there were signs of a recovery in the domestic retail sector and that the Government was seeing "real growth".

"The projections are that retail sales overall are likely to be something of the order of 3-4% a year for coming years. Of course, that depends on taxation but there is now significant growth taking place over the next few years."

Cable said the "next big area" where the Government hopes to deliver results is the EU and having a single digital market in Europe.

"One of the big gaps in [the] single market arrangement is around digital trade. We need a single digital transaction to make digital trade easier and more beneficial."

He concluded: "We cannot repeat the mistakes of the past. We have got to be more outward looking at the retail base."