Supermarkets and the Small Irish Food Producer

empty shelfOne of the biggest challenges for the small Irish food producer is to negotiate and deal with supermaket chains. Inevitably they have all the power, and since you are small, you are very much at the mercy of their whims. Whether you remain on their shelf or not is of little interest to them, no matter how much they like to tell eveyone how important the Irish producer is to them. “Irish” is a good selling point for getting customers in the shop and feeling good about it, but inevitably Irish specialty lines will not perform as well as the huge multinationals. I don’t know how many zeros you would have to add on to our marketing budget to bring it up to the level of Haagen Dazs/Diageo (not to mention Ben&Jerrys/HB/Unilever), but it would be many indeed. It will be a long time before we shift as many tubs out of a shop as they do!

Bord Bia can be helpful to some degree at least in terms of information, but anyone going down the supermarket route must be wary. In our own case, we decided to avoid the big chains because we’ve heard the stories of specialty producers who think they’ve hit the lotto when they’re listed, spent a fortune ramping up production for the huge orders, and then a year later go bust when they are unceremoniously dropped.

We decided to go into Superquinn as a supermarket trial, and have been in their shops for about a year. Yesterday, they threatened to de-list us. I don’t know if it’s a ploy to try to hammer us down on price, or if it’s that the new frozen food buyer wants to get rid of all lines except the very best sellers, which is standard practise when they want to optimise sales per square metre. For us, being dropped would not be the end of the world, as we are only in a few of their shops and it’s a small percentage of our overall sales. However, it’s very frustrating in so far as many of our best customers are in areas served by Superquinn, and we know that they are delighted to be able to buy our ice cream without having to travel.

The point of all of this is not to complain about things being unfair. We drop products all the time in our own shops for a whole variety of reasons. It’s that I hope that eventually this site will be a better way to keep in touch with customers than mail and our website. That it also can be a way to mobilise customers in circumstances like these. Right now we have hundreds of customers who buy our ice cream in Superquinn every week, and they have no idea that it’s quite likely that buying the ice cream will soon become a lot harder (at least we have many other accounts in the Dublin area, but it’s too much to expect customers to regularly go out of their way). If we could generate 100 or more emails to Superquinn from Superquinn customers, they would have to pay attention (at least I hope they would). I know that if even three customers begged us to keep a product we had dropped from our own shop we would stock just for them.

I would love any feedback or suggestions.

A great (though depressing) reference on how supermarkets work is Joanna Blythman’s book Shopped. Also, Conor O’Neill has written a great article about small producers and blogging.

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13 thoughts on “Supermarkets and the Small Irish Food Producer

  1. We just signed up for Superquinn home delivery, Kieran. Could you update the post with a link to the appropriate email address or, if you don’t feel that’s appropriate, point us in a useful direction on the Superquinn homepage?

  2. Hi Kieran,

    I’ve just been browsing around my shopping list on superquinn dot ie and I notice that while certain luxury brands are available for home delivery, Murphy’s isn’t. Of course, it may be that it’s just not available in my area – which isn’t particularly middle-class. Might be confined to southsiders only. I was hoping to be able to order some.

  3. While I live in Cork, my mum regularly picks up her Murphys at Superquinn in Dublin. A scoop of the Kerry ice-cream is now a regular treat for the Sunday dessert whenever we go home. I’d have to see that end!

    I’d be delighted to drop Superquinn a note – what’s the best email address to use?

  4. Thanks a million for your comments. I think the best place to contact them would be through their Customer Service Form. If you can’t get Murphys Ice Cream, say you would like it, and otherwise maybe you could say that you’ve heard a rumour that Murphys Ice Cream will no longer be available at your Superquinn shop. Thanks so much, and I’ll let you know what happens on this end!

  5. I wonder is this just a symptom of bigger changes afoot at Superquinn now that the consortium is fully embedded?

    Superquinn have always tried to play both sides of the field; the value side and the quality side. They started in the value area but over the years have become more and more associated with the high-end high-quality part of the market.

    For 9 years I shooped in Superquinn Kimmage and it was possibly their worst shop. They tried to cover all the bases but ended up covering none. On many saturdays they would have lovely Dunn’s smoked salmon but would have run out of lettuce. They would have artisan breads but be out of stock on sliced pans. They were utterly clueless in comparison to their flagship stores.

    For the past few years, it seems to me that they have struggled to find their place in the market. Silly distractions like in-shop banking didn’t help. I was convinced they should eschew market share for the high-end high-margin business which worked so well for them in places like Blackrock and Sutton. But of course they still had economy of scale issues due to the small number of shops.

    When the consortium bought them, I wondered which direction they would take. If they are thinking about removing your ice-cream from the shelves, then this is a sign that they are going the high-volume low-margin, let’s beat Tesco/Dunnes route.

    As a consumer, I am very susceptible to “halo” products like yours. I may be in a rubbish Supervalu somewhere but the fact that they have Green & Black chocolate makes me ignore the problems and like them. If all I see is HB plus some Haagen Daz, then I’ll just have the sense that I am probably paying over the odds for stuff I can get cheaper in Tesco.

    In any case, surely your ice-cream is a high-margin product for them which does not require high volume sales?

    If they are making the huge mistake (IMHO) of going back down market then I think in a few years we will have another H Williams on our hands. Tesco will slaughter them.

    I had hoped they would finally set up in Cork now that Fergal is gone, but now I wonder is there any point. Has anyone else seen other signs that they are changing their focus?

    To your point about small companies hitting the mother-lode with Tesco and then going bust, I have two comments. The first is that it always a problem having only one big customer (a position I was in for a long time) and the second is that at least it is better than M&S, who for years insisted that their food suppliers have exclusive contracts with them.

    One thing that Tesco should consider is to do deals with small suppliers to only supply Tesco Express. This would require less ramp up from the supplier, less risk and also the Tesco Express profile probably suits the high-end impulse purchase type product better anyway.

  6. Thanks for that, Conor! It does seem a change in policy as we’re not the only line they’re threatening with delisting. It’s all the lines carried by our distributor, so I guess they are taking the “pile in the usual cagetory leaders” mentality.

    I also think they will be vulnerable to Tesco attack if they don’t differentiate themselves especially in their bellweather shops…

    I guess we’ll see. In the mean time, I’m a great believer in customer power, and that’s where I’ll put some focus. I know how much attention we pay when a customer letter comes in. If the Irish consumer demanded more, they would get more!

  7. Kieran

    I just saw the poster in your Killarney store this week. I duly made the complaint to SQ via the form you suggested. I also made a short url of it here

    Great location in Killarney, by the way, I am sure it will do well there. One touch I like about your store is when I buy my favourite coffee (Mahers) you guys will grind it just right for my machine. You would think this is a standard but apparently not in some places!

    Conor makes some great points above. As regards Tesco, I just did a search for “Superquinn” and guess what popped up on the adwords column? Tesco! What that tells me is that they take their web presence seriously and that your current approach is right on. However that particular tactic, which used as an intermediary, will backfire on them.


  8. Kieran

    I just came across the absolutely great Dingle Ginger beer in Goat’s St Cafe. Hope you guys will stock it! Ginger beer and ice cream after a day on the sea -unbeatable!


    ps Dingle Ginger Beer is a non-alcoholic drink not unlike Ginger Ale but without the preservatives and colorings.

  9. Saw this ginger beer in Maharees at the weekend?
    do you know who produces it?
    I work for a distributor and we are always on the lookout for premium authentic products…however this is the only thread where I have found anything about it on line

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