U.S., Irish Retailers Follow Common Trends in Food
An opportunity to travel abroad this past year gave me a chance to experience grocery retailing on a different continent, and in large part it’s not much different from the formats and selections that U.S. consumers enjoy.
As a guest of Bord Bia, the Irish Food Board, I got a close-up look at part of the food supply chain in Ireland, where agriculture is based primarily on grass, and the country produces much more food than its population of some 4.8 million people can consume on their own. As such, the country looks across Europe and beyond for markets for its goods.
That includes the United States, where consumers are ready to embrace foodstuffs like those from Ireland, with its pedigree of freshness, sustainability and grass-fed goodness, from meat to dairy.
Of course, there are plenty of Irish consumers who enjoy eating local, and domestic retailers make the most of that messaging as well.
While in Dublin, I had a chance to visit four food retailers, each with a distinct format, target audience and brand message.
Here’s some of what I saw:
Americans would likely feel at home at this Irish supermarket chain, as it in large part mirrors the U.S. grocery shopping experience. With 223 stores at last count, SuperValu is Ireland's largest grocery and food distributor, according to its website.
The location I visited anchors Blackrock Centre, an indoor shopping mall in Dublin. Prominent signage at the entrance promotes online shopping and sustainability. In-store merchandising weighs heavily on local products and healthy eating. “Health Tastes Good” is an oft-used slogan on placards offering recipe suggestions for flavorful yet healthy meal choices. Messaging like “prepared right here” and offers of routine meal and special-occasion solutions aim to make shoppers feel at home.
Also prominent is the Bord Bia quality assurance logo, which enjoys strong household recognition in Ireland as an indication of high product quality, purity and responsible sourcing.
SuperValu Photo Gallery (click images to enlarge)
Marks & Spencer
This U.K.-based department store retailer sells food, clothing and home goods to consumers in 57 countries from nearly 1,500 stores.
The location I visited, in Dublin’s bustling Grafton Street shopping district, is a multilevel store with a “food hall” on the lower level. This store exemplifies the penetration of private label products in Europe, as the vast majority of products offered are M&S’ own brand.
Further, the store is dominated by meal solutions -- ready-to-eat and heat-and-eat items offered as bundled deals that allow shoppers to mix and match entrees, side dishes and other items. From soups, salads and sushi to produce and pizza, nearly all tastes are covered, providing time-starved consumers with convenient grab-and-go selections for mealtime ease.
There’s also an in-store scratch bakery, extensive wine department and, on the top floor of the store, a cafe for in-store dining.
Marks & Spencer Photo Gallery (click images to enlarge)
Established as a woolen mill in 1723, Avoca has grown to a upscale chain of 12 stores around Ireland offering own-brand ceramics, clothing, perfumes and soaps, along with award-winning cafes and restaurants in addition to expertly curated food markets.
Offering produce, dairy, deli and bakery, the store I visited near Dublin features a branded meat department by prominent Irish butcher James Whelan. Here can be found not only fine cuts of Irish-raised meats and recipe advice, but also an extensive selection of preseasoned and value-added meats. A grab-and-go case, curated wine selection, cheese counter, and gourmet grocery items round out the market.
Upstairs, there are two dining options: a sit-down restaurant tended by waitstaff, and a more casual cafe with counter service.
Avoca Photo Gallery (click images to enlarge)
I visited Sheridans' South Anne Street shop, one of eight stores this gourmet retailer operates in Dublin of its dozen locations in Ireland.
In this tiny shop are dozens of varieties of specialty cheeses, from Irish farmhouse cheeses (including the delicious Cashel Blue, whose factory I also visited during this trip) to selections from across Europe and the world.
In addition to its own brand of crackers, duck confit, pesto and chutney, Sheridans offers a curated selection of wines, including many Italian varietals, and other cheese accompaniments, as well as locally sourced raw milk.
Sheridans Photo Gallery (click images to enlarge)
While these four stops just scratched the surface of food retail in Ireland, they demonstrated a focus on many trends common to both sides of the pond -- from everyday grocery serving the daily needs of the masses, to specialty items for dedicated foodies.
Perhaps the most obvious contrast was the dominance of private label, particularly at M&S. But store brands are growing in the U.S. as increased competition compels retailers to seek exclusive offerings that drive traffic and loyalty, and ecommerce and direct-to-consumer sales upend the traditional retailer-supplier relationship.
Many thanks to Bord Bia for hosting me as part of a series of media food tours of Ireland in 2018.