FOOD companies seeking to boost revenue are most likely to launch new products and services in the coming year and least likely to raise prices, according to new research.
The survey by PwC and the non-profit body Love Irish Food found most executives at small and medium-sized food enterprises are optimistic of growth in 2020.
Some 88pc of the approximately 70 executives polled said they expect to grow sales, including 34pc who expect to see more than 10pc gains in revenue next year. By contrast, 10pc expect revenues to remain the same and only 2pc foresee a decline.
When asked to choose what activities beyond organic growth would drive revenue gains next year, 22pc said they would launch new products and services, 19pc would seek operational efficiencies, 15pc would grow new markets, and only 6pc would raise prices.
“The survey highlights evidence of optimism among Irish SMEs around growth into 2020, notwithstanding a difficult trading environment,” said Love Irish Food executive director Kieran Rumley.
“There are considerable challenges in areas such as availability of skills across the board from operational to technical to management.
“This in turn highlights the need for a greater take-up of available apprenticeships in the industry.”
When asked what level of investment they intended to make in 2020 to grow their business, 63pc said under €500,000, 17pc €500,000-€1m, 6pc €1m-€3m, 10pc over €3m and only 4pc nothing.
“It’s encouraging to see that the majority of survey respondents are looking to invest in their companies in the coming year,” Mr Rumley said. “For certain food sectors, this represents a significant growth opportunity, specifically for those import substitution sectors.
“However, behind these positive signals there remains the worrying inability of Irish food producers to recover adequate costs, forcing them to continue to operate on even tighter margins.”
When asked if they had delayed investment because of Brexit-related uncertainties, 31pc said yes, 69pc no.
And the vast majority, 84pc, said they have an environmental sustainability plan in place and will use it to improve green efficiencies in 2020.
Mr Rumley said: “Food companies are taking the sustainability challenge seriously with many planning to invest in initiatives to improve the environment. This, together with the strong regional dispersion of the food industry base, contributes greatly to overall sustainability.”
Love Irish Food aims to help shoppers make informed choices about buying Irish food and drinks. That’s because every Irish product on the shelves is a real home-grown story about people working on farms and in factories, on retail floors, and in deliveries.
“It’s simple. Buying more Irish-made products helps Irish businesses survive and protects Irish jobs,” the website says.
The need for that support is now more relevant than ever as the food chain adapts to the challenges resulting from Brexit and Covid-19.
Ireland, a country with a global reputation as an agricultural country, imported 72,000 tonnes of potatoes, 47,000 tonnes of onions, 29,000 tonnes of tomatoes, 23,000 tonnes of cabbage and 15,000 tonnes of lettuce in 2017.
But there is now growing evidence that consumers are responding to the Love Irish Food message and increasingly buying Irish products.
Recent research by Kantar Worldpanel revealed that 44 of the top 100 selling grocery brands in Ireland during 2020 were Irish produced. This cohort has grown by 18% to a total of €1.07bn in combined sales.
Kieran Rumley, executive director, Love Irish Food, which commissioned the research, said the contribution of Irish food and drink brands to local and national economies is both vital and immense.
It aims to educate consumers to recognise Irish brands and help these businesses to survive and protect jobs.
“This is critical in the current climate in the context of the global health pandemic and will be crucial in driving economic recovery,” he said.
Last year, despite the largest disruption to global markets since the end of the Second World War, the value of Irish food, drink, and horticulture exports was valued at €13bn, a marginal 2% decline.
However, the domestic food service industry (out of home) collapsed with the prolonged closure of pubs, restaurants, and hotels. But a surge in home cooking boosted the retail sector.
Economist Jim Power also noted during a recent Love Irish Food webinar that Ireland imported over €8bn worth of food and drink products in the first 11 months of 2020.
Britain accounted for 47% of that total, but in the context of Brexit, some of these products are becoming more difficult to source and more expensive.
The restaurant sector took a big hit during Covid.
“There has to be potential for import substitution — in other words producing locally, what we previously imported.
“The decisions taken by Irish consumers can play a key role in this regard. The role of Love Irish Food is to help inform consumers about the impact of such decisions on local communities and local economies.
“This message has resonated with many people during the Covid-19 crisis, and the objective now is to ensure that post-pandemic consumers will not forget the importance of supporting local producers,” he said.
Mr Power, a board member of Love Irish Food, said the agri-food sector was instrumental in pulling the Irish economy out of deep recession after the 2008-2011 period.
The economy now finds itself in another difficult situation as a result of Covid-19. Some sectors have been particularly damaged by the pandemic and the associated restrictions. It will be necessary to rebuild them as quickly and as effectively as possible.
Mr Power said the sector will eventually revert to normal, and then it will have to play a significant role in rebuilding the overall economy, and particularly rural economic activity and employment, Love Irish Food must play a key role in driving home the importance of consumers making informed choices about buying Irish brands but ultimately it is the purchasing decisions of consumers that will matter most, he said.
Rowena Dwyer, Enterprise Ireland, replying to issues raised during a recent Seanad debate on Brexit, said there are opportunities relating to import substitution.
“We have already seen some of our own companies looking more at the domestic market opportunities and growing from there,” she said
Tanaiste Leo Varadkar, speaking on a Love Irish Food webinar last month, said the food and drinks sector, despite the extraordinary challenges of the past year, has shown great resilience and had evolved to meet the needs of its customers domestically and internationally.
Ireland should be proud of its strong reputation as a supplier of safe, nutritious, and sustainably produced food and work to enhance it for the benefit of farmers, fishermen and other producers, he said, adding that the Government will play its part in that regard over the coming months.
Earlier this month, Bord Bia began a new year-long programme to support the €2.5bn Prepared Consumer Foods (PCF) sector.
With the UK accounting for 70% of its total exports, the sector carried a significant Brexit exposure.
The full and first tangible impact of that exposure was highlighted in January — just one month into post-Brexit trading, with year-on-year PCF exports to the UK decreasing by 19% (€28m).
Total exports (in value terms) of prepared consumer foods globally were down 18% in January compared to 2020. This €37.5m decline was the largest decrease since the onset of the pandemic, and the first reflection of the impact of Brexit on trade
Last month, Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue and Minister of State Martin Heydon led a series of Bord Bia organised meetings with key global customers.
The need to diversify into new priority markets for innovative prepared consumer food product companies a key message Bord Bia and over 50 Irish prepared consumer food (PCF) companies also hosted some 500 virtual trade meetings over six days with buyers from key export markets.