Analyses & Studies

PwC, Love Irish Food research shows optimism despite challenges

The 2019 SME Irish Food Barometer takes the pulse on business confidence, growth opportunities and challenges facing Irish SME food companies.

Irish SME food companies are optimistic about the growth prospects for their own businesses, but are less certain about the future performance of the economy, according to the 2019 SME Irish Food Barometer, new research carried out by PwC and Love Irish Food.  With the vast majority focusing on the home market for growth, expansion into export markets is an area for potential development.

Business growth is set to continue into 2020, but softening expected in the Irish economy.  Very few Irish food companies (6%) expect to achieve price increases in current trading conditions indicating that margin improvements will be derived from advances in technology and operational efficiencies.  Sustainability is high on the agenda.

The 2019 SME Irish Food Barometer takes the pulse on business confidence, growth opportunities and challenges facing Irish SME food companies.

Among the key findings are:

  • 96% confirmed capital investment plans for 2020; 10% said that this would be more than €3 million
  • However, just 6% of respondents are expecting a price increase to drive revenue in the year ahead; retailers' opportunities to grow margins must now lie in the use of innovative technologies and doing things differently
  • 84% reported that they have an environmental sustainability plan in place to make improvements in 2020
  • 31% delayed investment in their businesses in the last three years due to Brexit

Optimistic about business growth

Showing they are confident about the factors within their control, over eight out of ten (88%) Irish food companies expect revenue growth in the year ahead, of which a third (34%) expect this revenue growth to be in excess of 10%.

Most of this growth is expected to be organic (rather than from external factors such as a merger or acquisition), with the key drivers being new product development and growth of exports in addition to operational efficiencies.

This optimism is reflected when it comes to projected capital expenditure. Almost all respondents (96%) confirmed that they are planning some form of capital investment in 2020 in order to develop their business. One in ten (10%) said that this would be in excess of €3 million.

However, just 16% are of the view that economic growth in Ireland will improve in the year ahead, 50% say it will remain unchanged and 34% say it will decline. As a small open economy, this is not surprising given external uncertainties and a softening in European and global growth.

Just 6% of respondents are expecting a price increase to drive revenue in the year ahead, an ongoing challenge for many Irish companies who are grappling with tight margins and cost competitiveness.

The growth of volume at the expense of value has placed huge pressure on the food manufacturing sector. With a price sensitive consumer, retailers' opportunities to grow margins must now lie in the innovative use of emerging technologies to better understand shopping habits and to create brand loyalty.

Highlighting the need for development into new markets, the survey confirms that Irish SMEs value the domestic market (the Republic of Ireland) as the greatest source of growth (78%) in the year ahead. 24% said that the US was their most important growth market in the year ahead; 12% said this was the EU and just 11% said it was the UK.

Investment stalled, but not stopped, by Brexit

Suggesting growth is very much on the agenda in the face of change, just 31% reported that they had delayed investment in the organisation due to Brexit. Any delayed investment was principally in areas such as production capacity, operational resources innovation and marketing.

At the same time, the majority (63%) of respondent companies are currently exporting some products to the UK, including one in five stating that these exports represent more than 20% of their total revenue. In light of Brexit, time will tell if exports to the UK continue at their current levels. Brexit presents an opportunity for certain Irish food manufacturers who may benefit through import substitution. Irish SME food companies may look to grow business by offering alternatives to product ranges that are currently imported from the UK.

Speaking at the survey launch, Grace McCullen, Senior Manager, PwC Ireland Retail and Consumer Practice said, "The survey highlights optimism about the future growth potential for Irish food companies. They are also keen to seek operational efficiencies through innovation and technologies to improve margins, cost competitiveness and satisfied consumers."

"With the domestic market being the priority for growth prospects, expanding into new markets and new products should not be ignored. The UK will exit the EU at some point and that will give rise to new opportunities for manufacturing food products in Ireland that may have been supplied from the UK."

Skills, potential trade tariffs and operational costs holding back growth

Key challenges curtailing growth prospects include: availability of labour (43%), trade wars and tariffs (37%), operational costs such as energy, insurance and rates (28%), volatile commodity prices (21%) and embracing the sustainability agenda (17%).

Sustainability is on the agenda

84% confirmed that they have an environmental sustainability plan in place to make improvements in 2020. Key areas for this investment are energy consumption, reducing plastics and water usage.

Irish consumers want to buy Irish

Three-quarters (77%) of survey respondents are of the view that the Love Irish Food endorsement is of recognisable value to consumers and retailers largely because it clearly identifies that the product is Irish and sets the brand apart from imported products.

Key reasons for buying Irish, cited by the participating food companies, are quality, supporting local suppliers, sustainability, food traceability and positive impact on the economy.

Kieran Rumley, Executive Director, Love Irish Food, the not-for-profit organisation established to help safeguard the future of Irish Food and Drink brands said, "The survey highlights evidence of optimism amongst Irish SMEs around growth into 2020, notwithstanding a difficult trading environment. There are considerable challenges in areas such as availability of skills across the board from operational to technical to management, which in turn highlights the need for a greater take-up of available apprenticeships in the industry."

"The survey also suggests that Irish 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."

"It's also encouraging to see that the majority of survey respondents are now looking to invest in their companies in the coming year. 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."



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