Belfast Telegraph

Friday 26 December 2014

Shopping around to find out what's going on in supermarkets

Lidl is celebrating its 15-year anniversary in Northern Ireland
Lidl is celebrating its 15-year anniversary in Northern Ireland

Maeve Dineen goes in search of information on Ireland's food retailers but finds it is frustratingly hard to ascertain just how they are all doing

Trying to understand what is happening in Ireland's supermarket industry is sometimes akin to trying to figure out the power politics of North Korea - it must be done at a distance and with very little information.

Across the water, all the big food retailers are listed companies and their results are published frequently enough to allow everybody from the Bank of England downwards to gauge the health of the sector.

In Ireland it is a completely different story. To be sure, one large retailer is listed (Tesco) but there is little in the way of a detailed breakdown of how Tesco is coping in Ireland at the moment.

The other retailers are even more opaque. Getting meaningful information out of Dunnes Stores, SuperValu, Lidl or Aldi is like trying to get meaningful information from Bertie Ahern during the Mahon Tribunal. It just doesn't happen.

Tesco's profit warning last week knocked almost £4.6bn off the grocer's market capitalisation and pushed the shares down by as much as 16% - the biggest daily slump for nearly a quarter of a century.

So what do we know about the €14bn (£11.5bn) Irish grocery market - which Tesco holds 28.2% of, followed closely by Dunnes and then SuperValu.

One clear trend is that Irish shoppers continue to turn to the German discounters Aldi and Lidl. Aldi now holds 4.5% of the market while Lidl has over 5% and has a greater market share than Superquinn for the first time.

Dunnes, Lidl and Aldi all share many peculiarities - including an obsession with privacy that borders on mania. Hardly any pictures exist of the two Albrecht brothers who originally set up Aldi despite their strength in the German market.

Here in notoriously gossipy Ireland, there are remarkably few stories about Margaret Heffernan and Frank Dunne of Dunnes Stores, despite their strong influence on how most of us eat, dress and furnish our homes.

It really is a remarkable state of affairs when one stops to think about it - popular and populist companies which dominate most cities and towns in Ireland but remain shrouded in secrecy. I'm not saying this is a bad thing - in fact, quite the opposite.

Like Lidl and Aldi - and Superquinn once upon a time - Dunnes proves that family companies can function very well even if there are the inevitable hiccups along the way. You can get over scandals if you just keep plugging on. The strike over South African oranges or the trials and tribulations of Ben Dunne have all but been forgotten.

Another lesson from Dunnes Stores is that it is quite possible to have many members of the same family working together if the outside world knows who is boss. Nobody outside the firm understands how Dunnes operates on a day-to-day basis but everybody knows who the boss is.

Perhaps the European Union could take a leaf out of the Dunnes Stores Management School? Having said that, the retailer seems to lose a fair number of non-family members with high-profile departures a regular event. On top of this, Irish business life is full of alumni from CRH and other large Irish companies but not from Dunnes.

But then family firms are always tricky if you are not family.

A third lesson is that simple slogans and jingles repeated day in and day out work well. Working in newspapers probably makes me a little biased, but it is difficult not to believe that the constant advertising and simple slogans have kept Dunnes (and indeed its rivals) in everybody's minds in good times and in bad.

Some of the items on sale in Dunnes may be a little brash but there is nothing brash about the family themselves - they don't court publicity and by and large they don't get publicity.

In the age of X Factor, Dragons' Den and a hundred other reality shows, this does not chime with the zeitgeist but I can't help admiring their reserve even if it does mean that we have very little idea about what is going on in Ireland's shopping streets and supermarkets at the moment.

The only thing we do know is that they stand and fall on consumer sentiment which is at rock bottom at the moment, and if the latest twist in the euro crisis is anything to go by, it will only get worse.

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