Small but perfectly formed

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Small but perfectly formed
Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels may be divided by language and tastes, but they offer very loyal customers for UK suppliers prepared to make the effort. Sue Scott reports

You don't have to be Hercule Poirot to work out why the Belgium food market is missing from British exporters' most-wanted list.

"It's too near home ... and there are only 10M of us," says Nadine Vandenbroucke, one of the government's UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) advisors, based in Brussels.

And it's true that Belgium is a euro 18bn Jack compared to the UK's euro 175bn giant of a grocery market, but focus those little grey cells for a moment. Herc's homeland might be small, but - notwithstanding a national obsession with fruit beers and chocolate - it has one of the most sophisticated palettes in Europe; its foodservice sector is booming - doubling its value in a decade - and the top four supermarkets, which command 80% of retail grocery, operate in mutually exclusive markets. Best of all, Belgium is one of the few countries where price does not determine choice when it comes to filling the trolley three or four times a week.

"Inexperienced exporters always want to target the big markets - classically, they want to go to the US who are incredibly tough, competitive and sometimes nasty - and when they think of Europe, they think of France, Germany, then Spain and Italy," says UKTI international trade advisor Robert Salter.

"But if I was thinking of entering the French market, for example, I would suggest Belgium as a first step, not least because French companies want you to speak to them in French all the time; Belgium is more multi-lingual and if you do not speak French or Dutch it's not a total no-no. You may be able to spread organically once you have that gentle foothold."

Typically, an export deal in Belgium will open doors to Luxembourg and Holland, although centuries old squabbling between the Belgians and the Dutch can unhinge your business if you don't get the protocols right.

Tyrells in the Benelux

Vandenbroucke helped broker a deal that took Tyrrells crisps into the Benelux countries in May, but she was careful to advise using a Belgium based agent, Pietercil Delby's.

"It doesn't always work," she cautions. "Belgium importers will 99 times out of 100 cover Luxemburg, although not necessarily the Dutch market because their tastes are quite different. But there's an antipathy from the Belgians towards the Dutch and if it's a company in Holland covering Belgium and Luxembourg, they do not pay a lot of attention to the Belgian market."

Belgium is, in fact, not one destination, but two, which is reflected in statutory bilingual labelling, and you have to be aware of the subtle differences in perceptions and tastes, warns Steve Rice, md of international food market analyst RTS Associates.

"It's two countries and two cultures," he says. "There's the French speaking and the semi-Dutch speaking. If you have a population of 10M, you are really aiming for two 5M markets - so don't expect great things, don't expect the same scale as here."

Then there are the provinces to consider. Equivalent to our own Welsh, Scots and Irish markets, Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels are divided not so much by political boundaries, but by language and taste.

"It depends what your product is and where you want to aim it at," says Madeline Wolfe of the quintessentially English tea and coffee company Taylors of Harrogate, which has been exporting to Belgium since 1994. "Some may be suitable just for French speaking and some for Dutch."

Phil Lynas, who took The Grocery Company's Nandos brand into the Belgian retail market three years ago, and has just added another two products to the portfolio, agrees. He found dealing with the Belgians reassuringly familiar.

"Belgian retailers have the same buying committees and buying policies and similar promotional techniques [to the UK]. They involve their store managers in decision making processes a little more, but in trading and payment, buying and distribution terms it's very similar."

No pushover

That doesn't mean they're a pushover. "Supermarkets can be tough, if not tougher than ours," says Rice. "To get a hearing and a product placed might cost you a lot, but you do have some of the biggest worldwide operators there. It may be as well to pursue either a distributor who specialises in specialist food outlets or a distributor into foodservice and by-pass the major companies."

Delhaize buying director for fresh and frozen foods Patrick Vandenbogaerde says such "scare stories" are unfair. "I'm convinced a lot of UK manufacturers do not dare go abroad because they get the wrong information," he says. And even if the initial sell to multiples is a little more challenging than at home, success is repaid by enduring loyalty to the producer, he says.

"All the suppliers that were here from the beginning 15 years ago are still with us - it's a long-term partnership, not hit and run. In fact, we see it the other way around. In the UK when manufacturers lose a contract with Sainsbury or whoever, they get interested in Belgium; then, when they win it back, they tell us to bugger off!"

With up to three lorries a day collecting fresh products from factory gates across Britain, and more than 400 ambient and frozen products waving the union flag in store, Delhaize's contribution to UK food exports is small but not insignificant. Two hundred of its fresh lines are sourced here, and yet, it seems diminutive Belgium is never allowed to forget its size.

"It might not be an important percentage - maybe we represent 3% or 4% of production - but sometimes they treat us like Mickey Mouse customers," grumbles Vandenbogaerde. "People working on exports in the UK are looked on as coming from Mars. Export account managers do not have a lot of power. They only come with pains, not solutions."

Nevertheless, when it's product quality and authenticity you're after, Belgians rate British manufacturers among the best in the world, and they're particularly good at satisfying the country's growing desire for 'world cuisine'.

"For me, diversity is number one and because of the racial mix [in the UK] Belgian retailers know they will get authentic taste," says Vandenbogaerde.

And it's not just in the aisles of the major multiples that opportunities are growing, but in Belgium's 'grey' food economy - the banks of popular fresh food venders and chilled cabinets on petrol station forecourts - and particularly in foodservice.

According to Food From Britain's Brussels-based advisor Olivier Delrue, Belgian restaurants are trading up and taking their cue from commercial kitchens in the UK. With an increasingly well-integrated distribution system, logistically it's an easy market to satisfy, but many UK food manufacturers "still think the world ends at the English Channel", says Delrue.

"I think there is more opportunity in Belgium than the UK is currently taking advantage of," says Nick Munby, brand manager for New Covent Garden Food Company, which has found a modest, but profitable retail market for seven of its fresh chilled soups. Formerly with Kettle Crisps - whose research into the sizeable Belgian snack market revealed significant differences in consumption habits between French and Flemish communities - Munby says some English-product fixtures are stuck in a time warp.

"They're stocked with traditional UK brands, like Walkers Shortbread and Robinsons jam. Looking at that fixture was like turning the clock back 20 years. There's demand for English style products - whether because every Belgian has access to British TV or because a high proportion of the population speaks English - but we ought to be offering something more modern and less stereotypical."

And where the market is really heating up is in chilled foods, according to Rice of RTS. It predicts Belgians will spend 22% more on fresh ready meals and 34% more on soups and sauces over the next four years. But whether British brands will fill the gaps is another matter. "It's not a question of Belgium not being an attractive market; it's a comparative thing," Rice observes.


Population​ 10.4M (UK: 59.8M)

GNP​ euro 310bn (UK: 1,773bn)

Principal language(s)​ Dutch/French,

Currency​ euro

Average % of income spent on total food​ 17.6% (UK: 12%)

Average per capita spent out of home​ euro 840 (UK: 850)

Value total retail grocery market​ euro 18bn

Value total out of home market​ euro 11bn

Related topics NPD Ambient foods Bakery

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