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How Northern Ireland has innovated for continued trading success

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With new patterns of working becoming the norm as we head into 2022, Invest Northern Ireland is showing how its virtual approach has capitalised on this modern trading environment on behalf of its food and drink business partners, enabling them to continue to achieve innovation and continuous sales success.

With the recent Covid-19 pandemic, traditional face-to-face selling approaches have been disrupted and food and drink manufacturers are having to be innovative in the ways they approach the market and sell to both retailers and foodservice operators.

Thinking outside the box and delivering a comprehensive and concise message is key to food and drink manufacturers’ sales success, as hybrid methods of working and the ongoing ripple effect of the pandemic continue to impact the industry.

Lough Neagh Eels, Mourne Seafood cropped

In Northern Ireland, food and drink is a £5.4bn industry​, according to regional economic development agency Invest NI, which helps to support around 200 local businesses in their quest to grow their sales to retailers and foodservice operators both close to home and in over 70 global markets. The industry employs more than 100,000 people across an extensive supply chain.

With the food industry the largest contributor to sales, external sales and employment within the overall Northern Ireland manufacturing sector​, maintaining momentum in this sector of the market is crucial to the local economy.

“Undoubtedly, the last two years have been very difficult, but it has been so encouraging to see many local companies demonstrate resilience and innovation in the face of adversity,” says Drew McIvor, business development manager with Invest NI. “One of the biggest impacts of Covid-19 has been rationalisation. So, for example, a manufacturer who might have been supplying 40 SKUs into the multiples has had to reduce to, say, 10, due to the challenges of labour and changeovers. In some ways, rationalisation has helped manufacturers’ profitability because they’ve had to ‘cut the tail’,” he notes.

As with the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland’s food and drink industry has come up against the combined storm of HGV driver shortages, diesel price inflation and rising utility costs, acknowledges McIvor, with a resulting impact on product prices.

Getting the price increases through will be the biggest challenge in the year ahead, he says, as these cannot be absorbed at factory level. “It has to be absorbed throughout the whole of the supply chain.”

One of the other challenges is that many of the current buyers are used to price deflation and are having to negotiate for the first time in an inflationary scenario. That coupled with the lack of face-to-face meetings to create an interpersonal relationship creates a problematic situation for manufacturers when persuading buyers to take on a new product.

Moreover, as well as the subtle art of negotiation, there is the need for manufacturers to understand their category and market in-depth so that they are equipped to implement gap analysis and demonstrate to a retailer why a particular product will sell. “You need to understand what consumer you are going for, where the brand is going to sit on the shelf and how you are going to keep those sales moving [once the product has been listed],” says McIvor.

However, as he notes, with every challenge comes an opportunity and Northern Ireland manufacturers, along with others around the UK, are having to learn new methods of handling the buyer relationship to successfully close deals.

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Drew McIvor and Michelle Charrington, business development, Invest NI

This is where Invest NI can step in. Apart from business development and capability training for Northern Ireland manufacturers – ranging from how to build, market and design a brand right through to account management – McIvor’s role, alongside colleague Michelle Charrington, is to broker mutually beneficial and profitable business relationships between retailers and foodservice operators in GB and NI companies. And, with the pandemic disrupting the traditional nature of face-to-face relationships, the pair needed to find ways to communicate the fact that the region’s economic development agency, Invest NI, was still very much open for business.

Virtual initiative

Invest NI offers a comprehensive understanding of the products, capacity and capabilities of around 200 Northern Ireland producers. Under normal circumstances, both McIvor and Charrington would co-ordinate a programme of exhibitions, networking events, factory visits and ‘meet the buyer’ activities. Yet with the pandemic curtailing all of these approaches, the team had to react quickly to the needs of the sector and review how they could deliver support.

“We had to look at new ways of ensuring that Northern Ireland products and services were still promoted effectively to potential buyers in markets around the world,” explains Charrington. “The answer for us was to go virtual.”

The team developed a model comprising the circulation of themed sample boxes, followed by a live demo – a virtual ‘meet the buyer’ event, she says.

“We’ll send sample boxes out to all the people – media and buyers – who are going to be on a virtual call,” adds McIvor. “On the day of the virtual showcase, we will have NI celebrity chef Paula McIntyre do a cooking demonstration, for example, showing the attendees how to use the product.”

“Busy buyers find it hard to clear their diaries for one or two days to come and visit us in person, but an hour of online chat on a Friday afternoon is much easier to achieve, especially if it comes with a box of delicious samples to enjoy over the weekend,” adds Charrington. “Getting products directly into home kitchens has encouraged our audience to enjoy Northern Ireland’s finest products at their leisure and really get a feel for their quality and versatility.”

Quality ingredients

Northern Ireland Cheese selection cropped

Food and drink from Northern Ireland is characterised by a unique blend of tradition and innovation – and is extremely diverse, says Invest NI business development manager Drew McIvor. From Kerry Foods, one of the leading suppliers of processed cheese for Burger King, to Davison’s Canners and Puds, chilled and frozen manufacturer Bawnbua Foods, award-winning Clandeboye Yoghurts or gluten-free pizza manufacturer Crust and Crumb, to name a few, the country is leading the way on innovation, he says.

In fact, in 2021, Northern Ireland producers notched up 215 Great Taste awards​, with three-star winners including Hannan Meats for tis Sugar Pit Bacon Rack, Morelli’s for its caramelised hazelnut ice cream; Pure Roast Coffee Valentia coffee beans and Crawford Rock Seaweed Co for its Seaweed Salt.

All of that’s based on the fantastic quality of the ingredients we have, says McIvor. “Invest NI ‘Pure Natural Quality’ strapline summarises the goodness of Northern Ireland’s produced, which emanates from our rich pastures and sustainably managed farms. The highest-quality ingredients deliver the finest natural products, often created using traditional production techniques, unchanged for generations.”

The success of the venture is evidenced by the fact that the team is delivering its 10th​ virtual event in February, with more than 80 local food and drink suppliers having presented their products to approximately 200 targeted GB and Republic of Ireland retail buyers, resulting in sales in both markets.

One of the contracts resulting from a showcase has been worth over £1m, reveals McIvor. What’s more, a buying director from one of the multiples was so enamoured with the  concept that he asked Invest NI to do a showcase for the whole of his buying team, featuring 35 buyers across categories.

Looking ahead in 2022, the team will continue to adopt this inspirational approach, working with existing and new customers “helping them to grow and expand by supporting them to innovate, to identify export opportunities, to increase their knowledge of consumer behaviour and to invest in the skills of their people”, says Charrington. 

About Invest NI

Invest NI is proud to support the growing food and drink industry and is focused on driving growth in export sales over the next five years.

Innovation is central to boosting competitiveness and fuelling growth. Invest NI aims to drive innovation through building research and development skills, actively encouraging and supporting innovation across all levels of NI’s business base and directly supporting investment in the development of world-class processes, products and services. Our goal for the future is to hone environmentally conscious, innovation-fuelled businesses with the capability and appetite to trade in international markets.

To learn more about Invest NI and speak to the team, call 0800 181 4422 or click here​.