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New initiative to help Northern Ireland food producers

A new initiative led by the University of East Anglia (UEA) and Queen’s University Belfast will help food producers in Northern Ireland to identify opportunities in the marketplace and to develop their competitiveness.

The project, launched today, will provide food producers with consumer insights, using information generated from a variety of market intelligence sources, including Tesco Clubcard data. The goal is to provide a more detailed understanding of market developments, consumer preferences and shoppers’ behaviour – information that is vital in shaping a business’s product offerings and marketing strategies.

The project aims to directly address the recommendations in a report, ‘Going for Growth’, produced by the Agri-Food Strategy Board, which was set up by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA). This outlined the need for greater support for Northern Ireland’s food producers in the use of market intelligence to help ensure that they deliver what consumers want to purchase.

The food sector is a central part of the Northern Ireland economy, being the largest single employer with the largest manufacturing output and a key exporter. Understanding more about the shoppers who buy their products can provide significant opportunities for producers not only to identify challenges, but to grow their businesses, for example through new promotional approaches and product development.

The three-year, £500,000 initiative is funded by Invest Northern Ireland (Invest NI), with support from DAERA, Tesco NI, the Ulster Farmers Union, Ulster University and the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA). As well being provided with consumer insights and market intelligence, the producers will be supported through sector specific workshops, training and business development guidance.

Prof Andrew Fearne, professor of value chain management at UEA’s Norwich Business School, said: “This is an excellent opportunity for Northern Ireland farmers and food processors to learn from business experts, market intelligence and from each other and to develop the core skills and capabilities necessary to build sustainable businesses that are driven by a fundamental understanding of shopper behaviour – who buys what and why.

“We will work with businesses to identify opportunities for growth, or threats in the marketplace. We also hope to enable them to be more strategic in their business decisions, rather than simply reacting to the actions of competitors and retailers.”

Dr Geoff Simmons from Queen’s Management School, said: “Information on shoppers’ preferences is invaluable. In fact, it can be a life-or-death issue particularly for small food businesses. If a supplier can use consumer data to shape its offerings and marketing strategies, it has a significantly better chance of survival in a radically changing food retail and consumer environment.

“Universities and governments can play an important role in this, providing expertise and funds to enable NI food producers to make informed decisions on key issues such as promotion and new product development strategies. This project is an example of that important collaboration.”

John Hood, Invest NI’s director of food and tourism, added: “Possessing the latest market intelligence can be a game changer in retaining and increasing the value of a retail listing. Acquiring customer insights will be a valuable resource for the Northern Ireland food and drink industry and will enable our companies to gain a trading advantage in today’s highly competitive retail environment.”

Commenting on its involvement in the project Sean Largey, commercial director of Tesco NI, said: “At Tesco serving customers is at the heart of everything we do. We need to understand customers to achieve this and Cludbcard data is one of the key tools which enables us to do just that. That is why I am excited by this project, as it will give our smaller suppliers access to this invaluable customer insight, providing them with a unique opportunity to shape their business to meet customers’ needs and in doing so achieve growth.”