Iceland Foods, the British budget supermarket giant, is planning to open at least three new outlets in Ireland this year and hire an additional 75 employees even as the UK government gets ready to leave the European Union.
The three new stores, which will be opened this year in Tallaght, Galway and an undisclosed location, will take Iceland‘s number of outlets in Ireland to 15 and its overall workforce to more than 300.
“We are continuing with our plans,” Ewan McMahon, international director at Iceland, told the Sunday Independent. “Right now, the outcome on Brexit is unclear. We are obviously planning for it in the right way and will try to do the very best job for our customers in Ireland, Northern Ireland and everywhere else we trade.”
The budget chain, which is famed for its frozen curries and donor kebab pizzas, took back control of its Irish operations from a franchisee AIM Group in late 2013. The company, based in Deeside, North Wales, had set a target of having 50 stores in Ireland within five years but McMahon admits it has been difficult to find suitable locations as many sites are still under the control of banks and insolvency practitioners.
“It is our aspiration to have 50 stores in the Republic but getting property deals finalised in Ireland is not always as straightforward as you might think,” said McMahon, who joined the company in November after 25 years with high-street rival Tesco.
“There’s a lot of stuff still tied up in Nama [National Asset Management Agency], which isn’t always easy to get released.
“We have tried to open more in the last couple of years but we haven’t got as many opened as we would have liked. I don’t want to over-promise and under-deliver for Irish customers. You have to get over a few hurdles to get a store open.”
McMahon, who was in Dublin a fortnight ago, will be back in April for the opening of the Tallaght store, which is located under a new apartment block. The Galway outlet is due to open in May in a premises previously leased by Lidl.
Iceland said its Irish operation is “profitable” but they don’t release financial data for it. Apart from bananas, McMahon said all produce sold by its Irish business is sourced in Ireland.
At Christmas, Iceland’s operations in Northern Ireland benefited from an injection from shoppers piling over the Border from the south after sterling had weakened. “Over Christmas, we saw some movement in toys and general merchandise and while beers, wines and spirit saw a significant uptick,” said McMahon.
“There was definitely some benefit in our stores in Newry, Banbridge and Enniskillen in November and December when the exchange rate was at its best for people coming over the Border,” said McMahon.
To counter the currency volatility being caused by Brexit, McMahon said the company tries to hedge by buying most of its produce in advance.
“A lot of our deals are done in advance,” he says. “We are looking for opportunities and what we can buy in Europe and supply within Europe, which would be better than buying in Europe and bringing back to the UK before re-exporting it.”
In the UK, Iceland has a 2.1pc share of the food market with 870 stores employing over 25,000 people. The company is currently embroiled in a public row with the country of Iceland over its trademark.
Malcolm Walker, the charismatic founder of Iceland, has promised to adjust its range of frozen and fresh produce for the Irish palate.”We can’t just sell all our products with prices flashes in sterling, Walker said in 2014. We need to source as many Irish products as we can.”