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The Changing Face of Food Retailing in Ireland: Developments in Conventional Food Supply Chains

M. Henchion and B. McIntyre

The National Food Centre, Teagasc


This paper will address key developments in conventional supply chains in the food sector in Ireland. Firstly, it will outline what conventional and alternative supply chains mean. It will then focus on developments in the grocery and food service retail sector that could have a significant impact on market access and competitiveness for small-scale food producers. Finally it will present some conclusions and recommendations.

What are conventional and alternative supply chains?

It is firstly appropriate to explain what a supply chain means. It is a network of companies that are linked to produce value in the form of products and services for the final consumer. Thus for example, a cheese manufacturer may be part of a supply chain that extends upstream to farmers and downstream through distributors and retailers and/or food service operators to provide cheese to the final consumer. Actions at one point in the supply chain can have significant implications for other members of the chain, both upstream and downstream (Coughlan et al, 2001, p.504). Thus it is important for food businesses to be aware of the nature of, and key developments in, the supply chain with which they are involved.

Conventional supply chains in this context are defined as the normal or dominant chains in which product is indirectly supplied to consumers, i.e. some entity exists between the producer and consumer in the supply chain. In the Irish grocery retail sector, it is clear that multiple retailers and symbol retailers dominate such supply chains (see Table 1). However, looking at overall consumer expenditure on food, it is apparent that the foodservice sector is becoming increasingly important. Data from the CSO show that that €1 in every €5 spent on food in 1999/2000 was spent on meals away from home (see Table 2). This is a significant increase and Bord Bia (2003a) now estimate that €1 in every €4 spent on food is spent on food eaten away from home. Thus supply chains in this sector may also be considered conventional using our definition.

Table 1: Grocery food retail outlets in Ireland, 1988, 1993 and 1998
Outlet Type 1988 1993 1998 2002 Change %
Multiples 149 160 157 190 +27.5
Symbol groups 1,134 1,015 1,152 1,300 +14.6
Independents 9,387 8,494 7,872 7,200 -23.3
Garages with shops 673 - 1,429    

Source: AC Nielsen Retail Census, cited in DAFRD, 2001, p54, DAFF, 2002, p61

Table 2: Percentage of annual household expenditure on ‘meals away from home’
Year 1987 1995 1999/2000
Percentage of food spend 11 15 20

Source: Derived from CSO, 1989, 1997, 2002

Alternative supply chains in contrast involve direct sales to consumers and include those newly emerging chains that may have yet to achieve critical mass or reach their potential. They are generally short food supply chains and in this category in Ireland we can include farmers markets and online selling over the Internet. These alternative supply chains will be discussed in the next paper so the remainder of this paper will focus on conventional supply chains.

Developments in the Irish retail grocery and foodservice sectors

Developments in the Irish retail sector can be characterised as structural or strategic in nature. The structural developments discussed here include blurring of the boundaries between the grocery and foodservice retail sectors, and concentration, internationalisation and profile issues. Strategic developments discussed include buying processes, adoption of C&IT, distribution and innovation.

Blurring of the boundaries

A recent key development in the food market had been the involvement of traditional grocery retailers in the foodservice sector, which had led to the division between the foodservice and grocery retail sector becoming increasingly blurred. Traditionally food purchased in the retail grocery sector was prepared and consumed at home. However, now ready meals can be purchased from delicatessens, Chinese, Indian or other takeaways from a supermarket and filled sandwiches from a garage forecourt, i.e. prepared away from, and sometimes consumed away from home, somewhat similar to a take-away or delivery service (see Figure 1).

The Blurring Boundaries of the Food Market

Prepared at Home

Picnics Home cooked


Sandwiches Convenience foods

Eating Out Eat In Home of Home

Pizzeria Delivered Pizza

Deli Counter


Chinese counter

Restaurant takeaway

Prepared On Premises

Source: Haines, 1998

However, differences in customer requirements still exist between the two sectors, particularly in terms of purchasing and ordering processes so that small food manufacturers cannot offer the same marketing mix to both sectors, and expect to succeed. Some notable differences between the two retail sectors will be highlighted below.

Concentration, internationalisation and profile

The grocery retail sector in Ireland is made up of the major multiples, symbol groups, independent retailers, local markets and speciality independents, e.g. greengrocers, butchers, etc. In recent years the number of multiples has continued to grow (Table 1), both in numbers and also store size. Market share of symbol groups has grown since the 1990s and market share of the independents is on a continuing downward trend. However, the contraction in numbers of independents has primarily been due to closure of general grocery shops with proportionately fewer closures in specialist shops, such as butchers and greengrocers (it is also due to independents changing to becoming symbol group store owner/operators). The fastest growing segment of the grocery market is garage forecourt shops. This reflects increased car ownership, convenience of accessing forecourt outlets and the increased demand for convenience foods. While the overall share of the German discount stores is quite low, they have achieved significant market share in some geographic and product markets. However it is unlikely that small to medium sized Irish food producers would access shelf space with discounters because of their limited product range, low price and predominantly imported own brand products.

Table 3 shows the concentration ratio of the top three grocers in Ireland, i.e. Tesco, Dunnes Stores and Superquinn. However this is defined from a consumers’ perspective, i.e. the top three grocery sellers. From a supplier’s perspective, the top three grocery purchasers, Dunnes Stores, Tesco and Musgraves/Supervalu have a market share of about 70%. This difference can be explained by the fact that Musgraves/Supervalu is a centralised buying group that owns the symbol group franchise for a large number of independent retailers who individually have a very small market share.

Table 3: Concentration ratio for the top three grocery retailers in the Irish market








Concentration ratio 44.3 56.1 52.2 52.1 54.3 54.7

Source: AC Nielsen

In contrast, the foodservice is highly fragmented with an estimated 20,684 outlets (Bord Bia, 2001). However, there is increased penetration by chains. While fast food chains such as McDonalds and Supermacs have been present in the Irish market for many years, chains are now entering other sub-sectors. For example CERT (1999) report that one-quarter of hotels were part of a group or chain in 1999 while data from the Irish Hotels Federation suggest that this figure is around 20%. Theme chains are entering the restaurant sub-sector, e.g. TGI Fridays, Mongolian Barbeque and Milano. Table 4 shows that most groups/chains in the hotel sector are concentrated in the 3-star category. It should be noted that despite the increased interest of international chains in the Irish market, many leading hotel groups are Irish, including Jurys Doyle Hotel Group, Great Southern Hotels, Lynch Hotels and Ryan Hotels. In the hotel sector there is also a trend towards the growth of ‘umbrella’ organisations where groups of independent hotels form a consortium, and joint efforts are put into buying and marketing functions. At present, the Best Western Group is the largest example of such an umbrella organisation, which provides its approximately 20 member hotels in Ireland with marketing services. Such developments indicate a trend towards increased concentration, which could provide opportunities as well as threats to Irish food manufacturers.

Table 4: Ownership structure and grade status of Irish hotels
Grade Independent ownership % of total hotels (N=650) Group/Chain ownership % of total hotels
% of total hotels in that grade
5-star 14 2.1 4 0.6 22.2
4-star 47 7.2 17 2.6 26.6
3-star 217 33.4 86 13.3 28.4
2-star 187 28.8 4 0.6 2.1
1-star 74 11.4 0 0 0
TOTAL 539 82.9 111 17.1 17.1

Source: IHF, 2001


In addition to the entry of German discounters, the Irish retail grocery trade is subject to increasing international influences. This includes the presence of the British multiple retailers in the Irish market and the establishment of indigenous Irish retailers in foreign markets (e.g. Musgraves/ Supervalu in Spain and the UK). The presence of the British multiple retailers here in particular had significant implications for Irish food suppliers as they are credited with the trend towards centralised distribution and adoption of more supply chain management practices. However the movement of Irish grocery retailers into other markets could also have significant implications for Irish food manufacturers in terms of providing market opportunities and also stimulating new ways of doing business.

The internationalisation of Irish grocery retailing is being mirrored in the foodservice sector. The presence of international groups is quite established in some sub-sectors, e.g. McDonalds, Burger King and KFC in the fast-food sub-sector, however it is also becoming a feature of other sub-sectors. For example such groups as The Hilton, Radisson SAS, Four Seasons, Sheraton, Forte, Ibis, Choice Hotels and Holiday Inn are present in the hotel sub-sector. Bord Bia (2001) argue that it is likely that the growth in presence of international groups will lead the way to a more disciplined supply chain in the foodservice sector, mirroring practices in the grocery retail sector. Outward investment by indigenous players is occurring in the foodservice sector with Jurys Doyle and Ryan focusing attention on the Irish and European markets.


While the grocery retail sector has seen an increase in low price operators, the profile of the Irish hotel sector has changed in favour of a higher concentration towards the higher end of the market (see Table 5).

Table 5: Number of Hotel Premises and Rooms by Class in Ireland, 1994 and 2001
Grade 1994 2001 % Change in Room Nos.
Properties Rooms Properties Rooms  
5-star 14 1,819 18 2,313 +27%
4-star 40 3,516 64 5,569 +58%
3-star 186 9,916 303 18,591 +87%
2-star 219 4,687 191 4,030 -14%
1-star 172 2,787 74 1,079 -61%
Unclassified/other 51 1,982 198 8,360 +322%
Total 682 24,707 848 39,942 +62%

Source: Adapted from IHF, 2001, pp11 and 80

Buying processes

Concentration of the retail sector facilitates the advent of centralised buying by the multiple retailers and also to a considerable extent by the symbol retailers. (In the latter case, local store managers may source 5% of purchases independently of central billing or distribution). This means that buying is no longer performed by the local store manager but is done at central level, possibly for up to 80% of retail grocery market. This means that food manufacturers require an increased level of professionalism to trade in this sector. Whilst a buyer will be appointed to each product category, the supplier selection process involves more individuals including food technologists and involves clearly defined supplier selection criteria. Research undertaken at The National Food Centre by Cantilon et al (2001) states that the most important criteria for retail buyers’ product and supplier selection activities are:

  • the product’s potential commercial performance
  • the supplier’s food safety systems; and
  • the supplier’s service performance.

Incidentally, this research found that small suppliers are most likely to lose business as a result of their marginal under-performance with respect to retailers’ food safety requirements.

The fragmented nature of the foodservice sector means that, on the whole, the buying process is decentralised. However, some commentators predict that as the presence of groups/chains increases, purchasing practices will become more centralised with new and more rigorous supply chain disciplines imposed, leading to a rationalised supply base moving away from many local suppliers to a few national suppliers. Recent research conducted at The National Food Centre suggests that buying processes in the hotel sector are evolving slowly (O’Connell et al, 2003). The chef is the dominant influence on the buying process, however others may also have a role in the decision making process and non-food related job functions, e.g. purchasing managers, may have a role in chain operated hotels (see Table 6). Despite this the research found that across the chain hotels, a narrower range of individuals were identified as the main individual responsible for supplier selection than across the independently owned hotels. Five job categories were mentioned for the main individual responsible for supplier selection in the chain owned hotels compared to 8 in the independently owned hotels. This indicates a more structured approach to supplier selection in chain hotels, with evidence of functional specialisation.

Table 6: Individuals in hotels who are mainly responsible for supplier selection, data area percentage of hotels
JOB TITLE All hotels (N=100) Independently owned hotels (N=84) Hotels part of group/chain
Head chef 60 64 38
Sous-chef 3 2 6
General manager 8 10 0
Assistant general manager 4 5 0
Owner 10 12 0
Purchasing manager 7 2 31
Food and beverage manager 0 0 0
Cost controller/accountant 3 1 12
Other 5 4 12
TOTAL 100 100 100

Source: O’Connell, et al 2003

When asked about changes to the supply base as part of this research, approximately equal numbers of hotel food buyers reported dropping suppliers (47%) as taking on new suppliers (51%). The similarity in numbers suggests that the composition of the supply base of individual hotels is quite dynamic with supplier switching but the size of this supply base is relatively constant at any point in time indicating that supplier rationalisation is not yet a feature of the sector.

Adoption of C&IT

A key feature of the Irish grocery retail sector has been the growth in the use of C&IT by retailers. At consumer level, two multiple retailers in Ireland (Tesco Ireland and Superquinn) and one symbol group (BWG Spar) have an online presence, (Musgraves/Supervalu performed a trial in 2001 but have ruled out any further major investments for this area at present). Tesco report that they have 110,000 registered customers (up from 27,000 in 2001) with an on-line delivery capability of serving 80% of the population directly (pers. comm). At business level, food retailers are using extranets and e-business tools to drive efficiency in their supply chains, to streamline distribution networks, to improve traceability, to enhance quality assurance, and to build customer relationships and loyalty (Forfas, 2000).

A forecasting exercise undertaken by The National Food Centre forecasts greater use of C&IT in the future across the grocery retail market (Henchion et al, 2001). For example, on-line grocery shopping by consumers, e-procurement and the use of EDI are forecast to increase significantly in the future.

However, ordering procedures in the foodservice sector have not yet reached the sophistication levels of the retail sector. The most frequent method used by hotel food buyers to place orders is via telephone and fax, with EDI of limited importance (see Figure 2). This reflects the lack of centralised purchasing and supports the view that sophisticated supply chain disciplines are being adopted slowly, and have not yet reached the levels of the retail sector. In terms of e-procurement, Bord Bia (2001) identifies ‘a high degree of technophobia’ in the foodservice sector, especially on the part of the chef. However, in the medium to long term, they suggest it is difficult to believe that professional foodservice operators will not recognise the benefits of e-procurement systems and embrace their use.

Figure 2: Most frequent methods used by hotel food buyers to place orders in a sample of 100 hotelsSource: O’Connell et al, 2003


At present intermediaries (distributors/wholesalers) are the dominant route to market in the retail sector. Whilst this may have been expected in the multiple retail sector due to their centralised purchasing and distribution systems, research conducted at The National Food Centre shows that it is also true in other sectors. Table 7 highlights the prominence of the wholesaler/distributor in the hotel sector also for nine out of the ten product categories examined. For dry goods, the most popular channel of distribution is through the cash and carry. (In the meat category, the retailer was found to be an important route to the hotel market. It is likely that the importance of the retailer to the meat category is because hotels are keeping with the tradition of using local butchers, with whom they can build up relationships, and be guaranteed of quality, traceability and meat of Irish origin).

Table 7: Distribution channels in the hotel sector, data are percentage of hotels in a sample of 100
  Wholesaler/ distributor Cash & Carry Retailer Direct from manuf. Importer Other
Meat 53 0 50 11 0 0
Poultry 74 1 17 13 0 0
Seafood 69 0 17 17 0 2
Fruit & Veg. 76 2 20 6 4 2
Speciality cheeses 55 9 9 6 2 3
General dairy 62 2 9 28 0 3
Pre-prepared desserts 37 2 3 9 1 1
Speciality breads 37 1 5 13 2 3
Sliced bread 61 0 12 23 1  
Dry goods 39 62 2 0 0 0

Note: The rows above do not sum to 100 as multiple responses were allowed.
Source: O’Connell, et al, 2003

Research at The National Food Centre (Henchion et al, 2003) indicates that the use of intermediaries will have to increase in the future to service conventional supply chains in the Irish market. This is because not only multiple grocery retailers, but also other grocery retailers and foodservice operators, do not want to deal with a large number of small-scale food manufacturers. They find it time consuming and an inefficient use of resources to deal with a large number of small-scale suppliers. Furthermore, many of the grocery retailers and an increasing number of food service operators have established centralised purchasing and distribution systems which mitigate against having a large number of small suppliers. Table 8 shows some reasons cited by retail buyers in this research for favouring distributors/wholesalers.

Table 8: Some reasons for not dealing directly with small scale food producers
  • I have dropped out of a number of supply chains because there are too many suppliers. I want to condense it to just having a few suppliers because of time, efficiency, paperwork and pricing” (Foodservice operator the Northwest).
  • “Trading through the likes of intermediaries who can bring a complete package to the likes of always a good idea” (Specialist grocery retailer Dublin).
  • “Dealing directly with small suppliers is good but I would prefer them to go through a distributor. I feel dealing with small suppliers takes up a lot of your time” (Foodservice operator the Northwest)

Source: Henchion et al, 2003

It is notable that the wholesale sector has experienced rising levels of consolidation in recent years. In the process, a number of family-owned businesses have been acquired by larger players, some have voluntarily merged with similar organisations to form larger units and some have gone into liquidation.


In a stagnant food market, grocery retailers in particular are placing increased importance on innovation to maintain market share or potentially achieve growth. Retail grocery buyers expect suppliers to be innovative and continue to produce new products on an on-going basis. They also expect new products to be presented with a marketing plan and some ideas on how the product fits within the retailer’s current category offering. Thus they are raising the ante with regards to innovation. NPD is required at an increased rate and NPD needs to be focused and to offer a customer as well as consumer proposition. However, there may be a problem of a lack of convergence between product development activities and market awareness as suggested by Cantilon et al (2001) and Henchion et al (2003). A quote from the latter illustrates this below.

A small supplier met me yesterday with a new product. What I would have expected from them was to come in present the product and talk to me about the quality etc. and tell me why I should stock them. Where they would fit in our range and talk about forecasting volumes and how it would advantage our business and category in general. Then I would have expected them to talk about promotions and how they would drive volume. I would then have expected a discussion about price. They attempted to do this but what they put forward was very light weight. …So what I said to them was ‘you need to go back and look at this this and this and come back to me in two weeks”. (Buyer for multiple grocery retailer).

Many retail food buyers are supportive of food producers’ innovation activities. The extent to which retailers are involved in the innovation activity has increased but depends on the type of commercial customer. Multiple retailer and specialist retailers tend to have a greater involvement than do retailers belonging to buying groups where their input into the supplier and product selection process is limited. The type of support provided includes market information, technical support, advice on factory operations, and assistance in sourcing packaging suppliers. Other buyers provide information to suppliers with a view to improving the product after the product has been developed. A specialist retailer interviewed by The National Food Centre stated “Sometimes we take on a product with the agreement that within six months or so they might be able to improve their packaging. We would give them advice and suggestions on design and materials”.

The extent of retailer involvement in the NPD process is expected to increase in the future. In a forecasting exercise undertaken at the National Food Centre (Henchion et al, 2001), there was consensus amongst the experts involved that the majority of food businesses will develop cross-organisational teams with their retail and food service customers to develop new products. In the grocery retail sector, this is particularly true in the case of developing new private label products. This greater integration with customers is expected to result in new challenges for the food processing sector and improved operating capabilities and the adoption of best practice amongst those who survive supplier rationalisation programmes. (It should be noted that the development of cross-organisational teams is not felt as likely or important in the foodservice sector as in the grocery retail sector due to the fragmented nature of the former).

Conclusions and recommendations

Developments in conventional food chains means that such chains are not static. Food producers need to be constantly aware of current and forecast changes and consider the impact of these on their business. Many of these developments have a negative impact, raising barriers to entry, increasing competition for shelf space, raising standards and increasing complexity, however some can have a positive impact and provide opportunities.

Conventional supply chains are not homogenous or standard. They are made up of two distinct sectors, i.e. grocery and foodservice. While commentators suggest that developments in grocery retail chains are being mirrored in foodservice chains, research conducted by The National Food Centre indicates that this process is at a very early stage and that each sector (and sub-sector) has to be treated as a distinctively different market.

Whilst C&IT is expected to feature in conventional food supply chains in the future, the reality is that the potential of C&IT has not been tapped to any significant extent as yet and some food manufacturers are not, and will not be, in a position to avail of such opportunities. This is particularly true for smaller companies. The Information Society Commission reports a ‘clear gap between the preparedness of small to medium sizedcompanies and larger companies for the Information Society’ (Information Society Commission, 1999). One of the biggest differences between smaller and larger businesses relates to perceptions of the impact that technologies will have on their competitiveness over the next two years. Only 27% of very small businesses felt that new technology would have a very important impact on their competitiveness compared with 52% of large businesses.Promotion of greater uptake and use of C&IT and other initiatives, including direct financial assistance, market support and training support, already underway by some institutions in Ireland, needs to continue to overcome barriers and improve market access and competitiveness. However, this must be undertaken in a customised manner, recognising that SMEs differ in their capabilities to accept and maximise usage from C&IT services (Gillespie et al, 2001).

Distribution is becoming more centralised across all conventional chains and is expected to increasingly feature intermediaries. Murphy et al (2001) reported that one-quarter of speciality food was delivered directly to grocery retailers or caterers, suggesting a possible need for change in distribution practices amongst small-scale food producers. It should be highlighted that using an intermediary can create problems and that such intermediaries may not be readily available. Research by Henchion et al (2003) indicates that in the Northwest and West the range of intermediaries available is limited, particularly for chilled products and short shelf-life products. Small food manufacturers should consider using intermediaries to reach a larger target market in a more cost-effective way. However, careful consideration needs to be given to the quality of the wholesaler and its ability to make effective representation for the manufacturer’s products.

Innovation is identified as important in conventional supply chains. Henchion et al (2003) found that retailer buyers see small food producers in general as “very good at coming up with ideas themselves”. This is consistent with a recent Bord Bia report which claims that in general small businesses in Ireland are a good source of innovation for the food industry (Bord Bia, 2003b). However, some retailers are more critical reporting a lack of interest in innovation and a lack of capacity to present their products to commercial customers. This was also found by Cantilon et al (2001) who reported that grocery retailers perceive that small suppliers are under-performing in product innovation activities. It should be emphasised that innovation is a market access and market maintenance issue. Food manufacturers need innovative products to achieve market access, but they also need to maintain the momentum and introduce new product lines on a continuous basis.

Food SMEs greatest difficulties seem to arise in commercialising the product. This suggests a lack of market orientation when selecting a new product concept to develop and also a lack of understanding of customer requirements. This is consistent with research by Bord Bia (2003b) which claims that many Irish owner/managers tend to imitate or copy, leading to the development of “me-too” products, with little or no unique selling point. Thus whilst some food manufacturers may be innovative, their innovation needs to match consumer-led market opportunities for greater effect. When developing new products, food manufacturers need to develop a customer as well as consumer proposition, i.e. the product has to offer benefits to the customer as well as the consumer, possibly through harnessing support from retail buyers at an earlier stage of the NPD process.

It is becoming increasingly difficult for many food manufacturers to supply conventional supply chains. Yet many entrepreneurs’ growth ambitions are based on accessing such supply chains so they will have to look at new and creative ways of accessing these markets. However, it should be noted that alternative supply chains are available and may be profitable for a limited number of food manufacturers.


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