Supermarket shifts: 10 big changes in 20 years

From the rise of German discounters to unexpected items in the bagging area, the supermarket experience has changed dramatically since the 1990s

The stakes are always changing in the Irish supermarket sweeps and the way Irish consumers shop has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. Retailers have come and gone, and many of the products we buy today are barely recognisable from what would have been found in a typical trolley in the mid-1990s. Here are some of the bigger changes.

1 The rise and rise of the discounter

In the mid-1990s, the names Lidl and Aldi were unfamiliar to most Irish shoppers. That started to change in 1998, when Lidl announced it was moving into the Irish market. A year later, the discounter was joined by another German company, Aldi. Growth for the pair was slow in the early days, with Irish people reluctant to swap the branded products they loved for unfamiliar labels.

Their relatively spartan shelves did Lidl and Aldi no favours either, and, while people were faintly amused by the eclectic weekly specials on offer, the allure of the lump hammers, fleece onesies and flame throwers was not enough to bring people through their doors in significant numbers. When the bubble burst in the middle of the last decade, everything changed, and the growth of both retailers has been relentless ever since.


Over the past three years, the German discounters have captured a combined 3.8 share points from the competition, and have grown sales by 37 per cent in an overall grocery market that has grown by just 1 per cent. Aldi now commands 7.9 per cent of the total grocery spend, with Lidl 0.4 per cent behind it.

2 Demise of the ‘Quinns’

While business

at Aldi and Lidl has been booming, two of the main players in the Irish retail world have disappeared altogether. First to go was Quinnsworth, which was founded by Pat Quinn in the mid-1960s, with the first branch opening in Dublin's Stillorgan. He sold the chain to Powers Supermarkets in the early 1970s, which later became part of Associated British Foods (this was the company that gave us the term "yellow-pack" in the early 1980s). It was bought by Tesco in 1997, which now employs more than 15,000 people in 142 stores, with an annual turnover of more than€3 billion.

Superquinn has gone, too. It was founded by Feargal Quinn in Dundalk in 1960 and grew into a 24-store chain where the customer really was king. The quality of the produce was highly regarded. In 2005, Quinn sold to Select Retail Holdings for €450 million. Things went disastrously wrong for the group very soon after, and within five years it was in serious trouble. SuperValu came to its rescue, and all its stores were rebranded under new livery earlier this year. All that is left of the Superquinn name are the sausages – and even they are a shadow of what they once were.

3 The plastic bag disappears

More than 10 years ago, a 15 cent charge was imposed on anyone using plastic shopping bags

from a supermarket – and rarely has a charge been so popular. It is not that people like paying the 22 cent (it went up six years ago) for the bags, but they do like the dramatic reductions in the number blighting our landscape. According to one report from the National Litter Pollution Monitoring System, plastic bags made up 0.3 per cent of litter in 2012, compared with 5 per cent in the year before the levy was introduced. It was also supposed to be revenue-neutral, but the levy has still generated more than €200 million since it came into force.

4 The rise of the machines

In the middle of the 1990s, the phrase “unexpected item in the bagging area” was entirely unfamiliar to Irish shoppers but, as self-scan shopping tills became a feature of some big multiples a decade ago, consumers were to grow wearily family with those words. First out of the traps was Superquinn, which rolled out SuperScan in the late 1990s. This system operated on trust and saw shoppers given scanning guns attached to their trolleys;

they just totted up as they went along and paid at the exit without much queuing. Self-service checkouts – which are now used by a much as 40 per cent of shoppers in big retailers such as Tesco – are a disimprovement but the technology is getting better and we are getting better at using it, so it is only like to become more prevalent.

5 The rise and fall of 24-hour shopping

In the late 1990s, 24-hour supermarket shopping became a feature of the supermarket business here for the first time, although it was another five years at least before it became commonplace. Tesco was the driving force behind the change, and it opened its first 24-hour outlet in Rathmines, Dublin, in 1999, two years after it did the same thing in Britain.

Dunnes Stores followed suit in certain outlets. Fast-forward to the present day and the 24-hour supermarket has almost disappeared – the stores realised that being able to shop from 6am to midnight was probably sufficient.

6 The end of the Groceries Order

The Groceries Order, which banned the selling of goods at below their invoice price, was introduced in 1987 to try and stop small shops being driven out of business by large supermarket chains. Two decades later it was blamed for many of the rip-off prices that Irish consumers were being asked to pay because, the argument went, banning the sale of goods below the invoice price

artificially inflated prices. In 2005, the Consumer Strategy Group recommended that the order be scrapped, and it disappeared a year later. Prices did not tumble, however . . .

7 Cheap booze

. . . except when it came to drink: almost as soon as the ban on below-cost selling was lifted, big supermarkets started using cheap booze to drive footfall. Before the euro changeover in 2002, a can of Budweiser in an off-licence cost about £1.55 (€1.97). Today seven cans cost just €10 – or €1.42 each. When alcopops were launched a decade ago, they sold for about €3 each. Today they cost less than €1.50. Just five retailers – Tesco, Dunnes Stores, Centra, Spar and Costcutter – control 95 per cent of all carry-out trade. Tesco accounts for more than 50 per cent of it.

8 The decline of cross-Border shopping
In 2009, hundreds of thousands of us routinely crossed the Border to Northern Ireland in search of better value, ignoring

politicians who exhorted us to do our civic duty and turn our backs on the bargains. Today, however, with sterling weaker, and prices in the Republic becoming more competitive, fewer make the trip.

9 The growth of own-brand

Five years ago, just 8 per cent of the Irish shopping basket was made up of own-brand products. Today, it is close to 40 per cent, as consumers recognise the value to be found by deserting familiar labels.

It can save you more than 30 per cent on a weekly shop, or more than €3,000 per annum for the average household.

10 The return of home delivery

Daily and weekly food deliveries were commonplace for much of the last century, with vegetable men, milk men and small grocery shops taking the hassle out of the experience for many people.

The practice mainly disappeared in the 1980s, only to return – sort of – in 2000, when Superquinn became the first Irish grocery retailer in Ireland to offer online shopping. Tesco quickly followed suit but the other big chains were found wanting, so the revolution was slowed. SuperValu has picked up the pace, and Dunnes Stores will surely move into the space before too long.

The take-up among consumers is not as high as might have been expected because of inconvenient delivery times and dodgy product selection. Is it just Pricewatch or does anyone else find their online delivery people choose the mankiest vegetables and dairy produce that is just about to turn to put in the virtual basket?