Losing the cake for bread and butter savings


It is worth a huge amount to businesses here to pay a little more for Irish produce and to holiday at home

AT THE hairdressers they’ve spotted a new trend – customers with homes abroad who have decided to decamp there for most of the summer, rather than the usual two or three weeks.

The word is that it’s cheaper and cheerier to be there – in Portugal, Spain, France, Italy or wherever, than it is to be at home, even if the husband has to commute. Some will only return the day before school begins again, which means that a good chunk of the salon’s cut and colour business is gone for the summer.

This flight of the earners means that their considerable spending power will be exercised abroad rather than at home – a place that’s increasingly seen as downbeat and depressing. This week’s disastrous unemployment figures, and comments that the economy is “banjaxed” (David Begg) and “brutal” (Ibec) may have speeded them on their way.

Paying for a blow-dry and booking another makes me feel positively patriotic.

Later, I get a call “disgusted of Ballsbridge” (okay, I admit it’s a relative) who occasionally rings to alert me of some new planning transgression in his neighbourhood.

This time the news is even more disturbing: the local Tesco is no longer stocking his favourite Tea Time Express cakes. The Australian Layer, gone, the Coffee Layer ditto, and no sign even of the Orange Mocha Sensation which will do in an emergency though it’s a bit cloying. Vanished, the lot of them, replaced by strange new, cheaper confections he wouldn’t buy in a million years.

It’s all part of Tesco’s price-war plan to drop more expensive items in favour of cheaper brands to lure shoppers back from across the Border. So far, 350 Irish brands have been squeezed out, in a cull of about 3,000 items, says Tesco, which is promising shoppers that they can cut their grocery bills by a third.

To reach this target, it has been demanding price cuts of 20 per cent from many of its Irish suppliers in return for continued shelf space in the stores. Those who refuse have been threatened with delisting. Altogether a nasty business.

“If they take away Barry’s Tea, we’re out of there,” said my relative, who at the same time doesn’t relish the trek out to the city limits (Blackrock) where Superquinn still flies the flag for Irish foods.

He sees a dangerous trend of downgrading. So does the newsagent in the same shopping centre who complains that “quality” customers are falling off like flies, possibly due to bankruptcy or the flight to the Continent, but also due to Tesco’s cutbacks. Sales of posh magazines are well down.

My relative asked me to “look into it”, a phrase that strikes terror and boredom into the heart of the hack. The words “Here’s a Story for You Now, Write about This!’’ are often the clarion call to the wild goose chase, or worse, total humiliation when one suggests the idea at an editorial meeting only to be told that the story was done last week and appeared on the front page.

Naturally one has to check out leads, in case one turns into that elusive scoop, but every journalist carries a secret shame of having been told something interesting and ignored it, only to watch the story burst out in the headlines of the rival paper.

This week I’ve been asked to “look into” the fact that one of Australia’s most reviled companies is planning to relocate to Ireland for tax reasons and to check out a bit of sensational gossip relating to a financier ousted from his own company. These are tricky issues, best passed on to the finance desk. Instead, I put on my fearless investigator hat and called Tea Time Express.

The company, which started life on Ushers Island in the 1930s and initially sold its cakes door to door, has indeed been given the cold shoulder by Tesco. Its cakes in their jaunty red boxes have not been delisted altogether, but the shelf space allotted to them has shrunk.

Where once they had 12 different cakes on offer, now they can barely squeeze in two, and in some outlets, none. The excellent Pineapple Layer, Chocolate Caramel and the Coffee Mocha risk extinction at the loss of such shelf space. While you can now buy Tea Time Express cakes in Manhattan, you’ll have a job finding one in the Merrion Centre.

Tea Time Express sales manager Christine Galvin is in talks with Tesco to get its space back. She says that if enough customers ask for the cakes, then they will be reordered as that is Tesco’s policy. Presumably the same goes for the other Irish brands that have been taken away.

It’s a tricky one. We all want cheaper food, but don’t want to think about the consequences – that home-grown businesses, with higher cost bases and better quality products, will lose out and possibly close down as a result of our choices.

If you love Tea Time Express cakes and you shop in Tesco, then ask for them and they will come back. They’re pricier, but nicer than the competition. And while you’re at it, holiday at home too. Every little helps.