Our experience with assignments such as for Fíor Uisce and Colortrend is that a considerable effort will probably be required in order to find suitable and willing partners in France. The French market for food products is well served and incumbent suppliers are often well established. French tastes and preferences in food are both sophisticated and traditional. They are not as open to outside influences as would be the case in the English speaking world, although that is slowly changing. Nonetheless we have succeeded in establishing Fíor Uisce with drinks distributors in Paris and Bordeaux in 2012/ 2013.
Given the probable size of the companies we will be working with we may be looking at different channels, for example:
The premium products market (épicerie fine) where we are bringing a premium or niche product
The general food distribution market where we are promoting a competitive substitute or better quality value proposition with an Irish or British dimension
The drinks distribution channel where we are launching / promoting a branded alcohol, beer or water
We would propose to carry out initial research for our client companies to see where their product may fit into the French market. This will involve contacting potential partners in the Paris area and visiting with samples of the product. There is no better way to do this than to meet with and have the potential partner sample the product. If our client companies have marketing personnel who speak French that is obviously an advantage, otherwise we need to provide this service initially.
Our experience in drinks distribution in France is that the lead in time to get a product referenced by a distributor is a minimum of 6 months, but depending on the time of year that you commence making contact it can take more than 12 months. This is because decisions on referencing a product are generally taken once per year in the drinks distribution business.
For food products in the premium or niche end of the market an understanding of how the French market will receive the products and in what form, where and how in advance of making approaches is critical to success. We always carry out market surveys and tastings to establish end user interest where appropriate. In the case of Fíor Uisce we enlisted the participation of over 20 diverse individuals to taste and view the product presentation and to provide input on positioning and price.
We then started making contact with distributors with the product labelling still in English. Once we had interest we discussed with the partner how best to present the product in French.
For more commodity type products we will make approaches to distributors in the markets in and around Rungis (centre of food distribution) and directly with buyers in the multiples where we already have contacts.
Our experience in France to date would indicate that business relationships are quite personal. Our approach is to demonstrate sincerity through direct dealings with the partners we already have in France. We find that direct contact is the only way. A well prepared convincing written submission is important but the relationship and the building of trust on a one to one basis is critical. The French are naturally suspicious and sometimes quite emotional. They need to be pitched and convinced. A good command of the French language is essential. They will bring up all the objections and reasons why not to do something until they start to trust the person on the other side of the table. This is the very different nature of the French culture which is more adversarial. Where our clients have some spoken French or where a channel partner is happy to do business in English we mentor and support our client in advance of and during visits to potential partners. Elsewhere we need to be the link in order to ensure continuity and a successful start. Once sales have commenced it is easier to transfer the relationship.