When the Communists marched out, Tesco and Co marched in, and in the space of a decade they have transformed the grocery retail market almost beyond recognition. International giants such as Tesco, Carrefour, Ahold, Metro and Delhaize now control a whopping 75% of the Czech market, which is characterised by cut-throat competition, frenzied leafleting, online auctions and all the trappings of the mature markets of western Europe.
But are the streets of Prague and Warsaw paved with gold for the enterprising UK manufacturer?
The answer from Food from Britain is a qualified yes. With a population of almost 70 million, grocery retail sales topping $50bn, and EU entry just round the corner, central Europe is a market few suppliers can afford to ignore, and the time to go in is now.
However, the days when it was enough to simply turn up with your product are long gone, says FFB. Suppliers need a coherent strategy, the right local partner and enough cash to support their products once they're on shelf.
Launched in 2002 in partnership with Trade Partners UK, the FFB Market Information Programme was designed to help suppliers tackle central European markets after research revealed a surprising level of ignorance about the region, with a large number of companies unable to name any local retailers apart from Tesco.
A four-day trip to Prague and Warsaw, plus a briefing in London, gave suppliers already in the market, such as Patak's, Walkers shortbread and Premier Foods, the opportunity for detailed discussions with local retailers and distributors on issues such as credit terms, promotional opportunities and listing fees, as well as to conduct store visits. There were also briefings from Trade Partners on the macroeconomic environment, and presentations on the grocery sector from market researchers CAL Warsaw and Incoma in Prague.
These show how the markets are structured and which sections to target.
In Poland, for example, more than 60% of the market is still in the hands of independent retailers owning one or perhaps two stores, supplied by a baffling web of wholesalers and sub-wholesalers, outdoor markets, cash and carries like Makro and a whole army of one-man bands selling from small garages and homes.
And while this section of the market is under increasing pressure from the multinational retailers, suppliers would be brave to simply bypass it and focus on Tesco and Carrefour to get their sales up , says Paul Bailey at leasing sales force and merchandising specialists IQFM. Moreover, it is possible to get distribution into the independent sector extremely rapidly, while suppliers might be waiting for weeks to get a meeting with a buyer at Carrefour.
In the Czech Republic, by contrast, it is quite possible to simply ignore the independent sector (less than 25% of the market), and focus on the big boys.
UK suppliers cannot expect to turn up in Warsaw and make a fast buck in six months, but if they have the cash and the vision to take a longer term view, the rewards could be huge, says Kevin Tyrrell, of The Bridge, which develops marketing strategies for companies trying to build business in Poland. His message is simple: Don't wait for accession. "The Germans are already queuing up on the border. If you are thinking of coming over, do it now!"