Austria, nestled in the heart of Europe, offers a lucrative market for food and beverage companies seeking international expansion. With a strong economy and a penchant for high-quality products, it’s no wonder that entrepreneurs plan on entering food retail in Austria.
I’ll examine the key players in the industry, their characteristics, and the cultural aspects you need to consider for Austrian market entry.
Table of Contents
First of all, the general facts
Austria is located in Central Europe, just south of Germany and also borders onto Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Italy, Liechtenstein and Switzerland.
Whilst a small country, Austria is often used as a springboard for other markets or for testing a product’s suitability for export. The retail scene is heavily influenced by Germany, but you shouldn’t assume that the shelves in Austria will always look exactly the same as their equivalents to the north as consumer preferences vary.
A couple of key facts:
- Population: 8.95mn
- GDP in €: 446.3 bn
- Average net household disposable income in 000$: 38.33 (2019)
- VAT on food: 10%
If you’re trying to work out how large your TAM (total addressable market) is for Austria then GENERALLY you can calculate approx. 12% of the German market value. Of course there’s no hard and fast rule for this – it varies by category, but if you have no other data available it’s a valid assumption. Even after taking into account the higher VAT in Austria, prices tend to be higher than in German supermarkets & supermarket ranges often lean more to the more higher quality products.
Understanding the Key Players in the Austrian Retail Industry
When it comes to Austrian food retail, it’s extremely saturated & dominated by just a few main players:
Spar is a household name in Austria, known for its extensive network of supermarkets and hypermarkets. It caters to a diverse customer base, offering a wide range of products, including local and international brands and a strong non-food section. This is a mid-level chain & part of the Dutch Spar International Group.
Spar has 1500 stores, around half of which are run as independent franchised stores: 1067 supermarkets, 50 Spar Gourmet, 79 Spar Express forecourt stores, 232 Eurospar supermarkets, 71 Interspar hypermarkets & 7 Maximarkt (5000m2).
The Austrian branch of Spar is also responsible for Northern Italy, Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia so getting a listing here can also mean having your foot in the door in the other markets too.
Part of the German REWE Group, Billa is another key player. It focuses on offering fresh and high-quality products and has a strong presence in urban areas.
The Billa Plus format (previously Merkur) emphasises premium products and excellent customer service. It often appeals to a more upscale market segment.
The Billa supermarkets are found in many urban areas and focus on small households eg. singles and elderly consumers meaning that packaging sizes are often smaller than in a Billa Plus and the range restricted.
The 6 Billa Corso markets are delicatessens with a really premium range.
Billa has around 1300 stores in Austria and also operates stores across several Eastern European countries. They are strong in category management and have recently restructured to improve their cost situation – presently they are strongly expanding their own brand line of organic products.
Hofer, known as Aldi in other countries, is synonymous with affordability. They have a strong presence in Austria, offering primarily private-label products, although with a strong own label in organic quality, and are part of the Aldi Süd Group.
Don’t expect the range in store to look exactly like a German Aldi as there is more focus on branded products (it’s still limited in total!) and organic, in line with Austrian consumer preferences.
Hofer is known for its efficient supply chain and cost-effective pricing. They count as a tough but fair partner if you are able to obtain a listing.
Hofer has 530+ stores in Austria.
Part of the German Schwarz group, Lidl has 250+ outlets in Austria. The chain focuses on private label products and is known for cost-effective pricing.
Anyone who’s ever negotiated with the Schwarz Group will know that they are a difficult partner. Yes, if listed, you can move big volumes of product here, but it won’t be easy and you have to decide if their shelf is the right place for your products.
This is a family owned supermarket chain, originating in the Tirol region, but now widespread throughout the west of Austria. They carry a premium range & their stores offer a pleasant shopping experience.
Austrian Grocery Stores Online
It has to be said that food purchasing online is still at the beginning in Austria. Consumer habits are still focused on going to a supermarket in person. Many people like to even shop every day so that vegetables and bread are always fresh, and there is still a strong culture of paying in cash.
As a country with mainly small towns and many villages, there is a strong social aspect to food shopping and many people don’t want to anonymity of ordering online.
Yes, you can order at the biggest Austrian grocery stores online (eg Spar, Billa, Hofer, MPreis) however it’s still a relatively small percentage of clients who do. Even during the pandemic this wasn’t the main way of obtaining groceries.
There are some purely online retailers though (eg Gurkerl.at) – these are mostly focused on the urban areas. For example Gurkerl only delivers in Vienna and the surrounding area.
Of course there are many other smaller and regional chains, but as you can see from the graphic above, their overall importance in the food retail industry is fairly small. You need to remember though that these other markets often either cater to niche consumer segments OR are based in remoter areas and cater to those who don’t want or are unable to drive to a larger out of town outlet.
|Name of Chain||Website||No. of stores (2023)|
|Nah und Frisch||https://www.nahundfrisch.at/de/home||430|
|Unimarkt & Zielpunkt)||https://unimarkt.at/||128|
The biggest of those other chains include:
- Nah & Frisch: only sells food, partly owned by the Unimarkt Group. Located in small villages
- Unimarkt (& Zielpunkt): small markets run under a franchised cooperative system – also mainly in smaller villages or suburbs
- Denn’s Biomarkt: organic supermarket chain belonging to the German Dennree Naturkost Group – mainly located in urban areas
- Metro C+C: German cash and carry group. Whilst aimed at small businesses, if you go to a store it’s often private persons who are actually shopping there, which is why I’ve listed them here.
- Sutterlüty: This regional chain in Vorarlberg(the far west of Austria) used to be entirely family owned, but now belongs partly to the Rewe International Group (it’s still family managed though). They are proud of their regional focus, which is also reflected in their range, as well as of their sustainability credentials – they’re proud to be climate neutral
- Norma: German hard discounter who tries to differentiate themselves through their non-food section. Mostly in urban areas
Aspects of Austrian Business Culture to Consider when Entering Food Retail in Austria
Entering the Austrian retail market requires a nuanced understanding of the local culture both in terms of consumer preferences and also how to do business.
Up front, I’d say that you should remember that whilst there is a common language (formally), Austrians are NOT Germans & comparing them won’t win you any friends (think UK vs US English). Of course, as with anywhere in continental Europe, things are not quite as simplistic as to say “this is Austria & society is homogenous” & Austria’s cultural traditions are influenced by
- centuries of Habsburg rule (the same family who also ruled Spain and over much of BeNeLux)
- proximity to Germany
- many different neighbours
- a former empire extending through much of Eastern Europe
Here are some key cultural aspects to consider:
Quality and Tradition:
Austrians take pride in the quality and tradition of their food. These two characteristics are valued across the country, not only in food, and you can see many festivals based on traditions.
Highlighting the heritage and authenticity of your products can help appeal to Austrians’ preferences and assist you in entering food retail in Austria. As I mentioned above, even Hofer as a discounter has a focus on “quality at a good price” and one of their own brand organic ranges is limited to Austrian produced products.
It also means that Austrians can be a touch “old fashioned” in the way some things are done, and I say that in the gentlest way possible having lived here for over 25 years as a foreigner. Eg opening hours for food retail are extremely limited (although better than they were when I first lived here) and cash is still king – most people don’t have credit cards, but use a debit card.
Punctuality and Professionalism:
Austrians value punctuality and professionalism in business dealings. That begins with communication and meetings and is relevant at all stages of the business. Ensure timely deliveries and maintain a professional approach in all your interactions. In this, Austrians are fairly similar to Germans and have little patience if things are not delivered on time as promised.
There will be structured processes for onboarding your product or getting listed into a supermarket…although it might not be followed religiously in detail.
Building strong relationships is essential in Austrian business culture so invest time in getting to know your potential partners and clients. Attend industry events and consider networking opportunities.
It may be easier to enter retail via a local distributor who has those networks already, although you’ll still need to invest time building your relationships with them.
German is a language with a formal and informal form of you, and this formality also reflects in relationships in many companies. Whilst things are slowly changing here, chances are that if you go with a distribution partner to a retailer you’ll notice them addressing the purchasing manager as eg. Mr Mayr rather than the “Heinz” that he was perhaps introduced to you as in English.
It’s typical to introduce yourself with your family name first, and to shake hands. Don’t be surprised if your business partners shake your hand in greeting each time that you meet – this is common in Austria. Just because your business partner may prefer to differentiate between business and private life, doesn’t mean that you should neglect investing in the relationship.
Austrians often describe themselves as a people as “gemütlich”, which translates to cozy and relaxed. It’s a horrible generalisation, but this means they are not such sticklers for rules and regulations as their German neighbours (although it might seem like that if you come from say Serbia or Italy…).
This can be an advantage eg when trying to build relationships (you may see this very obviously over a dinner), but it can also be horribly frustrating if you feel like things are not moving forward because someone is too laid back. Confrontation or any kind of high pressure sales tactics are not appreciated at all though, so don’t resort to these.
And don’t ever relax on quality requirements of any kind!
Austrian Retail Market Trends
To succeed in entering food retail in Austria, staying up-to-date with the latest trends is crucial.
- Organic and sustainable products. Highlighting the eco-friendliness of your offerings can be a significant selling point.
- No excessive packaging. Legally households in Austria have to recycle all their rubbish so more packaging than necessary isn’t welcomed. Producers also have obligations regarding recycling and Austrian requirements are strict here. You can read more on this topic here.
Note: these regulations also apply to foreign or austrian grocery stores online!
- Value for money isn’t the same as cheap. Everyone appreciates a bargain, but prices in Austrian food retail are generally higher than those in Germany & quality is valued above “cheap but a large portion”
- Focus on regionality: you can use this in your storytelling to engage customers’ interest
- Special dietary needs: eg vegan, lactose or gluten free are clear differentiators in negotiations with retail & distributors
- Compact retail formats – depending on where you come from, you may be shocked at how small Austrian supermarkets and hypermarkets are.
Market Entry Strategy in Austria
Whilst Austria may appear small on the map, it takes a long time to travel between certain places due to the specifics of geography (the Alps run west-east along the middle of country) and this is one reason why it may be more efficient for you to work together with a distributor.
Retail chains have central warehouses (in various parts of the country) but those franchised smaller stores are very local so if you want to achieve high numerical distribution (& not just weighted distribution) in the medium term, you need to think from the start who can help you do that.
Seeing as a grocery store in Austria has limited space, you need to be able to truly communicate what additional value your product brings to the chain in question. Otherwise, your chance of getting listed is limited & distributors won’t consider your products. If you are selling a food item that is a specialty in your home market (eg. Malaysian curry paste) then you might want to look for a specialist distributor who has not only a range of other Asian specialties but also the relationships to the specialist Asian supermarkets.
Focusing on price advantages is probably only useful in the private label or price-entry segment, for the rest it’s better to highlight aspects such as functionality or quality.
Although the total market is relatively small, Austria can provide a great springboard for entering into other central, south eastern or eastern European markets by potentially leveraging the relationships you’ve built in Austria.
In my experience in various sectors and markets, it usually takes 9-12 months to bring a new
partner on board (from plan through to product on the shelf), unless you really hit a nerve
with an urgently required product. It can often be even longer. For most products (& I
discussed this with many colleagues working with clients in various sectors) it’s only in years
3-5 that orders truly start to mount up and growth becomes more rapid. That doesn’t mean
there are no sales prior to that, but that it takes 3 years usually to become a significant
player in any market, unless you invest a lot into marketing.
Austria as a stepping stone to international expansion
For many food producers Austria is used as a stepping stone on their exporting journey. Perhaps because it’s a small enough market to test new concepts that will then be rolled out in neighbouring countries, but also as an intermediate stop on the way to entering Germany or Central, Eastern or South Eastern Europe.
The central location in Europe makes it a great location for a warehouse, and in general many business people are familiar with doing international business. Vienna is a great airport hub for Eastern Europe too, making it easy to access a great number of destinations (although neighbouring countries can be reached in just a couple of hours drive).
Like any European market, it’s not easy to gain entry, but worthwhile investing the time, energy and resources to find the right partners who can help you move forward.
Finally, whilst the language is basically the same, remember that Austria ISN’T Germany and there are significant differences in the preferences of consumers.
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