For all the emphasis that has been placed on raising packaging and labeling standards in the manufacturing sector in Guyana, even the brand owners themselves concede that standards on the local market still, for the most part, lag behind both international standards as well as consumer expectations. Local manufacturers have observed that the emergence of high-end supermarkets in Guyana and their seeming preference for importation of popular imported brands backed by costly investments in packaging and labeling have raised the bar to the point where many local products are hard-pressed to compete.
Ironically, local purchasing patterns do not appear to suggest any strong nexus between product quality and customer appeal. Both at home and abroad the wide range of locally produced seasonings, condiments and beverages are consumed and appreciated by consumers who offer good scores for product quality but often dismiss product presentation as sub-standard.
It is, says the proprietor of a prominent local supermarket outlet, a matter of the local food manufacturing sector being unable – primarily because of financial limitations associated with investing in packaging technology – to keep up with global trends in product promotion and consumer behaviour. The reality, he says, is that, increasingly, purchasing choices are being influenced by the ability of manufacturers to offer attractively packaged products and that factor often impacts negatively on consumer demand for local products in cases where there are better-presented imported options to choose from.
It is an issue that is widely believed to lie at the heart of what, frequently, has been a vigorous local debate about the high volume of food imports (snacks, confectionery and beverages particularly) from Trinidad and Tobago, for example as against the relatively modest display space afforded similar locally produced goods.
While, to its credit, local producers have sought to raise their packaging and labeling game in response to an increasing awareness of the role that product presentation plays in fending off imported competition, the problem it has had to face has to do with the fact that the external competition has not stood still. Perhaps more to the point the crux of the problem reposes in the sheer volumes of investment which the imported brands are prepared to make in improving the appeal of their product; so that while the ‘big name’ international manufacturers are inclined to move their packaging virtually up to the level of turning them into collectors’ items, the ‘graduation’ amongst the small local players has been from crudely-labeled recycled jam jars to upgraded but still, by global standards, sub-standard packaging; “so that when our local products are exposed to the wider international market the competition simply blows us away,” a local manufacturer in the food industry told this newspaper recently.
Glimpses of marked improvement in the quality of labeling and packaging in the local agro-processing sector were evident in the two UncappeD events staged by the Guyana Manufacturing & Services Association (GMSA) late last year and earlier this year. That notwithstanding, local producers are still playing catchup even with parts of the Caribbean where significant investments in raising standards have given products manufactured there a significant marketing headstart over local products both inside and outside the region and even in Guyana itself.
Local supermarket owners are quick to make the point that they are only too willing to ‘push’ agro-processed goods made in Guyana. They hasten to add, however, that in an environment where image is everything, certain minimum standards of presentation – a euphemism for labeling and packaging – must be maintained. On the basis of evidence seen by the Stabroek Business locally manufactured products can be seen on the shelves of the major supermarkets though there are instances in which they are discreetly positioned and available only in modest quantities compared with foreign brands.
For several years the Guyana Marketing Corporation’s Guyana Shop has served as arguably, the best-known outlet for the marketing of local products. Whereas the Guyana Shop, hitherto, was used mainly as a ‘shop window’ for local products, the facility has, over time, transformed itself into something of a standards setter, providing local manufacturers with recommendations on packaging and labeling and seeking to set minimum presentation standards for goods accessing the Shop’s display shelves.
The advantage of working with the Guyana Shop is that it is open to marketing a significantly wider range of local products than the established supermarkets which makes it accessible to more agro – processors including smaller players in the industry. Here, however, smaller producers frequently come under pressure over issues like reliability of supplies and volumes. If a product is to do consistently well on the market, reliability of supply is a crucial issue. Small scale producers, frequently, cannot offer such supply assurances.
These days, increasingly, issues of product presentation, not least packaging, have become items for discussion at local agro processing fora. More than that, smaller players in the sector are resorting to internet research in order to access the latest (affordable) packaging and labeling though many complain that what is available is invariably well above what their budgets can afford.
Against the backdrop of an increasing demand for improved packaging and labeling as critical criteria for enhanced market access, the vast majority of local agro-processors (more than 70 per cent of Guyana’s agro-processors function at the level of micro-businesses) are caught between the proverbial rock and a hard.
Countries like China, which produce a range of containers to world standards set minimum order limits that run into volumes that are simply not affordable to the vast majority of local operators. This gives rise to the issue of whether there may not be some merit in a government to government initiative between Georgetown and Beijing to facilitate access to packaging and labeling that would be more affordable to local agro processors. Additionally, there may well be scope for addressing this problem in the recently activated memorandum of understanding between the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce and Industry (GCCI) and India, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of food containers. The way may well have been opened for local agro processors and other manufacturers to access cheaper bottles and other packaging.
There is no longer any debating the fact that for the local manufacturing sector – particularly the agro-processing sub-sector – to become more competitive on both the domestic and external markets, it needs to embrace the reality of a nexus between product presentation and customer appeal. General Manager of Sterling Products Ltd. Ramsay Ali, one of the key private sector movers behind the recent UncappeD events concurs. Sterling Products and the Beharry Group that manufactures a wide range of food and other products concurs. Whatever boasts we make about product quality, he believes that the element of competition that agro-produce faces on both the local and international markets makes product presentation a key factor in lending a competitive edge to locally manufactured products.