Country Profile

Belgium Country Profile

Discover more about the Belgian market including overviews about the retail, food service, and food processing sectors. Events, resources, and more are linked throughout the profile.

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Market Overview

Euromonitor reports that Belgian Real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) will continue to grow at a modest pace in 2017. Real GDP will grow by 1.4% – up from 1.2% in 2016. Exports will provide a boost as the degree of competitiveness improves. However, the growth of fixed investment will slow. Britain’s exit from the European Union (Brexit) could also prove to be a drag. Household spending is curbed by wage restraints. Labor costs have been rising quickly as a result of slow gains in productivity. Annual growth of real GDP should reach 1.5% by the end of the decade. Domestic demand will gradually strengthen as disposable income rises.

The real value of private final consumption grew by 0.8% in 2016 and an increase of 1.2% is expected in 2017. More labor reforms to be implemented in 2017 are expected to support private consumption. Unemployment was 8.1% in 2016 and it will dip to 7.9% in 2017. Only about half of the non-EU immigrants aged 25–55 are employed, compared to over 80% for Belgian-born residents. The overall employment rate is below the EU and euro area averages. Around 140,000 jobs are expected to be created in 2016-2018.  

The total population has been slowly rising over time, reaching 11.3 million in 2016. This was an increase of roughly 1.1 million over 2000. The median age in 2016 was 41.5 years. The number of those over 65 years of age amounted to 2.1 million in 2016, equivalent to 18.3% of the total population. The share of this group will rise to 22.4% by 2030. Population aging will become an added burden in the longer term. Even if the employment rate can be pushed up to around 70% and productivity growth increases appreciably, population aging is still expected to boost public expenditure by nearly 6 percentage points of GDP by 2050 if additional reforms are not introduced. Belgium attracts a number of asylum seekers and unauthorized immigrants. The government will be introducing more stringent controls and regulations as fears about terrorism mount.

Belgium is the 6th largest market for U.S. exports of agricultural products in the EU-28. Exports to Belgium totaled US$773.8 million in 2016, an increase of 6% from the prior year. Of that amount, nearly US$437 million or 56% of the agricultural total were of the consumer-oriented variety. Belgium imports a considerable amount of processed food from the U.S. as well. Export of processed foods in 2016 to Belgium totaled US$251.8 million, which was a decrease of 3% from the prior year. Top U.S. processed products exported to Belgium in 2016 included food preparations, beer and wine, dog and cat food, non-alcoholic beverages, fats and oils, prepared/preserved seafood, distilled spirits and snack foods.

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Retail Sector

According to Euromonitor, the Belgian packaged food sector reached US$17.5 billion in 2016. This represents a growth of 7% or just over US$1 billion since 2012. In the forecast, Belgium is predicted to reach US$18.1 billion by 2021, a growth of 13.7% or US$2.1 billion. High growth categories in the forecast include savory snacks, baby food; sauce dressing condiments, baked goods, ready meals, dairy, ice cream, and frozen desserts, and confectionery.

Euromonitor reports that after several years of strong performances, the discounter's channel has seen slower current value growth in 2016. In the context of a better economic performance in terms of GDP growth and a rise in household annual disposable income, premiumization has become more relevant in 2016. The first visible effect of this trend has been seen in discounters such as Lidl and Aldi, which have opened their doors to branded products. For example, in June 2016, brands such as Coca-Cola, M&M’s, Kinder, and Nutella became available in Aldi. In addition, in an effort to compete with supermarkets, Lidl opened a webshop.

Meanwhile, players within supermarkets successfully pursued their efforts to upgrade. For example, Etn Franz Colruyt NV, having launched its first premium Cru supermarket outlet, opened a second outlet in 2016. Moreover, the company opened seven new Bio-Planet outlets in 2016. It also opened a supermarket outlet focused on organic products in 2016, Bio C’Bon, which it opened in Brussels. As a result of efforts such as these, supermarkets have seen stronger current value growth than the discounter's channel for the first time over the review period. 

Supermarkets companies have realized that private label premiers prix (first prices) products are not only unable to compete with discounters in terms of prices, as the benefit margin has plummeted, but also that this cheaper offering can negatively affect the perception of a brand. Supermarkets companies have thus switched their focus towards upgrading in 2016.

Premiumization and upgrading have played an important role in convenience stores as well. In this channel, retailers are looking for larger, more comfortable outlets in busier locations. This is especially the case with Carrefour Express, which opened a new outlet in Brussels’ Grand Place. Upgrading and proximity have been the key factors behind the success of supermarkets and convenience stores in 2016. While the discounters channel has seen slower current value growth, hypermarkets have suffered too, with no new outlets opening in 2016 and value sales remaining static.

Pop-up stores from packaged food manufacturers started to appear in 2016. This was the case with Elvea, with its offering of shelf-stable tomatoes. The concept was fairly successful according to trade sources. However, manufacturers insist that these pop-up stores are specifically meant as a marketing instrument and not as a sales channel to compete with retailers. Much as in non-grocery retailing, more and more grocery retail outlets have opted to remain open on Sundays. According to trade sources, consumers met this initiative with enthusiasm, especially young couples with children. The success of grocery shopping on Sundays has come at the expense of other key shopping moments of the week, most notably Fridays.

The divide between the northern and southern regions of Belgium remains very relevant when it comes to retailing. Some companies operate only in the northern part of the country, including Ahold NV, Lambrechts NV, and Tecno NV. Some others, meanwhile, operate only in southern Belgium and Brussels such as Night and Day and Dame Nature Belgium SA. Two problems arise when such a regional retail company seeks to expand its activities into another part of the country. Firstly, as different languages are spoken in different regions of Belgium, packaging must be available in the local language. The second challenge is the cultural differences.  

Even though the development of internet retailing has been slower in grocery retailers than in other channels since 2013 it has started to grow strongly, as major retailers, such as Carrefour Belgium, Delhaize Group, Louis Delhaize, and Etn Franz Colruyt opened their drive-through outlets. In 2016, Lidl opened its own webshop. As per trade sources, mobile usage is rather limited when it comes to internet retailing for grocery shopping.

Best Product Prospects

High potential U.S. exports of food products for this segment include condiments and sauces, snack foods, scallops, nuts and seeds, mixes and doughs, wine, and walnuts.

Food Service Sector

Euromonitor reports that despite legislative uncertainty regarding the status and implementation of the “Black Box”, and traditionally high labor and administrative costs, consumer foodservice still registered a positive performance in current value terms in 2015. The increasingly significant fast-casual trend was the most important factor behind the category’s positive results. At the same time, the strengthening of the health trend brought dynamism to the category and resulted in the broadening of the range of drinks being offered across all foodservice categories. The development of online ordering was also a remarkable feature of Belgian consumer foodservice in 2015.

The high level of taxes, the small size of the country, the persisting division between the two major communities (Dutch-speaking and French-speaking), and the loyalty of Belgians to traditional gastronomy did not encourage global foodservice players to develop their operations in Belgium in 2015. Therefore, the competitive landscape remained highly fragmented, with independents accounting for the vast majority of the industry’s value sales in 2015. The share of independents was also high in key categories such as fast food and full-service restaurants. Overall, however, independents were still affected by legislative uncertainty with the rate of closings and bankruptcies of independent operators remaining very high in 2015.

As was the case with internet retailing, Belgium was quite slow compared to other European countries in developing online services that are linked to consumer foodservice, but it started to fill the gap in 2013 and 2014. In fact, in a country where social charges and labor costs are very high, online ordering proved to be a valuable tool for foodservice operators that are looking to enlarge their consumer base while keeping their costs down.

In 2015, the number of third-party platforms offering home delivery through online ordering increased, and along with it, the quality of the service also improved. Companies such as, and were indeed very successful in 2015. At the same time, the boom in online ordering was due to two more factors. Firstly, foodservice operators focused on this channel, realizing the opportunity to increase their profitability. Secondly, the increasing penetration rate of mobile devices played a very important role too with the nature of the service making it more interesting for consumers to place orders on the go, rather than from their PC/laptop.

In 2015, 100% home delivery/takeaway was the category that benefited the most from the development of online ordering. 100% home delivery/takeaway through online ordering will continue to grow and it is expected to account for a 54% value share by 2020. At the same time, other categories, such as full-service restaurants and fast food, are also expected to focus on this channel as well, with sales through online ordering expected to grow at a rapid pace over the forecast period (to 2021). With mobile devices expected to feature more and more in consumers’ day-to-day lives, even cafés/bars and street stalls/kiosks are likely to generate sales from the online channel.

Fast casual dining posted dynamic growth in 2015, indicating the tastes and preferences of modern, urban Belgian consumers. The cozy design and atmosphere of these outlets, their environmentally-friendly policies, and their healthy and original recipes were the main elements that drew this demand.  Within casual dining, this trend translated into the strong popularity of premium burgers, featuring high-quality ingredients and original toppings. Premium burgers started to make waves at the beginning of the review period.

In 2011, the first Ellis Gourmet Burger opened in Brussels with rival The Cool Bun the following suit soon afterward. In 2014, The Cool Bun accounted for two outlets, whilst Ellis Gourmet Burger expanded to seven outlets in Belgium in 2015. Both companies worked with elite cooks and promoted a modern, casual, New York-style which proved to be very appealing to young professionals. In 2014, a new North American casual dining independent opened: Manhattan's Burgers. The three brands were among the most successful full-service restaurants in Belgium in 2015, thanks to the combination of their cool and young atmosphere, the attention to detail and originality of their recipes, and their relatively affordable prices as compared to high-end full-service restaurants.

Exki was one of the fastest-growing companies within fast-casual dining in 2015, owing to different factors. The local fast-food operator focused strongly on natural and organic ingredients, both in terms of food and drinks. In 2015, the company focused especially on healthy drinks and proposed a variety of cold squeezed vegetable drinks.

Best Product Prospects

USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service office, FAS, The Hague, hereinafter referred to as “Post” reports that products that meet one or more of the following criteria have the best prospect to be sold on the Belgian market: Products (innovative, price, packaging, taste, size) those that are unique to the U.S.; Products those are not sufficiently available in the Benelux market and products that are available during the off season in the Benelux (often fresh products). They add that there are products present in the market which have good sales potential including nuts such as almonds, peanuts, pistachios, walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans; seafood: Alaska pollack, salmon cod, halibut, scallops, lobster, etc.; fresh fruit and vegetables: sweet potatoes, grapefruit, minneola, cranberries, etc.; fruit juice concentrates: orange juice, cranberry, grapefruit; sauces, snacks and condiments; bourbons and orange bitter and California wines.

Food-Processing Sector

The food processing industry is defined as the link between the primary producer whether domestically or internationally and food retail, wholesale & foodservice companies. Products used in the food processing industry range from low-value, unprocessed inputs to high-value, highly-processed products. They can come in bulk form or as specialized food ingredients.

According to the last report from Post, the turnover of the Belgium-Netherlands Luxembourg (Benelux) food processing industry is estimated at US$155 billion, with 9,500 companies employing just over 200,000 people. Benelux based importers are responsible for over a fifth of total U.S. exports of agricultural and fish products to the EU-28. When meeting EU standards, the following products have good sales potential: nuts, fish fillets, fruit and vegetables, highly processed ingredients, bakery products, dairy products, pulses, and specialty grains.

In Belgium, there are roughly 4,500 food processing companies including some large multinationals but mainly small & medium-sized companies. Over 73,000 people are employed in the food processing industry. The industry generated a turnover of almost US$65 billion and turnover was also expected to grow in 2014. The following three subsectors were the largest contributors to this turnover: confectionary, meat, and oils/fats. The majority of the food processing companies are located close to the main port cities Rotterdam, Antwerp, and Amsterdam or in places close to the German consumer market North Rhine-Westphalia (with almost 20 million consumers).

Belgium is a small country geographically but the EU traders and food processors are there. Due to their large and sophisticated processing industries, Belgium increasingly depends on stable supplies of food ingredients from other EU member states and third countries, like the U.S. Expertise, infrastructure, commerce, and logistics are all advanced in the country.

Depending on the type of food ingredient, there are different supply chains in the Belgium market. The supply chain shows below applies to the majority of the food ingredients. Food processors in Belgium source their ingredients from local producers or from specialized traders when the ingredients are locally not available or not competitive. Price volatility, documentation, and other import requirements, volume, etc. are reasons for food processors to buy ingredients from specialized traders rather than doing business directly. Only large and/or highly specialized food processors might opt to import ingredients directly from foreign suppliers.

The Belgian food processing industry is well developed and has access to any food ingredient imaginable. Post advises that in order to be successful in the Belgium market, the U.S. food ingredient must have a competitive advantage on for instance price, quality, innovation, quantity, variety, size, (seasonal) availability, packaging, special certification (organic, sustainable), etc. Such products have good potential to fare well in Belgium although still facing competition from other (third country) suppliers.

Best Product Prospects

Ingredients present in the market which have good sales potential Nuts: almonds, peanuts, pistachios, walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans, seafood including pollack, cod, monkfish, haddock, halibut, scallops, and lobster, processed fruit and vegetables, fruit juice concentrates: orange juice, cranberry, and grapefruit. Sunflower seeds, animal or vegetable fats and fractions, soybeans, odiferous substances and peptones and derivatives also have potential and market share.

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