Trinidad and Tobago Country Profile

Market Overview:

Euromonitor reports that Trinidad and Tobago has one of the highest per capita incomes in Latin America. The country is a large supplier of liquid natural gas to the U.S. and the world’s leading exporter of methanol and ammonia. The country’s impressive economic performance stalled in 2009 when the economy slipped into recession as a result of the fall in oil prices. Since then, the economy has seen several years of sub-par growth, with performance significantly hampered by supply constraints. The number of jobless is higher than it should be owing to various structural factors. Other difficulties include the high capital intensity of the energy sector, skill mismatches and labor market rigidities that reduce wage flexibility.

The economy of Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) saw another year of sluggish growth in 2016. Real Gross Domestic Product growth receded 2.8% in 2016 after a gain of 1% in 2015. Recovery is expected in 2017 with growth of 2.3% in part due to an increased in energy prices. Low energy prices had constrained public spending and sharply reduce rates of growth. Exports of their commodities had also fallen. Consumer spending is constrained by slow growth in wages and household income. Declining natural gas reserves is another challenge.    

The real value of private final consumption rose by 1.5% in 2015 and a decline of 2.3% was expected in 2016. Growth in wages and household income has slowed sharply. In addition, a highly unpopular value-added tax on many formerly untaxed items including basic foods was introduced in 2016. After a long series of healthy current account surpluses, the surplus dropped to just 0.7% of GDP in 2015. A deficit equal to 0.8% of GDP is expected in 2016. A process of fiscal consolidation may soon become essential.

T&T is the largest export market in the CBATO region and the 4th largest in the region as a whole. In 2016, U.S. exports of consumer oriented food products dropped 7% to US$220 million from that of 2015. Total U.S. agricultural exports declined 9% to US$349.4 million. The share of consumer oriented exports represented 63% of the agricultural total. U.S. exports of processed foods to the market totaled US$192.8 million in 2016, down 1% and also the highest total in the CBATO region. Top 2016 U.S. exports of processed food products to T&T included food preparations, non-alcoholic beverages, processed/prepared dairy products, fats and oils, snack foods, prepared/preserved meats, chocolate and confectionery and pasta and processed cereals.

Advantages for U.S. exporters in the T&T market are numerous. With limited agricultural production, T&T must import most of its food needs. The U.S. is the number one supplier of imported consumer-oriented foods to T&T, with a 44% share of the market which dwarves all other competitors. Exposure to U.S. media as well as language, cultural, and commercial ties with the U.S. all contribute to consumers having a positive attitude toward U.S. products. The regulatory environment at present is fairly open to U.S. products. Proximity is a big plus. U.S. exporters, particularly south Florida consolidators, service the market very well and are in many ways better positioned to supply T&T than competitors.

Challenges in the market are present and come from both within and outside of the market. Despite its domestic agricultural limitations, T&T possesses a relatively vibrant food processing sector. U.S. suppliers will encounter competition from local T&T suppliers of wheat flour, poultry, pork, beverages, snacks, biscuits, sauces, and other processed products. Local importers/distributors already carry many major U.S. brands. It may be difficult for new products to compete with these brands and to find an importer who does not carry competing brands. The 2008 trade agreement between the Caribbean and the European Union (EU) has set the stage for increased competition from Europe. As a member of CARICOM, T&T offers duty-free access to other CARICOM-member countries. This has a positive impact on the price-appeal of regional goods which may compete with U.S. products in select categories. Although T&T is one of the largest markets in the Caribbean, individual orders tend to be relatively small and favor mixed rather than full container loads.

U.S. exports of agricultural and food products declined slightly in 2016 as foreign exchange supplies are tight and more austere consumer spending prevailed. U.S. suppliers are also more likely to experience pressure from competitors in these leaner times. New Zealand, the number two supplier of imported products, is competitive in dairy products and lamb. Canada, which ranks third among all suppliers, has a relatively strong presence in many branded products, seafood, potato products and pork. Europe also competes in the market, particularly with branded products and dairy. Costa Rica has also begun to make inroads in to the market, especially with produce.

U.S. suppliers also face competition from within T&T and from neighboring Caribbean islands. As mentioned earlier, T&T has a rather well developed food processing industry and there are a large number of consumer-oriented food and beverage products supplied locally. Barbadian and Jamaican products are particularly popular in T&T. Local and regional suppliers are often more adept at catering to the unique “Trini” palate, which has influences from a variety of ethnic groups in the market.

Retail Sector:

Post reports that of the US$578 million in consumer-oriented and seafood products imported into “T&T” (2015), an estimated 70% move through retail channels and 30% through the hotel, restaurant, and institutional food service sector. T&T’s retail food sector is heterogeneous and dynamic. According to Euromonitor, the sector is composed of approximately 73 modern grocery outlets (hypermarkets, supermarkets, discounters, gas marts and convenience stores), and over 2,400 mostly small, traditional retail operations.

Growth in retail grocery sales has been strong in recent years, reaching an estimated US$3.4 billion in 2015 according to Euromonitor. However, the recent slowdown in the economy is expected to dampen growth in retail grocery sales. Following are some of the main trends taking place in the sector.

Over the past five years many of the larger retailers have been refurbishing and expanding their existing stores. Modern facilities with wide aisles and checkout counters and in-house bakeries and delis are quite common. Some new players are also entering the retail the market. A large number of Chinese workers brought into T&T during a construction boom a few years back have stayed in T&T, and have ventured into the retail business. Many small Chinese retail outlets have sprung up in the past year, particularly in the central and southern regions of T&T.

Over the past several years there has been a shift toward offering a broader range of imported products, particularly from the U.S. The quality, convenience, and competitive pricing of U.S. products are just some reasons why this trend has taken place. There is also a trend toward low fat and health foods, and to a lesser extent toward organic products. Many supermarkets are catering to health-minded customers by dedicating entire aisles to display healthy foods and drinks.

More and more women are also entering the workforce. This growth in female employment is translating into greater demand for easily-prepared foods, ready-to-eat meals, and convenience foods. Modern pharmacies are beginning to carry food and beverage products as part of their product mix. Companies such as SuperPharm (nine stores), Kappa Drugs Ltd. (two stores), and Starlite Pharmacy (one store) are becoming a significant outlet for many consumer-oriented foods.

All retailers, whether they import directly or not, also purchase imported products through local importers/distributors. To successfully enter the T&T retail food market, U.S. exporters should contact local importers/distributors and large retailers to gauge interest followed by sending product literature and samples. If feasible, traveling to T&T to meet with potential customers and observe the market first-hand offers the best results. Alternatively, many local importers and retailers also travel to U.S. trade shows such as the Americas Food and Beverage Show in Miami, Florida. Good follow-up with prospective clients after trade shows is essential to develop successful business relationships.

Food Service Sector:

Post last reported that Trinidad and Tobago’s food service sector has grown exponentially over the past decade. The historical strong economy, a growing middle class, more women entering the workforce, and large investments in the sector have all led to rapid growth in the number and variety of eateries and in the sector’s sales volumes. This in turn has helped the U.S. achieve record levels of consumer-oriented and seafood exports to Trinidad and Tobago in recent years. As in the retail sector the sustainability of such strong growth can be held in check but for now opportunities for U.S. food service suppliers remain positive.

Euromonitor reports that over the past five years T&T’s food service sales grew at an average annual rate of 2.5% in real terms, reaching an estimated US$786.9 million in 2016. At last report there were an estimated 3,047 food service outlets in T&T, of which approximately 53% are street stalls and kiosks. The remainder is made up mostly of full service restaurants, cafés & bars, and fast-food eateries.

More and more food service establishments are also entering the market. Over the past few years, the number of food service outlets has increased by 9%. The variety of food service outlets has also increased over the past several years. Independent restaurants featuring cuisine from different corners of the globe are quite common. There has also been an explosion in the number of fast food outlets, particularly of U.S. chain restaurants. Many of the orientations toward health and wellness as well as convenience are also noted as developments in the HRI sector. Most fine dining is found in the capital city of Port of Spain, Trinidad, and on the island of Tobago. Within the fine dining establishments, most chefs are international, while in the casual eateries most chefs tend to be local. T&T culinary professionals have a superb reputation within the region.  

Kentucky Fried Chicken is the largest restaurant chain, followed by Subway and the locally-owned Royal Castle. The majority of restaurants rely on importers/distributors for most of their food supplies and to a lesser extent on local manufacturers and growers. Although percentages may vary depending on several factors, on average restaurants buy approximately 75%-80% of their food and beverage products from local importers and the remaining 20%-25% from local producers. In cases where food service operators need specialty items not carried by local suppliers, they may import those items directly. Popular cuisines include the following: Chinese, Caribbean and Creole, Indian, French, Italian, Japanese, Thai, and American.

In addition to the hotel and restaurant market, institutional catering is an attractive market niche in Trinidad and Tobago. This market segment consists of catering to the petrochemical industry, airlines, yachts, hospitals, schools and prisons. Oil and natural gas operations demand a steady supply of a variety of food products. Local catering businesses in Trinidad provide a full range of services for both land-based and offshore oil and natural gas operations, which include supplying food products and cooking and preparing meals.  

Best Product Prospects:

All high value U.S. products have potential in the T&T market. Post notes there are some products not present in significant quantities but that have good sales potential include healthy food products, (i.e. low-fat foods, granola bars, organic products), herbal products, (i.e. tea) non-Caribbean & specialty produce, (i.e. raspberries, strawberries, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, artichokes), pickled products, ethnic food products and ingredients, particularly Halal products and sauces/condiments for Indian cuisine.

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