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These days, frozen meals are generating a fair amount of heat. "Our consumer opinion research suggests that consumers believe that frozen meals have come a long way over the past decade," says Leslie G. Sarasin, president and c.e.o. of the American Frozen Food Institute, based in McLean, Va. "They appreciate the variety, taste, ingredient quality, and dietary options of today's frozen meals. Of course, convenience remains one of the most greatly appreciated of frozen meals' attributes."
On the manufacturer side, "A recent informal member survey found that companies are emphasizing the following among their health-and-wellness innovations: trans fat reduction or elimination, saturated fat reduction, introduction of products with whole grains and fiber, sugar and sodium reduction, and portion control," notes Sarasin, adding that "[f]rom a flavor and variety standpoint, ethnic cuisine continues to be a popular trend."
As a result of greater interest in frozens tailored to meet shopper needs, dollar sales of frozen prepared foods rose 5 percent in food stores with $2 million or more in sales (excluding supercenters) for the 52 weeks ended April 22, 2006, according to data from ACNielsen Strategic Planner. Although sales dollars for frozen dinners consisting of three or more foods dipped 1.4 percent, individual entree types experienced significant sales increases, among them seafood entrees, which soared 31.8 percent, and Italian entrees, which shot up 10.8 percent.
Retailers are eager to capitalize on frozen meals' newfound popularity, with such industry players as Safeway, Albertsons, and even discounters Wal-Mart and ALDI now offering "fancier" frozen entree selections, often in family sizes.
A leading CPG company that's keeping abreast of the category's latest trends is Solon, Ohio-based Nestle Prepared Foods Co.-owned Stouffer's, which has introduced a preservative-free line in specially marked packages, in addition to restaurant-inspired Corner Bistro meals and paninis. The Corner Bistro launch "was news for the frozen category, as almost all of the regular (or non-nutritional) segment meals were homestyle recipes," explains Christine Dahm, marketing director, Stouffer's brand. "The lineup includes our newest technology breakthrough with paninis, which grill on a proprietary tray in the microwave and come out crispy."
The brand's promotions include working with retailers "to bring the quality and premium ingredients messages we launched last year, such as 100 percent real cheese and all white meat chicken, to the shelves," notes Dahm.
As for the multiserve segment, in which Stouffer's offers a range of options, Dahm acknowledges that "it drove the category growth last year." Howard Friend, president of Northbrook, Ill.-based On-Cor Frozen Foods, which specializes in such meals, concurs. "Sales are strong -- the family-size consumer still likes to eat meals together as a family whenever they can." From On-Cor's recent offerings, Friend singles out the time-saving Dinner Partners line, which includes a main entree and a side dish, and the Sonora Style Enchilada, "our fastest-growing item because it adds value to our line and appeals to the consumer request for more ethnic dishes."
The ethnic equation
Ethnic dishes of another kind are on offer at Gahanna, Ohio-based Kahiki Foods, inspired by inventive Asian fusion dishes whipped up by cutting-edge chefs and combined with the company's proud heritage of Hawaiian/Polynesian cuisine. Another key trend the company is exploring is health and wellness: Kahiki's v.p. marketing, Tim Tsao, says the manufacturer is currently working on rolling out a better-for-you line by the end of the fall, featuring lower sodium, no trans fats, and no cholesterol, and offering both reformulations of existing products and new items. As for the ingredient deck of the upcoming line, Tsao says that Kahiki "is moving in a natural direction."
Such a move makes perfect sense to Santa Rosa, Calif.-based Amy's Kitchen, whose natural and organic vegetarian selections include frozen entrees and dinners.
"Amy's is seeing solid growth across all frozen segments, including entrees and dinners," says director of sales and marketing Steve Warnert. The company employs a category management program for natural frozen called MaxFrost, the goal of which is "to assist retailers [in determining] the appropriate categories and the mix within each. We work closely with retailers to customize their natural frozen programs, whether the set is integrated or segregated," notes Warnert. "The key is to help the shopper find the products and then make it easy for them to shop the section."
Another way for retailers to lure shoppers to the frozen section is via the Superfridge program, offered by In-Store Opportunities of Middletown, Conn. Currently in over 3,000 supermarkets, including Kroger, Albertsons, and Winn-Dixie, the program requires the installation in a high-traffic perimeter area of a unit featuring product and advertising from participating manufacturers of frozen or refrigerated foods.
According to company s.v.p. sales and marketing Ira Lewis, the unique program "adds to the size of the shopping cart, since it attracts people who wouldn't ordinarily buy the product." Additionally, In-Store Opportunities hires its own personnel to service the units.