In the past it's been given the cold shoulder, but it appears UK consumers are gradually warming to frozen food.

Defining the value of a market is seldom clear cut, and the frozen food category is no exception. Experts are unanimous in their belief that, overall, the category is showing strong growth, with the British Frozen Food Federation claiming that total retail is "within touching distance of £5bn" and is now growing at 7% year on year. But hone in on the convenience sector and things begin to frost over. While Nielsen claims that impulse sales within the frozen category are down 2% to £506.6m, IRI's figures show that convenience frozen foods are growing at 2.8%.

But regardless of the actual figures, both manufacturers and analysts are confident that there is plenty of room for growth within the convenience sector as consumers become more clued up on the benefits of frozen food.

"Shoppers are reappraising the category and finding it the smart choice for quality, convenience and value for money, especially as it can be stored perfectly for months with no wastage," says McCain Foods director GB Sue Jefferson.

Big brand boost

Findus business unit director Neil Sanderson notes that the major brands operating in frozen are also responsible for the changing perception of frozen food. "The resurgence in frozen has been partly due to the improving image of the category - driven both by product improvement and better advertising by key branded players," he says.

Young's Seafood is happy to stand up and take a bow. "Our success owes a lot to the work we've done recently to highlight the particular benefits of frozen fish through our advertising and promotional work - such as the ability to cook from frozen, which we've promoted in our newest campaigns," says marketing director Yvonne Adams.

Big brand advertising has also emphasised that premium, sophisticated dishes are a part of the frozen offering, observes marketing consultancy Dragon Rouge. "Young's 'Premium' range shows that yellowfin tuna and sea bass can also become part of a frozen repertoire," says Dragon Rouge managing director of consumer brands Kate Waddell. "With the recent launch of Salmon fish fingers, Birds Eye is showing that frozen food is no longer the preserve of kids with little taste discernment."

This message is supported on Birds Eye's website, which refers to salmon fish fingers as "a family classic that's all grown up" and offers cosmopolitan recipe suggestions, such as Birds Eye salmon nicoise salad.

In addition to promoting frozen foods for adult consumption, Birds Eye has put a lot of effort into raising consumer awareness of food waste and illustrating how the long life of frozen food helps to keep waste to a minimum.

Marketing director Ben Pearman believes its efforts in spreading the word are having an effect. "People are getting the message that frozen is less time and less waste," he says. "The number of consumers who worry about food waste has shot up dramatically in the past year and frozen is benefiting from this as it has such a long life."

Pearman claims that the squeeze on consumer spending has also helped the frozen sector's image. "We've gone from a decade of abundance, to a time where consumers are really watching what they spend."

Value driven

Bernard Matthews Farms (BMF) marketing director Matt Pullen shares a similar viewpoint. "The frozen category is seeing a major resurgence as consumers are feeling the pinch of the credit crunch and seeking value-for-money products that will appeal to all the family," he says.

BMF is meeting the needs of the thriftier consumer by appealing to their desire for value for money. "Throughout this year we will be running a series of 'extra free' offers on our popular frozen breaded products and these special offer packs, including Turkey Nuggets, Mini Kievs and Golden Drummers, will be available to independent retailers to help them compete with the multiples."

McCain is also confident that promoting value for money via clear pricing information will help the category. "Pricemarked packs really help communicate price and value to shoppers," says Jefferson.

Pricemarking is also being used by Birds Eye to appeal to cost-conscious consumers. "It's no secret that ready meals sales have been dropping in c-stores for a number of years. We have some plans in place to halt this decline via a variety of routes. There will certainly be a strong focus on pricemarked packs, which are important to reassure customers you're offering value."

The power of provenance

In addition to getting a good deal, consumers are keen to know more about the origins of frozen products. "If frozen is going to go back on the menu, packaging will need to become much fresher and more appetising, and less commoditised," claims Dragon Rouge's Waddell. "Young's recent packaging relaunch focuses on the sea, to reinforce the 'straight from' message - and this, plus health and taste, will need to be a driver across the entire category. Knowing that food can go from farm to freezer within 24 hours is a reassuring thought."

It is vital for manufacturers to tell consumers where their products are from, adds Robert Bannister, managing director of Bannisters' Farm. "Provenance is an important issue with the consumer nowadays, as the source of a product can often be an indicator of quality. More and more consumers are demanding to know where their food comes from and where it was prepared - even in the frozen vegetable category."

Other manufacturers are also catching on to this trend. "Healthy eating and provenance are starting to come into play and you will see this reflected in some of the new Findus products which we plan to launch soon," claims Sanderson. "This autumn we will be relaunching the Findus brand both with a refreshed livery and raft of new products."

With so many companies eager to improve and build on this category, there is no doubt that frozen food has plenty of potential.

As Robert Bannister says: "We are working hard to communicate the idea that frozen food can be good quality as well as convenient. And the good news for retailers is that this formula is working." .
top tips
"Retailers need to promote frozen food in a way that taps into current food and consumption trends, such health, provenance and the fact that frozen food minimises food waste."

Kate Waddell, Dragon Rouge

"Frozen can be difficult to navigate

in some stores. Shoppers rely on colours to find their way around, for example, they associate green with peas. Using bright bus stop signage is a simple, yet effective, way to make your frozen products stand out."

Ben Pearman, Birds Eye

"Customers will expect to find the same big brands in their local convenience store as they buy in the big supermarkets, so it's important for retailers to carry those brands and make sure they maintain full availability."

Matt Pullen, Bernard Matthews Farms
retailer opinion
"Frozen is selling well in my shop at the moment. There are a lot of young singles and couples in my area and the main thing they are looking for is value. I stock some brands - McCain chips and Birds Eye products - but a lot of our stuff is own label because my customers want inexpensive goods.

"Pricemarking is definitely good for sales. One of my top sellers is The Great Texas Pizza Company pizza [Dr Oetker] pricemarked at £1.25. I also sell pricemarked ready meals and some of my Birds Eye products are pricemarked.

"Because most of my shoppers are after simple, convenient foods I tend to stock the basics here, but that's not to

say that more premium frozen dishes don't have potential. Friends of mine who own a village store in a more affluent area sell cordon bleu frozen dishes with great success."

Ken Banfield, Embankment Stores, Wellingborough
Brrrrrright ideas

Splash the cash

Birds Eye is spending £5m on boosting its new product development and advertising support. Its Salmon Fish Fingers and Steakhouse range will be promoted in 2009.

rrp: Steakhouse £2.99; Salmon Fish Fingers £2.49

tel: 020 8918 3200

Banging the drum

Southern Fried is the second most popular flavour variant in frozen breaded products, according to Bernard Matthews Farms. With this in mind, it is launching Southern Fried Drummers in a pack of six.

rrp: £1.79

tel: 01603 872 611

Tasty tatties

Yorkshire-based Bannisters' Farms has launched filled baked potato halves and skins. The halves come in flavours including roasted pepper & mozzarella while skins include a cheese & roasted onion variant.

rrp: halves £1.69; skins £1.49

tel: 01262 605 650

Low-fat fish

Young's has reduced the saturated fat content of its wholetail breaded scampi to just 1.3%. It has also introduced two new variants: Jumbo Scampi and Jumbo Scampi with a Hint of Lemon.

rrp: Jumbo Scampi, £4.99

tel: 0800 496 8647

Super savings

More than a million UK households have been sent

a coupon booklet which offers more than £10-worth of savings on McCain products. The coupons give consumers up to 30% off and are redeemable throughout June and July.

tel: 01723 580 261