After years of being fresh food’s poor relation could frozen finally be coming in from the cold? According to the retail experts, the twin drivers of convenience and austerity appeal are bringing the category back to the fore in-store.

“Kantar Worldpanel statistics showed that retailers saw a 5.8% year-on-year spending increase in frozen foods compared with a 4% increase in fresh expenditure over the same period,” says British Frozen Food Federation (BFFF)director general Brian Young. “Frozen food offers the customer better value access to nutritious food. This helps to maintain demand in times of financial downturn, making it an ideal choice for retailers.”

Although the figures look good on paper, many canny c-store retailers might be asking exactly what’s holding the category back from bigger market dominance. Meg Patel, account director at brand consultancy Dragon Rouge, believes that it’s down to a perception problem from some sections of the public. “Fresh and chilled seem to be consistently seen as superior in quality [to frozen],” she explains. “More’s the pity that many consumers still do not understand that frozen is on a par with chilled, and in many cases is actually better.”

Young concedes: “Despite recent research from BFFF and Sheffield Hallam University, which showed that there is no significant nutritional difference between frozen and fresh foods, there is still a consumer perception that frozen products are inferior to fresh.

retailer’s view

“We do pretty well with frozen in the store. We tend to sell a lot of convenience-style foods, items such as pizza, ready meals and chips - that’s what our student customers are after. We don’t tend to sell a lot of vegetables!

“A couple of years ago we moved away from chest freezers and got uprights. They’re so much better because the customer doesn’t have to open the lid and then go rooting around inside for what they want. The modern equipment is really efficient and easy to use - it’s just like having another shelf.

“The biggest area for us is definitely pmps. I reckon that’s about 80-90% of our frozen stock. We source stock from two different locations and their range is usually pricemarked.

“I think these days pricemarked packs are popular just because customers believe it visibly provides good value for money. It’s true that in a few cases you don’t quite get the margins, but you make up for it overall with more sales.”

John Cuthbertson, Premier at the Union, Dundee University

“With regards to convenience foods such as prepared ready meals, this perception is particularly prevalent, yet unfounded. Frozen food is frozen at its peak, so the goodness or flavour and nutrients are locked in. Fresh foods, however - particularly in the cases of fish, meat and fruit and vegetables - begin to lose this goodness along the supply chain.”

As Young and Patel point out, thanks to brand investment and innovation, frozen food is starting to turn the tide of opinion. Patel cites the example of Jamie Oliver, known for his exacting standards of provenance and quality, who now lends his name to Young’s frozen fish range.

Brands such as McCain are also making sure that provenance is right at the heart of their marketing messages.

“Recent McCain advertising campaigns, celebrating the chip-making process from farm to fork, have emphasised the quality and care that goes into making McCain frozen potato products,” says Mark Hodge, head of brand at McCain. “This, in addition to the successful launch of healthy and natural NPD, such as Ready Baked Jackets, which have four green traffic lights, has helped savvy consumers to recognise the value of frozen food and reappraise their purchasing habits.”

Weighty matters

Of course, some frozen brands have always focused on a healthy proposition. Heinz’ Weight Watchers has leveraged its low-calorie credentials to become the number one frozen ready meal brand in a category worth £456.8m, according to Nielsen. To attract new consumers to its range, this year Weight Watchers extended its portfolio with new ‘Steam and Serve’ ready meals. The healthy meal selections come in a pouch and neatly chime with the widely held view that steaming food is a nutritious and healthy way to prepare food. “We are continuously looking for new ways to encourage consumers to enjoy our delicious, health-conscious meals throughout the whole year,” says Heinz marketing manager Sally Marshall. “Our new ‘Steam and Serve’ dishes combine modern packaging with a contemporary taste appeal. As they provide ‘two of your five a day’, they really do offer customers great-tasting complete meal solutions.”

The brand is also sticking with the health theme and hoping to drive sales at the same time with an on-pack promotion running until August to win a Nintendo Wii Console with Wii Fit Plus.

Fit for summer
Weight Watchers from Heinz has launched its first frozen ready meal on-pack promotion for its Signature range. The promotion runs from now until August and offers consumers the chance to win a Nintendo
Console along with a Wii Fit Plus and balance board every day.

Sporty bear
This summer Birds Eye is offering customers the chance to get closer to its fridge-dwelling ‘spokesbear’ Clarence, courtesy of a cross-category on-pack promotion. By collecting eight tokens consumers can claim their very own Clarence key rings in four sporty poses.
tel: 020 8918 3200

Chinese crispers
Are your customers too skint for a takeaway? Then tempt them with a taste of the Chinese-at-home experience with Daloon’s all-new Oriental Vegetable Spring Rolls. At just over a quid they could also make a thrifty after-the-pub treat for your shoppers.
rrp: £1.09
tel: 01636 701000

Kickin’ chicken
Birds Eye is eyeing the takeaway market with its family-focused Southern Fried Chicken Strips. Designed to be munched around the telly on a Saturday night, the Takeaway Feasts range offers retailers a piece of the £79.5m takeaway sector.
rrp: £2.99
tel: 020 8918 3200

Talk of the town
Chicago Town is hoping for a slice of the sporting action with a ‘Best Seats in Town’ promotion. Consumers can bag entertainment packages on which to scope out this summer’s big events by entering an on-pack code on the site’s website. Plasma TVs to surround sound systems are up for grabs.
tel: 0113 823 1400

On-pack promotions help to drive category growth and McCain is also investing this year by giving away more than 100,000 classic children’s books in a partnership between Ladybird books and McCain Smiles. The campaign is part of a National Literary Trust-supported campaign to get parents reading with their children.

Although traditionally considered a convenient alternative to from-scratch weekday dinners, shoppers are increasingly seeing frozen food as a handy and thrifty stand-in for weekend meals out. “With the credit crunch continuing to bite, consumers are tending to eat out less often, replacing nights out with evenings in with friends,” explains Daloon foods (UK) managing director Geoff Burgess.

“This is endorsed by a convenience store shopper insight programme, which highlighted that 44% of UK adults are planning more ‘quiet nights in’.

“As consumers look to replicate their social eating out experiences, frozen ethnic snacks are an ideal answer to this shift in buying and eating patterns.”

According to Kantar Worldpanel, the frozen ethnic snack market grew by 11.5% in value in 2011, outperforming the sector average.

Meanwhile, couch cuisine favourite frozen pizza is benefiting from a boost through fresh thinking from the big players, which adds a touch of ‘homemade’ to the category.

Dragon Rouge’s Patel cites Dr Oetker Pizza which launched its fresh dough pizza Casa di Mama, which rises in the oven for the first time, earlier this year. “It’s a new and innovative process that is unable to be replicated by chilled pizzas,” says Patel.

“This, coupled with the big push on advertising spend (£5m this year across Dr Oetker’s portfolio of leading brands), is also helping brands such as Chicago Town through programmes such as The X Factor sponsorship, to help drive the brand and category value without needing to compete or compromise on price or heavy promotion,” she adds.

“Arguably, the category has been given a boost and brand owners are positively encouraging their consumers to switch from chilled to frozen.”•