After years in decline, the frozen food category is now back in growth. According to IRI data, the category was up by 3% in the year ending April 21, with increased marketing support and product innovation from the likes of Birds Eye behind it. But what do retailers make of the category now?
Atul Sodha, who runs a Londis store in Harefield, Middlesex, says that while growth hasn't been mind-blowing, sales have improved in the past year. "I'm not seeing massive growth but we are now ordering frozen food on a weekly basis - we used to struggle to do that. The frozen category costs you money, especially with the increasing energy prices, so you've got to get the best out of it. Rather than turn the freezer off, you've got to sell the right products with the right promotions."
Atul says that Birds Eye's big marketing campaign and increased innovation have helped the category get back in growth. "The communication is getting through - the message about frozen peas being fresher absolutely works," he says. "It's all being driven by this advertising. The more manufacturers do, the better it will be for us because it definitely has a knock-on effect. There's always scope for more innovation, but products like Steam Fresh are great."
Promotions and pricemarked packs are also helping Atul's frozen food sales. "You've got to do promotions - they really help to drive sales. And I like to mix things up with pricemarked packs - fish fingers for 99p, for example. It helps to communicate value to the shopper."
Keith Heffernan, who runs a Budgens store in Poundbury, Dorset, believes that consumers' perception of frozen food has now begun to change. "Frozen food used to be perceived as a cheap line, while chilled was the premium offer, but people's perception has changed and it's a good category for us. Suppliers have been coming up with more quality products now and consumers are perceiving frozen veg, in particular, to be more of a fresh product."
Keith is giving his frozen food category a boost with a range of local products. "We've introduced the Parkers Menu range of local ready meals and desserts, which has been selling very well. It's not cheap but it gives people more choice. It also helps us compete better with the supermarkets - we can be a lot more adaptable with local sourcing."
Poorly merchandised chest freezers with misted glass have played no small part in the frozen food category's image problem, and some retailers have used new equipment to improve their frozen offering. When the Cheemas refitted their Costcutter store in Coventry this spring they adopted 'wall and well' freezer display cabinets. "Our frozen food section is now much more shopper friendly," says Paul, who operates the store with his brother Pinder and their parents Malcolm and Baljit. "Frozen food now makes up 4% of our total sales - it was barely 1% before."
It's just as well sales are rising, however. On top of rising energy costs, retailers have another concern when it comes to freezer equipment. The European Union's F-Gas Regulation, which became law on July 4 last year, gives retailers new legal obligations when using equipment containing hydrofluorocarbon refrigerants. They are now responsible for preventing leakage, ensuring leak checks are carried out, arranging repair of any leaks and safe recovery of the refrigerant.