What have frozen foods and canned foods got in common? The answer is that suppliers in both markets are claiming the credit crunch is benefiting sales. Frozen food companies report that consumers are opting for frozen goods over chilled, while the canned firms are saying shoppers are increasingly going for tinned rather than fresh food. The reasons in both categories are value and portion control.

General Mills UK sales director Andy Foweather comments: "People appreciate that canned vegetables offer value for money and have a good shelf life so won't be wasted - which is particularly important at a time when many consumers are facing rising food bills."

S&B Herba Foods marketing manager Shirley Griffiths agrees: "High inflation is making people think twice about what they buy and could result in the canned food market seeing a renaissance. Then there's the issue of food wastage. We waste tonnes of edible food a year. This could be another opportunity for the canned foods category, as consumers turn to canned goods with their longer shelf life."

Jane Bentley, marketing controller of Smithfield Foods, which distributes the PEK range, adds: "Canned meats, much-maligned as a poor-quality, old-fashioned and generally inferior product, have seen a turnaround and now represent a quality alternative to cheap prepacked sliced meats."

She says the average sandwich ham product contains 80-86% pork, whereas PEK chopped pork contains a minimum of 90%. "In addition to improvements in meat quality and content, the long shelf life, subsequent reduction in food waste and 'recyclability' of the can are also attractive to consumers," she adds.

Baxters also has confidence in cans. The company's UK marketing director Kerr Arthur says: "Cans are the mainstay format in the ambient soup market, accounting for 95% of market volume. We predict that the core category volume will come from cans for the foreseeable future. Consumers believe the nutritional goodness is sealed in the can, and canned foods are perceived to be convenient, versatile and provide year-round availability.

Retailers' views

Pravin Patel

Premier, Abington, Northampton

"We sell lots of grocery lines - Ambrosia custard and rice pudding, Heinz Beanz, Dolmio and Patak's. However, we've found that over the last few weeks people have been switching from branded to own label so they're buying Happy Shopper or Euro Shopper now. Heinz Beanz have always been popular but we have them for 59p and Euro beans for 25p so customers can buy two cans of Euro for the price of one can of Heinz. We also sell a lot of tinned vegetables - things like mushy peas, marrowfat peas, sweet corn, sliced mushrooms and tinned tomatoes. We sell more in the winter when people cook at home more."

Vicky Archer

Londis, Stourport on Severn, Worcestershire

"We're a village store and consequently have a lot of older people in the community, so traditional grocery always sells well. Products like beans are strong sellers all the year round and people tend to go for brands; they particularly want them when they're on promotion. Soup sales are extremely seasonal and we've found that customers are going more for the cup-a-soups than the tins."
"As for the notion that chilled soups are better than canned, we benchmark all our canned soups in blind taste tests and they always come out top compared with other products and flavours."

All Baxters cans are fully recyclable and 35% of the material used has been previously recycled.

Meanwhile, Heinz has been converting to lighter-weight cans for its beans and soups. The company says its cans have never been so green, with up to 60% of the steel being recycled.

Heinz is still the king in the baked bean market, according to IRI data for all outlets for the 52 weeks to July 12. It has a 64.6% share of the £297m market and is showing strong growth of 8.3% year on year.

Heinz is keen to ensure its beans have a modern image. Some time ago it changed the name to Beanz, and a new label design features a picture of beans on the front while the back highlights the nutritional properties of the product.

But even Heinz has had to explore other packaging formats. Last October it launched Snap Pots of beans and spaghetti hoops. Similar to yogurt pots, packs contain four x 200g microwaveable portions. To date, 22.7 million units of the beans have been sold, accounting for a 4.9% value share of the beans market (IRI data).

Big opportunity

There's no doubt that grocery is big business. And the good news from Heinz's Grow Grocery category management initiative is that convenience and impulse shoppers are spending more on grocery items than they did a year ago. However, the bad news is that retailers are thought to be missing out on millions of pounds worth of lost grocery sales due to out of stocks.

According to HIM's Convenience Tracking Programme, the average grocery shopper is spending £7.92 per visit on grocery items compared to £7.59 a year ago, while the average shopper spends just £5.17. That means grocery shoppers spend 53% more than the average shopper and each one represents £1,523-worth of sales each year.

However, 5% of these grocery shoppers are failing to buy a product due to out of stocks. Heinz customer business development manager Simon Digby comments: "More grocery shoppers are coming through the door and spending more per trip in the convenience and impulse channel. However, if they can't find the products they want, they won't pick an alternative and will go elsewhere."

Pots have potential

Dole Packaged Foods Europe's sales director (Northern Europe), Andy Coult, says his company's shopper insight research revealed that consumers favour pots and jars over cans. "Consumers like the fact that they can see the product they're buying," he says.

He adds that shoppers like the new Dole Fruit in Jars format because it allows them to reseal the jar and store it in the fridge to be used later.

And Coult reckons retailers are missing a trick if they're not stocking ambient desserts: "Ambient desserts offer similar benefits to chilled in terms of range, quality and taste, yet they have clear advantages in terms of lower cost, greater convenience and less wastage - all key factors in an ailing economy."

Ambient dessert consumers are loyal but the problem is converting people to these products in the first place.

Says Coult: "There's an opportunity to position Fruit in Jars as a replacement for canned fruit, as in the US, where it's consumed by the whole family with multiple usage occasions. There's also an opportunity to extend usage of cup products outside of the dessert arena in terms of lunchbox, desk dining and family days out as well as for 'on the go' snacking. We believe retailers can benefit by signposting these additional usage occasions at the fixture. Unplanned purchases are clearly a strategic growth opportunity for the category."

According to a Dole shopper study, such efforts by retailers would be well rewarded. Its research found that 60% of ambient dessert shoppers buy them every week and 80% once every two to three weeks, with 91% consuming their purchase within seven days and 63% running out before their next shop.

Adds Coult: "There's evidence that once in the category even new consumers adopt heavy purchase and consumption patterns."