Stepping out of the Ice Age

May 14, 2013

Competitors pull together to re-warm consumers to frozens, with a healthier notion.

Originally published in Facts, Figures & the Future.

What’s that chill in the air?

It’s shoppers buying fewer packages in the frozen foods aisle—0.5% less in the 52 weeks ended April 13, 2013, and 1.9% less in the prior 12 months, show Nielsen data for all outlets combined (pre-packaged UPC-coded products only).  Dollar sales are up despite this trend, by 1.7% to $47.76 billion in the latest period.

If frozen foods are to regain sales momentum that once built the aisle to its vast size, it will come from a marketing campaign that involves major players and is conceived to re-image the aisle for health.   Ad Age reports that Walmart, the American Frozen Food Institute and the Frozen Food Roundtable (a coalition of brand competitors such as ConAgra Foods, General Mills, H.J. Heinz, Kellogg and Nestle USA) could spend up to $50 million on the campaign.

F3 believes the campaign should key on educating consumers that frozen foods may be no different (or in some cases better) taste-wise and nutritionally than some “fresh” counterparts.  As CPG reformulates with more flash-frozen vegetables and hand-made pastas, fewer preservatives and better ingredients overall, messaging should emphasize how frozen-food quality today often surpasses pre-conceived perceptions that may exist.

A campaign that empowers key demographic groups such as Boomers, Millennials and Hispanics with this information would help solidify frozen’s fortunes.

F3 says it would also pay to mind one of the aisle’s primary growth obstacles—consumers perceive that frozen foods are high in sodium, fat or calories. It will take smarter product development, as well as messaging, to educate people about sound choices available in the aisle.  For instance, some of ConAgra’s Healthy Choice frozen meals flavor with red wine instead of added salt, and some Marie Callender’s meals sweeten with apples instead of sugar.   Also, pre-portioning helps to limit food intake, and flash-freezing fruits and vegetables retains nutrients longer.

Hy-Vee nutritionist Kym Wroble cites research in an Iowa City Press-Citizen column that “most home-cooked meals surprisingly contain 1,380mg of sodium.” She points out that many frozen entrees have less than 600mg.   Sodium is a major issue for consumers: 58% say they watch their sodium intake, but they may be confused on where sodium comes from, reports Mintel.  Nearly three-quarters (72%) who limit their intake say they cook with less salt, 64% say they salt their food less, while 39% buy fewer packaged foods and 32% eat at restaurants less often.  The fact is, says F3, bread is a primary source of hidden sodium, which acts as a preservative.

Meanwhile, ECRM recently released its analysis of frozen food promotions at top U.S. grocery, drug, mass and dollar chains.  Highlights of ECRM metrics on circular space, promotional pricing and discount trends reveal that:

  • March as Frozen Food Month has lost significant front-page coverage in 2013.  Frozen’s 8.1% share of front-cover ad blocks between March 3 and March 27, 2013 trails meat’s 11.1% share and fresh produce’s 8.4%.  By comparison, dairy had a 6.5% share, fresh fruit 4.5%, fresh vegetables 3.9%, canned foods 2.1%, and dry and boxed foods 1.1%.
  • Frozen circular promotions have declined at key grocers such as Kroger (Cincinnati), Publix, Food Lion, Raley’s and Dominick’s.

ECRM also urged retailers to promote on the Web more to reach younger consumers, and urged manufacturers to cross-promote appetizers, entrees and desserts as total meal solutions.