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In today’s frozen meals, convenience and taste trump all

Product innovation is freshening up the frozen entree category

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The dreaded frozen TV dinner, once maligned for simply satiating hunger, with little attention to flavour or health, is making a comeback. For consumers seeking healthy, convenient and tasty meals, “frozen” isn’t such a bad word anymore.

Food manufacturers such as Nestlé are giving the frozen entree category some yum! with a sharper focus on taste and variety.

“Frozen food [is] one of the most convenient and easiest ways for consumers to have meal solutions,” says Mark Cecchetto, vice-president of marketing for frozen food/pizza at Nestlé Canada.

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Last October, Nestlé launched Lean Cuisine Fresh Inspirations, a line of six single-serve entrees in varieties such as Chicken Teriyaki, Chili Lime Beef and Shrimp Alfredo. The meals have a two-part tray: one that allows the vegetables and rice to steam and another that lets the meat simmer in a sauce. A consumer can then add as much or as little sauce as she wants to the rice.

“Cooking the product separately is how you would cook if you were making it on your stove at home,” says Cecchetto, adding it gives consumers more control over the flavour.

Heinz is trying to satisfy Canadians’ desire for customization with new assemble-your-own chicken fajitas under its Weight Watchers Smart Ones brand. The fajitas come with the tortilla shells, white-meat chicken and a side of beans and rice in separate compartments.

Of course, taste trumps even the most convenient and healthiest of meals. “The product has to taste good,” says Sandro D’Ascanio, marketing director of innovation and frozen food at Heinz Canada. Otherwise, the customer is not going to buy it again.

Sounds like a no-brainer. But good taste can be tough to deliver in frozen meals.

READ: Rekindling the lost art of food preservation

“Great taste and quality costs money,” says Molly Spinak, president of Toronto shopper marketing agency Quadrant Marketing.

“Manufacturers need to understand what people are willing to pay in [a particular] category,” she says. “So you could come up with a frozen pizza that costs $10 and tastes amazing, but I’m not sure people would pay that [much money]. There’s a reasonableness test in that category.”

In a consumer study conducted by Nielsen for ConAgra Foods, taste and variety came out as the top drivers in the frozen entree category, followed by health and quality.

“[The research found] that frozen dinner and entree users like to experiment within the category. Trying new brands and new flavours is important to them,” says Esther Park, brand manager of frozen at ConAgra Canada. “So we knew it was important to continue to refresh the lineup and introduce new SKUs.”

In August, ConAgra Canada launched two new varieties of Healthy Choice Gourmet Steamers: BBQ Chicken with roasted potatoes, vegetables and peaches; and Grilled Chicken pesto, both of which have performed well in the U.S.

Despite the healthier options, it’s been hard to shake frozen food’s bad rap. “Consumers have negative perceptions about nutrition, additives and preservatives in frozen food, which are not necessarily true,” says D’Ascanio. “A lot of work has been done by different manufacturers to overcome this.”

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In the U.S., a coalition of frozen food makers including ConAgra, General Mills, Heinz, Kellogg and Nestlé, along with Walmart, are launching a $50- million ad campaign that aims to change the way consumers think about frozen food, according to Advertising Age.

There are no plans to launch a similar campaign in Canada, says Park. “But it’s an interesting campaign and something we’re going to stay very close to.”

Josée Minoto, director of merchandising at Metro’s Super C banner, agrees some consumers are reluctant to buy frozen food because they associate it with things such as high sodium.

“But the perception is changing because of new innovations in the healthy segment, such as [steamed products] that offer a new way of cooking frozen entrees,” she says.

For retailers, the biggest problem is getting people into the frozen section, says Quadrant Marketing’s Spinak. “It’s one of the most challenging areas of the store,” she says. “[Shoppers] have the barrier of the freezer doors and the barrier of the temperature, so it’s not a high- involvement area.”

To drive consumers into the freezer aisle, Super C has an ongoing “multiple purchase” promotion for frozen entrees. For example, shoppers can buy three entrees for five dollars, or three for $10, depending on the brand. In the store a dedicated bunker in the frozen aisle houses the promotional items, which are in rotation for four to six weeks.

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On top of the bunker, Super C allocates for special seasonal buys such as ice cream, and merchandises different grocery products around it. “The consumer who buys frozen entrees is very often a family, so we merchandise products such as juice and fruit cups around the bunker,” Minoto says.

Masstown Market in Masstown, N.S., meanwhile, entices shoppers to its frozen department with unique local items, such as frozen burgers from a nearby farm in Stewiacke, N.S., and frozen sea- food pie made by the grocer’s foodservice department.

“Michelina has 15 million different SKUs, which is great but it’s the same as every other supermarket,” says owner, Laurie Jennings. “Some things that are in [our freezer] are a little bit different, a little bit unique, [and] you need to come here to get [them]. That’s the key.”

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