Freezing hot

Time-starved consumers are driving growth of quick-and-easy frozen entrees.

When Kerry Sauriol stocks up on frozen pizzas and entrees, she looks for something quick that her kids will actually eat. “I don’t hold out on health when it comes to frozen and easy foods,” says the busy Vancouver-based founder of mom-blog Crunchy Carpets. That said, she does have her limits. “If I can’t identify anything on the ingredients list, I will walk away,” she says. Same goes if she notices trans fats or too much sodium.

Most Canadians think the same way in the frozen aisle, says Joel Gregoire, analyst at NPD Group. Convenience matters most. Taste comes second, and health, while important, just isn’t a deal-breaker.

Convenience has, in fact, driven the category’s phenomenal growth over the last decade. The average Canadian now eats frozen pizza 12 times a year. Eleven years ago it was only four times, says Gregoire. Meanwhile, frozen-entree consumption is up to 15 times a year. In 2000, the average was 10.

At the same time, grocers have started using the frozen category as a draw to attract shoppers. Many give the category a lot of weight in their weekly flyers and Walmart even devoted an entire TV spot to the frozen-entree category. “Frozen entree buyers are very attractive to retailers; they tend to make these purchases on big-basket trips,” says Mark Cecchetto, marketing director of frozen meals at Nestlé Canada.

Once they’re standing in the freezer aisle, shoppers look for variety among their favourite brands, Cecchetto says. That’s why Nestlé has launched so many new frozen products in the past year. The company has particularly focused on the dinner-for-two segment, rolling out SKUs such as Penne Carbonara & Bacon and Rotini & Meatballs under its Stouffer’s Easy Express line. Nestlé also revamped its single-serve Stouffer’s products to deliver a homestyle taste, even going so far as to offer a “Tastes Like Home” guarantee on the packaging.

Other companies are also touting the fresh taste of their frozen products. Earlier this year ConAgra launched VH Steamers, a line of Asian-inspired dishes that use the same steaming technology as ConAgra’s Healthy Choice Steamers lineup. The steaming process keeps vegetables crisp and noodles al dente, which appeals to picky consumers, says Chanel Hall, ConAgra’s senior brand leader of frozen.

Matt Coleman, category manager of frozen and seafood at Newfoundland’s Colemans Food Centres, says customers are responding well to the steaming technology. The products hit two of the biggest trends he’s seeing in the frozen category: health and convenience.

Coleman says the demand for variety also carries over to the frozen pizza category. Even though consumers are still predominantly buying tried-and-true favourites, such as pepperoni, they like having the option to mix things up a bit occasionally.

“The bulk of our business is rising crust,” says Coleman. But consumers are buying more thin crust varieties, too, particularly as more manufacturers offer thin crust options.

Stuart Schneiderman, marketing director at Dr. Oetker Canada, says thin crust has caught on for good. “In terms of crust or toppings, there’s a clear trend to higher quality and better taste from all manufacturers as consumer expectations rise,” he says. Dr. Oetker, which manufactures thin crust brands Ristorante and Casa di Mama, recently rolled out a rising crust line, called Panebello Bakery Crust, that Schneiderman says has exceeded the company’s sales expectations.

Crusts, thin or rising, aren’t the only thing driving sales. Unusual toppings are as well. Delissio, for instance, rolled out two new pizza flavours this year: Buffalo Chicken and Bacon Cheeseburger. Meanwhile, spinach is the surprise hit at Dr. Oetker. Its Ristorante Spinach pizza ranks No. 1 in the thin crust pizza segment and No. 3 in the pizza meals category, according to Nielsen MarketTrack. “Ten years ago, who would have thought of putting spinach on a pizza?” Schneiderman says.

Spinach wasn’t a pizza topping 10 years ago. Now it’s a huge seller in the frozen aisle

New innovations in the frozen category are likely to drive the growth even further. Some of those ideas may even come from grocery’s biggest competitor: the restaurant industry. NPD Group’s Gregoire notes that as frozen pizza sales have gone up over the years, there has been a decline in the amount of pizza ordered in or taken out and manufacturers such as Nestlé pay attention to restaurant trends in an effort to take a bite out of the broader pizza market share beyond frozen. “Our role is to not only continue to grow market share but to also expand the category, switching pizza occasions from carry-out and delivery to the frozen aisle,” says Dan Mullen, Nestlé’s frozen pizza marketing director.

Frozen pizzas aren’t the only ones trying to lure consumers away from QSRs. “Recent Stouffer’s Bistro innovation including melts and sliders have continued to expand the aisle by stealing ‘snacking’ occasions from quick-service restaurants and other food-service venues,” says Cecchetto.

With consumers still watching their pennies, now is the time for frozen to muscle even further into restaurants’ territory.

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