Scratch cooking is cost-effective, but microwave meals are convenient. And shoppers aren’t about to give them up just because times are hard. Vince Bamford reports

Talk to someone who makes cooking sauces and they'll tell you we're all dusting off the ovenware and eating more home-cooked meals as a family. Listen to someone in the hot snacks market, however, and you'll hear that the convenience of the microwave is king and that family members are still eating separately, at different times of day. So which is true?

Well, both, it seems. Despite the talk of people eschewing convenience and going all Good Life, growing their own veg and cooking from scratch, 250,000 new consumers bought into the hot snacking category last year and the value of the UK market rose 8% to £108m [Nielsen 52w/e 28 November 2009] not bad when you consider these figures only cover snacks and don't include the plethora of foods that can be heated in the microwave.

People have got used to food that's ready to eat in seconds and are not about to give it up just because times are hard, believes Hugh Taylor, category development controller at Young's. "The move to scratch cooking has been overstated," he says. "Convenience is still an important trend."

It's a view echoed by John Armstrong, managing director of Kepak, which produces microwaveable snacks, the sub-category that has arguably seen most innovation over the past year. "The recession may have meant people have less money, but they still work long hours and need convenient food," he adds. "When a shift worker gets home worn out after a hard day, they may want a meal they can cook in the time it takes to boil a kettle."

Especially if it's affordable. What's interesting about microwaveable products is that although they are more expensive than standard equivalents, they often come in single or two-serve packs and are relatively cheap on a pack basis.

Manufacturers have been quick to flag up as much when launching the slew of predominantly fast food and snack-orientated products that have hit shelves recently, including fish fingers, frozen wraps and hot sub sandwiches.

Another reason microwaveable products are faring better than might have been expected is that they've broadened their appeal. They're not just targeting students and kitchen-shy fellas any longer, says Armstrong. "Students are a big target group as are youngsters living at home, but busy mums also buy into the category as a quick tea for their kids," he says.

Microwaves allow families to be flexible about meal times. "Families no longer sit around a table together as often as they once did and the microwave has become an accepted way of feeding different people at different times," says Neil Sanderson, business unit director at Findus UK.

And snacks and fast food aren't the only things on the menu. In September, Birds Eye and Findus went head to head, launching frozen microwaveable pasta meals. Findus unveiled large bags of meals such as Fusilli Bolognese and Penne Carbonara.

The consumer pours out the amount they want and microwaves it in six minutes. Birds Eye opted for individual bags, which go straight into the microwave and steam the meal in eight minutes. With an rsp of £1.69 for a 320g bag, the Birds Eye range of three filled pastas in sauce is more expensive per gramme than Findus's, which has an rsp of £2.99 for a 1kg bag, but has a lower price point.

Birds Eye is also using steam bags to offer mums easy-cook vegetables. "If you are a mum you can feel a bit guilty about microweable food," says marketing director Ben Pearman. "Our Field Fresh steam bag range gives mums a bit of an alibi. Although one of the benefits is convenience in a couple of minutes you've got perfectly cooked veg the other benefit is that it's steamed."

Kepak, which makes the Rustlers range of microwaveable hot dogs, burgers and subs, has also expanded beyond its traditional fare with the launch of the Ugo's Deli Café range of paninis designed as a lunchtime product for women. The original variants bacon, cheese & mustard mayonnaise and chargrilled chicken, mozzarella & pesto have been joined by a chicken, mozzarella & black olive tapenade version.

"Sixty per cent of those who eat our Rustlers products are aged 16 to 24," says Armstrong. "Ugo's is very different and has a different perception based on café dining. This has developed the market to attract more white-collar workers. Some 65% of our Ugo's paninis are bought for lunch."

But although the market for microwaveable foods is growing, suppliers are very aware that more needs to be done to overcome the perception that the products will always be of inferior quality to traditionally cooked food.

"There is a lot of hesitance that we have to get over before someone will buy a microwaveable hot snack, which is all about encouraging trial," says Armstrong. "They are sometimes hesitant because they don't understand how a burger can cook in just 90 seconds when the 'secret' is that we pre-cook it."

Kepak has held samplings of its Rustlers products outside universities as has Young's with its microwaveable fish fingers and has also given them out to workers on building sites.

But when it comes to encouraging mums to pick up products for their families, the best strategy is price promotions, says Armstrong. "Mums are more governed by price, so we have run a lot of half-price or round-pound deals, which have helped to grow penetration. The round-pound deals, particularly, overperformed compared with our expectations."

More needs to be done to effectively merchandise the category, adds Findus UK's Sanderson. "Marketing and merchandising frozen microwaveable snacking products is a constant challenge and retailers vary as to whether they view such products as a separate category," he says.

"We try to get our products merchandised with other Findus goods to create a colour block on the fixture."

John Mortimer, chairman of Glendale Foods, which makes products including frozen burgers and doner kebabs, agrees that block merchandising is an effective tool. "It is better to have a complete family of products for displaying in the freezer cabinet, rather than just a single variety," he says. "This raises consumer awareness and definitely increases sales."

Looking to the future, suppliers believe there is still untapped potential in the microwaveable snacks category for products specifically targeting the 45-plus age group, for instance and believe they can keep consumers interested in the category with NPD.

If the recent levels of innovation are anything to go by, then the future of the microwaveable foods category looks hot. The challenge for manufacturers going forward is to shake off the associations with unhealthy student food and convince consumers they really can heat a wholesome meal in just a matter of minutes.

Focus On Microwaveable Foods