More theatre in the aisles, greater marketing spends and a host of new product developments helped renew interest in frozen food, as well as challenge people's perception that it is inferior to chilled. According to Taylor Nelson Sofres, the market is now worth £3.34bn, up 2%, proving that this normally uninviting fixture is winning the battle to woo people there. Birds Eye Wall's says the frozen food industry needs to take the chilled sector head-on and match its product quality and innovation if it is to tempt consumers back to the freezer. "While the retailers battle it out over price, we have a bigger job to do," says category director James Simmons. "We have to deal with this perception of frozen versus chilled. For most consumers value is important but it is also about quality, and getting the balance between the two," he says. For those with children, frozen is a destination category for staple items, but with single people, purchases are more impulse driven ­ "convenience ready meals or something on deal they really like", Simmons says. Birds Eye Wall's Enjoy! ready meals has done much to change the perception of meal solutions but the range has had a major overhaul to stem falling sales. Lines were reduced from 13 to 11, while slow-sellers were ditched and replaced by more appealing ethnic varieties. Heinz believes frozen food's image is changing significantly as more emphasis is placed on higher quality. So far this year the manufacturer has had three heavily supported major launches ­ Pizza Pleasure, Deeply Delicious cheesecakes and Main Street Bistro ready meals. Each points to where the market is heading, it says. Business director for frozen and chilled Robin Walker says: "Consumers have become either very lazy or time-pressured. They want it now, and they want it good as well. "Main Street Bistro's high quality compares with good restaurant style meals, with its larger portions and the use of new flavours." Walker believes that if manufacturers pulled together, the market would go forward. "What the marketplace has done wrong is to give retailers too many promotions for too long a time. That gives consumers a low opinion of its quality," he says. "I'd like to see more interesting promotions." Heinz is also improving its merchandising, running a 12-week trial in which its WeightWatchers range is in one place in store so diet-conscious shoppers can find them more easily. Findus says it is developing food to meet the changing demands of consumers, such as its Feeling Great! and Findus Wok for adults and Findus crispy pancakes and cod crispies for kids. And in an attempt to dispel the myth of frozen food being a poor alternative to chilled, Findus has embarked on a nationwide campaign to drive home the message about the benefits of frozen food and about its profit potential. UK retail marketing director Gerardo Mazzeo says: "Feeling Great! is only one year old in July, but its launch heralded a breakthrough for Findus. The brand already accounts for more than 15% of the healthy frozen ready meals sector and we expect it to continue to grow throughout this year. "We have sold more than six million packs and sales exceed £10m. It has been backed by marketing support worth £8m, which will continue throughout 2002." Findus Wok, meanwhile, has helped to give frozen vegetables a boost with an imaginative blend of vegetables with couscous, noodles and rice. This year a marketing spend worth £5m has been earmarked for the brand. One of the market's star performers has been potato products, a category now worth £438m, an increase of 6.6% for the 12 months from April 2001, and a sector where McCain's and Aunt Bessie are the main growth drivers [TNS]. McCain's range of potato products accounts for more than 60% of the company's total sales with its microwaveable chips worth £40m a year to the company. It claims impressive growth for the frozen potato specialities sector, up 20% year-on-year, and where roast potatoes take the lion's share of 54%. BEW has changed pack sizes and price points on two potato products to cater for consumer needs. Alphabites now come in a 425g pack with an rsp of 99p, while potato fritters are in a 650g pack retailing for £1.49. This summer it will be using colourful imagery to boost barbecue products, adding a limited edition eight-pack of BBQ flavour potato waffles to its range, while at the same time running a 15-for-the-price-of-12 offer on its original potato waffles ­ activity that's backed by a £1.6m communications programme. Frozen fish is another area BEW is reviewing. Already the company is feeling the effect of diminishing cod supplies, and has implemented a price increase across all its white fish products of between 3% and 10%. It has also pledged to buy all its fish from sustainable sources by 2005. New fish being introduced into the cabinet include its hoki fish fillet steaks to replace cod steaks. And there are rumours of a third comeback by the old Captain Birds Eye which would be designed to rekindle children's interest in fish fingers. Frozen snacks are growing and Patak's believes this is partly because more people are cooking with a microwave. Another factor, it says, is the wide variety of flavours on offer, particularly in the ethnic meals sector. RVP Foods claims its flagship brand Oriental Express accounts for more than 17% of total ready meals sales, and tops the Chinese frozen ready meals sector with a 40% share. The brand is being given a packaging makeover which will be followed by a £5m ad campaign in September. First off the launch pad will be a range of Oriental Express sizzling stir-fry ready meals containing higher percentages of chicken and prawn and chunkier vegetables. The summer is also giving the market a boost according to Dalepak.The use of themed occasions heightens brand awareness and there are more occasions to choose from during summer. Marketing director Richard Holt says: "Seasonality is as important in frozen food as in any other category, and that's why we will be focusing heavily on the barbecue season. During the summer the sector is shopped by more than twice the number of consumers with both purchase frequency and value doubling." Seasonality is also important to frozen desserts whose sales peak at Christmas. Competition among frozen desserts began to warm up when Heinz launched its Deeply Delicious range of cheesecakes backed by £10m. Last year's acquisition of Sara Lee's bakery division by Hibernia Foods has made it an even more dominant player in the sector. Brand leading Sara Lee's general manager Tony Hitchens says: "The biggest advantage we have is just under 40% of the frozen desserts sector. We also have an own label and a strong branded business, so we can adopt a more category approach to the market. Over the past few months, we've been assessing everything that will influence us in how we tailor our offering." Hitchens sees Sara Lee as a brand with a presence in all key sectors of most stores. And he believes there is a role for mainstream bogof promotions as long as the frequency keeps the brand special to consumers. Price-marked pack promotions, buy two for a certain price, or buy two and save £1 are vital to the category, he says, so Sara Lee will maintain regular tailor-made promotional activity. RHM Frozen Foods is bringing innovation to the sector and its Cadbury sub branding has helped to pull in children. A new Cadbury Flake dessert bar and Cadbury Caramel dessert bar have been added to the mix along with three new versions of Cadbury's chocolate gateaux. In addition, its Mr Kipling individual slices have been designed to defrost quickly in the box. While out of stocks remains a problem for suppliers, efforts are being made to eradicate it. BEW's Simmons says: "If it's not on shelf, consumers are put off. But it is encouraging that retailers now understand the size of the problem and want to resolve it." {{FOCUS SPECIALS }}