It’s been a mixed year for Birds Eye, losing two top spots but introducing two of the most successful launches of the year

Since the UK entered recession, NPD in the freezer aisle has been hotting up like never before. The flurry of launches seemed perfectly timed, with Arctic Roll, in particular, capturing the imagination of shoppers and the media alike, winning Birds Eye £5.8m in sales and helping to revive the frozen desserts category, up 6.6% in value and 4.3% in volume.

And yet, while value is up in every sub-category apart from ready meals (which has been in long-term decline), frozen has been a bit of a disappointment, according to one big four buyer. “During the recession, we’ve had an opportunity to drive volume and haven’t done that. We’ve flattered ourselves with inflation-driven value growth. We haven’t delivered on the volume.”

Frozen fish was a particular disappointment, with the high volume of deals failing to translate, as volumes slipped 2.1%. Sales of Birds Eye’s Cod Fillet Fish Fingers, while still in first place, fell 26.8% to £30m, a slump one buyer believes is partly due to a new sales team at Young’s using “aggressive” marketing that resulted in sales of its own fish fingers rising more than 131.9% to £11.8m.

However, Birds Eye says this was owing to a rebalancing in its portfolio for sustainability reasons, flagging up the growth in sales of its Captain’s Omega-3 Fish Fingers, up 18.8% in sales. Birds Eye also enjoyed considerable success with its Simply Bake to Perfection range, launched in March (see Top Launch) with sales of £15m so far, according to general manager Ann Murphy, “85% of it incremental”. It also launched new salmon fish fingers.

Not to be outdone, Young’s launched the world’s first microwaveable fish fingers, and is promising further “exciting breakthrough products” in the next 12 months.

Perhaps more challenging for Birds Eye was ready meals. A slump – sales fell 17.6% while Young’s soared 26.8% – meant it lost the top spot to WeightWatchers, which has grown sales 8.9% to £55.7m. Heavy marketing and a loyal, robust consumer base have been key, says the buyer. “WeightWatchers trades on points, not satfat. This makes it simple for people to get,” he says.

Further down the table, Sharwood’s is one to watch in Chinese and Indian ready meals, increasing sales from £2.7m to £7.6m and climbing from 14th to 8th. Brand owner Kerry Foods attributes its success to moving the brand to ‘complete meal solutions’ with everything in one packet.

Birds Eye was also knocked off top spot in frozen pies, as it slashed summer promotional activity. “We believe in the importance of deals but we are not prepared to promote one-dimensionally,” says Murphy. In the meantime, McDougalls Uppercrust powered up to top spot.

Frozen potatoes was another highly fought battleground. McCain hung on to first and second place with Homefries and Oven Chips through heavy promotions, says the buyer, adding that Aunt Bessie’s sales have fallen because it cut back on promotions. However, McCain’s has not been able to boost sales of Micro Chips, which fell 3.3%. McCain hopes an autumn door drop of coupons will reignite interest.

In pizza, Dr Oetker’s acquisition of Chicago Town in January saw the branded field reduced effectively to a two-horse race, as Dr Oetker went head to head with Northern Foods. With strong ads as well as promotions, Chicago Town came out the clear winner, with Deep Dish sales up 21.2% and the new Edge to Edge range notching up more than £10m in less than 10 months.

Top launch: Simply Bake to Perfection, Birds Eye
They’re a delicate lot, shoppers. According to Birds Eye’s research, they are put off buying fish because it is wet and smelly – bless ’em. Which is why Birds Eye came to their rescue with Simply Bake To Perfection – frozen fish that can be cooked in the bag it is packaged in. The company says this reduces mess and the risk of overcooking. And, presumably, post-traumatic stress disorder. Sales have already reached £15m.

Top Products Survey 2009