Tacky, passé and cheap. No, this is not a description of the contestants in Celebrity Big Brother but the words of one consumer when asked to sum up frozen food. Indeed, if supermarket categories were dealt with in the same way as contestants in the Big Brother house, it is clear which would be evicted first.
Frozen food was the only category to see a decline in all six constituents in The Grocer's annual Top Products survey of the main 24 grocery categories last year. Frozen ready meals were worst hit, down 12.9% in value [ACNielsen 52 w/e October 1, 2005]. Even frozen food stalwarts Unilever and Heinz are exiting, in the wake of the sale of the European operations of Findus to Capvest.
Despite the current health craze and giants such as Birds Eye spending millions communicating the message that freezing is the most natural way to preserve foods, consumers have been seduced by the chiller cabinet. It will take more than global warming to melt their frosty attitude.
So will the freezer cabinet go the way of other traditional food preservation ideas such as salting?
With a third of all sales made on promotion last year, volume is at least being maintained. But, as David Stokes, Nisafreeze senior trading controller, said in December, the sector is likely to stay in a discounting spiral as long as suppliers fund the multiples' downward pricing strategy.
He added: "Suppliers are not making enough out of their base products to fund NPD and there has been a dearth of new and innovative products."
Yet the category has some inherent strengths. Some 96% of households have a freezer. It is a more natural way of preserving food - frozen products do not need preservatives and additives. And it can play to today's convenience lifestyle: you can always have some frozen on standby for when friends drop round or you were not expecting to eat in.
After all, unless you want a joint of beef, it doesn't take that much longer to defrost than cooking a chilled meal - especially if you use the microwave.
The Grocer certainly does not believe it is all doom and gloom. So we brought a group of like-minded experts together to develop three fantasy products to help revive the category. But from the start it was clear that there were major issues of perception to overcome. When asked to describe frozen food, responses included basics, family, value, bulk and boxes. Meanwhile chilled was seen as fresh, exotic, couscous, basil and forest mushrooms.
On the following pages you can read about the ideas that came out of one afternoon's brainstorming.
We were looking for products that would achieve the following:
Incremental volume - not stealing from existing higher-margin products, which retailers would not countenance
Boost shopper traffic in frozen aisles
Play to the strengths of the format
Boost margin and added value
Over the coming three months, we will be enlisting the help of you, our readers, to choose the best idea. On the back of this, branding and communications agency DNX will then create a marketing campaign for the winning idea. In June we will present the idea to buyers for their verdict.