Frozen is fresh - that’s the mantra of all producers in the frozen foods sector. Whether they deal in vegetables, fish, ready meals or croissants, they are all passionate about their products’ lack of preservatives and additives.
So if freezing is the best way of preserving food, and the overriding ethos about eating these days is that natural is best, why are so many consumers still not getting it?
And why are those who do shop the sector still indulging in what James Simmons, trading director for Unilever Ice Cream & Frozen Food, calls “smash and grab” - diving in and out of the aisle for little more than a bag of peas?
The general consensus is that the 60-year-old frozen sector has somehow skipped a generation and that there’s a need for more education to bring people into an area that has traditionally been seen as cheap, cheerful and a deep discounting heaven.
And the static status of the sector as a whole - down 0.3% year-on-year with the only growth areas being frozen fish, up 2.8%, and savoury food, up 2.3% [TNS 52 w/e March 27, 2005] - shows it could do with being reinvigorated.
Some areas have suffered more than others. Frozen meat, the largest sector, has experienced a 3.3% decline on the previous year and frozen confectionery has dropped 5%.
Unilever owns the number one frozen food brand, Birds Eye, and Simmons says manufacturers have a duty to help educate the consumer. “The challenge for us is to shout about the ‘frozen is fresh’ message and hope others will follow. We will spend £20m or so this year communicating about Birds Eye.”
Adrian Mooney, marketing manager for Goodfella’s, says the premium La Bottega pizza range, launched last October, and the Delicia Italian restaurant-style pizzas have enticed new consumers into the frozen pizza arena - despite the fact that frozen pizzas probably face some of the strongest competition from the increasing onslaught of chilled. He says this shows that it is possible to create growth through premium products.
“There’s a barrier for people who would not consider frozen, and more could be done to talk about it. There are plenty of lobby groups in other sectors. There’s a duty that we, as members of the British Frozen Food Federation, have
to get the message across. If all companies put aside a budget for PR we could make a lot of difference.”
BFFF director general Alf Carr shares this view and says the time is right to educate consumers. “It’s something we have done in the industry before and we need to do it for a new generation of potential purchasers,” he says.
“It isn’t that previous generations have not understood the benefits of frozen food, but there’s a tendency of some producers to talk it down as if it were a small, struggling industry.”
Of course, that’s far from the case. The frozen food sector is worth more than £3.35bn - more than bakery, petcare or household [TNS Family Food Panel 2004].
Carr adds: “It has reached a plateau and the cheap-and-cheerful image was fostered by the retailers. If renaissance is to be achieved, we have to re-educate people.”
He, too, believes there’s a place for more premium products to pull in new consumers. “The industry needs to reach more aspirational buyers who are currently buying chilled,” he says. “A lot of chilled products with a premium price tag have been previously frozen before being defrosted and sold through the chilled cabinet. It seems ironic that
a premium is being attained for products that have already been frozen - that proves what a good process it is.”
And retailers don’t help, with their price promotions and deep discounting. “The industry has to accept that the majority of retailers want frozen food to be priced at a low level to attract shoppers to the store,” says Carr. “The only answer is to persuade major multiples to stop their price wars on frozen foods - they are already very competitive against any other food sector.
“Even the retailers would like to get off the bogof and deep-discount roundabout, but one can’t do it before the others. It’s something that has got out of control.”