The frozen ready meals category needs to work harder than any other to stay ahead. And after two years of heavy decline, the sector appears to be bucking up its ideas.
Sales in 2007 were £612m, a slide of 3% compared with 2006. But that's a far cry from the two previous years when the decline was well over 5%.
Cheap price points have been the problem, only serving to reinforce the assumption that frozen ready meals are lower quality and less healthy than their chilled counterparts [chilled sales are growing strongly year-on-year]. Mindful of healthier diets, consumers began to freeze them out. But their impression is beginning to thaw.
Penetration is stabilising and a loyal customer base is developing again. "As consumers are more time-pressured than ever, this sector remains hugely relevant," says Phil Bladeramos, Bird Eye's general marketing manager for meals.
"The key to driving growth is real innovation and great-quality classic recipes."
Premiumisation has had a helping hand in this respect. And will continue to do so. Experts suggest that, as the economy worsens, shoppers may look to premium frozen ready meals as a quality, yet affordable option.
Schwan's and Findus's Jean-Christophe Novelli brands have helped restore or inject quality and health credentials. In March, Birds Eye also launched its Eat Positive range. The four meals all carry health claims, such as 'a natural source of Omega-3', 'naturally helps lower your cholesterol' or 'naturally rich in antioxidants'.
But this is just the beginning. The whiff of optimism in the category has recently been seized upon by Hain Celestial, with extensions and further investment in the previously faltering Linda McCartney range. The revamp has the backing of Sir Paul McCartney.
Ready meals have a hard day's night, but consumers are falling in love with them again.