It may not look scary to the average shopper, but the freezer cabinet can be a very frightening place for brands especially those aiming at premium positioning. Several big names have stumbled as they sought the category's holy grail, with the latest casualty, Heinz Main Street Bistro range, discontinued last month.
Its exit followed the demise of Birds Eye's Enjoy! brand which bit the dust last year despite a two-year marketing budget of £30m. Hazlewood Foods' Gary Rhodes range did not last long.And according to an industry insider, Uncle Ben's Rice Bowl range, which had also been priced well above the £2 barrier, will shortly be dipping below it permanently.
Seen through a mist
Freezer shopping is not the most pleasant of experiences. Hands can get cold and wet when picking up packs, while misted freezer doors make viewing the products difficult. It is not surprising that many shoppers treat the freezer aisle like a bowling alley running down the middle and picking off products on either side as quickly as possible.
Meanwhile, to rub salt into the wound, the chiller cabinet seems to have few problems supporting premium products.
Consumer perception is generally regarded as the major problem with the consensus consumers shop the freezer for value and the chiller for innovation.
Even Findus Feeling Great!, which seemed to be bucking the trend, has just been forced to cut its rsp by 60p to £1.99, as well as annexing the previously abandoned Lean Cuisine moniker to explain the proposition.
With a background like this, is any manufacturer ever going to sustain a premium ready meals range in the freezer?
"It's very unlikely," says Budgens buyer Anna Chopra. "Consumers are unwilling to pay more than £2 for a frozen ready meal. At that price, they're looking at chilled options which have a higher quality perception."
David Stokes, senior trading controller at NisaFreeze, agrees. "These ranges only sell in great quantities at promotional levels. Even if taste panels and marketers all recommend a frozen ready meals range, unfortunately when the price breaks the £1.99 barrier, the products are doomed to fail. Chilled ready meals launched above £2 continue to be successful as they are perceived by consumers to be fresher, which is not always the case."
James Simmons, Birds Eye's trading director for grocery, says the main aim of his company's new £14m campaign is "shifting consumer perception".
"We want to re-educate consumers on the benefits of frozen food and we see the campaign as an opportunity to communicate it as nature's way of locking in goodness," he says. "We also want to show our brand as relevant to everyday life."
Simmons refutes the idea that premium automatically equals freezer failure and attributes Enjoy!'s flop to not making full use of the Birds Eye brand. He says many of the company's products which retail above £2 are "among its strongest performers", and points out that its SteamFresh vegetables and chicken breasts in sauce fit a premium profile.
According to Simmons, a change in consumer attitudes will open the door to more upmarket offerings. "It will allow us additional opportunities to reinvigorate the brand and this will include scope to bring out premium products," he says.
Reminding consumers of the value
Birds Eye's campaign is a brave move as many of its products most notably fish fingers and peas face little competition outside the freezer, but Simmons points out it is likely to have a knock-on effect. "We'll do good job for the category but we'll also do a terrific job for the brand," he says.
Alf Carr, director general of the British Frozen Food Federation, praises Birds Eye's aims. "Each mini generation needs to be reminded of the value of frozen food," he says. "This is exactly the type of leadership the category needs."
However, he does not see consumer perception as the main barrier to premium status in the freezer. Instead, he lays some of the blame on retailers. "It's not the manufacturer that makes the price decision and the problem is probably retailers' attitudes towards positioning frozen ready meals in the marketplace," he says.
Carr maintains that the frozen sector has been its own worst enemy by being too successful at presenting a cheap and cheerful image.
He also warns that high profile range failures have given some frozen manufacturers "a bit of an inferiority complex" and some retailers the opportunity to say I told you so'.
However, he believes there is still scope for a premium range from frozen manufacturers. "We have a very, very diverse marketplace and a wide range is needed in both frozen and chilled," he says.
Some retailers, though, question whether or not frozen manufacturers should even continue trying. Budgens' Chopra thinks they might be better off channelling their energies into innovation in the standard area, where they already sell well. "Standard everyday meals continue to do well, especially when on promotion, and will always have a place in the frozen range," she says.
"Manufacturers have tried too hard with recipes. Like the typical frozen ready meal consumer, the frozen food buyer is not as experimental as the chilled buyer.
"Manufacturers should stick to the basic favourites such as spaghetti bolognese or chicken curry, while looking at innovative presentation and packaging, for example, meal solutions for two in a bag or box, or even two courses in one package."