Sales growth has spiralled as retailers take up an effective weapon against foodservice A mere infant in retail terms, home meal replacement (HMR), or "food to go" has seen phenomenal growth in the two years or so since it was introduced to the UK. Asda, Safeway, Waitrose and Morrisons lead the field in embracing it, followed by a growing body of symbol groups, c-stores, and independents which have all seen sales climb by offering freshly prepared meal takeaways. For anyone unfamiliar with the concept, HMR is a meal or meal accompaniment, freshly prepared away from home for same day consumption at home. It began in the US in response to consumer demand for something more wholesome than fast food and is viewed as an alternative to eating out, with meals usually served hot. Here, it's treated as another alternative to home food preparation, with meals usually sold chilled for reheating and eating at home. In both countries, it's become a strategic weapon in the battle for "share of stomach" between retailing and foodservice. The key difference between HMR and ready meals is that HMR meals are sold as loose components that can be individually specified from a serveover counter. However, the IGD, which is publishing a report and holding a conference on the subject next month, believes HMR is converging with chilled ready meals. IGD senior business analyst Daniel Turner who is the author of the report, says: "The biggest growth in HMR is in pre-packed, ready to go meals in the chiller, pointing to an obvious convergence with chilled ready meals. Sainsbury and Tesco have already made the decision to focus on pre-pack. We see this continuing, with HMR increasingly becoming a part of the chilled ready meal offer." One result of this trend is that there is unlikely to be more co-opting of deli space to expand serveover counters. Among other trends is the consumer's preference for transparent packaging. Says Turner: "They want to see what they're buying, particularly if it's pre-packed. They show more interest in meals in trays with see through lids." S & A Foods is one of the most innovative forces in the HMR market, having introduced the concept to the UK with the hugely successful Curry Pot in Asda stores. Head of brand marketing Jeff Nicholas says one reason pre-pack meal combinations are growing is because some customers don't like counter queuing, while others are put off by queues at the counter when they have to choose from products that might be unfamiliar to them. "We find big volume sellers are more efficiently sold as meal deals, while less well known dishes are better merchandised in bowls at the counter," says Nicholas. When it comes to packaging, he says that portioning in trays according to meal type has now become the norm, replacing weighing which is time-consuming. Indian and Chinese meals dominate the market. Nicholas says Indian meals are the most successful because they are widely understood, offer better value than high street takeaways and the robust flavours of the cuisine improve with keeping and reheating. "With its delicate flavours and textures, Chinese is best cooked fresh, so doesn't lend itself so well to HMR. Recently we've done a lot of work to get it to reheat to a better standard," says Nicholas. "We've achieved a lot of success with Asda and with the noodle bars introduced by Waitrose and Safeway in the last 18 months. Noodle bars are a different kind of meal solution, with customers creating their own combinations from a choice of noodles, sauces, meat and fish served hot or cold in Chinese takeaway style cartons with chop sticks." In the last year S & A has helped Asda broaden its Chinese offer into a wider range that includes Thai, Japanese, Malaysian and Indonesian. The 30-strong range, launched last August as Oriental to reflect the diverse nature of the dishes offered, is claimed to be authentic with recipes that are less saucy, have a more glossy meat glaze, and chunkier, crispier vegetables. For Morrisons, it has developed a series of unusual and alternative limited edition Indian meals, allowing consumers to experiment with less familiar tastes without the supermarket having to commit to taking a dish as a stock item until its popularity has been established. In the next few years Nicholas foresees HMR broadening into a world cuisine in line with restaurant food trends: "It'll be a world takeaway', drawing inspiration and recipes from all over the world." The IGD's Turner also predicts HMR repertoire expansion. "We'll be seeing more oriental dishes, and Tex-Mex too. The market is also ripe for tapas because of Spanish holidays," says Turner. Symbol groups and c-stores have also been steadily moving into HMR through the auspices of companies like Country Choice ­ a division of foodservice frozen wholesaler Brake Bros ­ which offers a range of modular packages to suit a variety of requirements. HMR manager Ralph Walsh says packages range from bake-off with hot and cold filled fresh baked baguettes, rolls and sandwiches, to pizza, hot savouries, chicken products and ready meals. The packages come with equipment, technical support and staff training. The 40 meals, which include Indian, pasta and traditional English, are supplied frozen in multi-portion trays for portioning in store. Walsh says this format enables them to be merchandised in three ways: "They can be oven cooked as the lunch or evening "meal of the day", offered as portioned meals in the deli cabinet for instore microwaving, or merchandised in the chiller as chilled ready meals for home reheating. It helps minimise wastage, something that really worries smaller retailers. "The secret is developing the right menu for the right time of day to suit local requirements." Walsh reckons the margins on HMR meals are between 50% and 60%, and says that a good operation can generate 10% of weekly sales, while an exceptional one can achieve 25% of turnover. It is currently rolling out an HMR programme with Spar. "HMR is growing like Topsy, with our business trebling in the last year," says Walsh. {{FOCUS SPECIALS }}