It's hard to argue that frozen side dishes aren't convenient, but the category is slipping. Retailers and manufacturers blame competition from sexier bowls and even warm weather for a 1.7% decline in dollar sales and a 7% drop in unit sales during the past year, as measured by Information Resources Inc., Chicago.
"From everything that I've seen in research, there appears to be consumer reluctance to take the time to prepare side dishes such as potatoes and vegetables," said Mike Sullivan, frozen food director for K-VA-T, Abingdon, Va. "It could be due to their time crunch. Our numbers indicate that both potatoes and vegetables are somewhat flat as opposed to dinners and entrees."
However, not everyone is unhappy with frozen side dishes' sales. Hugh Bradburn, frozen food buyer for Earth Fare, Asheville, N.C., told SN that "definitely our frozen vegetables sell really well," but Earth Fare specializes in the natural food market. "The natural foods segment's frozen foods offering is smaller than the conventional market but there is a lot of new stuff coming out, and it's probably the fastest growing. Unfortunately, we can't make our freezer space bigger," said Bradburn.
He noted that the Amy's Kitchen organic line has a macaroni and cheese and a soy cheese macaroni that sell very well, and edamame, the Japanese soy beans, in or out of the pods, have been very popular.
Among the Top 10 vendors according to IRI, those that saw sales increases for the 52 weeks ended March 24 include some Green Giant items; private label, latkes and blintzes from Old Fashioned Kitchen; mashed and twice-baked potatoes from Lamb-Weston; and products from Harvest Time. Down in sales were Nestle USA, Mustang Foods (Larry's Potatoes), Heinz and Ore-Ida (registering a drop of 30.7% in dollars, 35% in units). Also down, but not as much, were Agrilink Foods, down 1.5% in dollars, 8% in units.
IRI's additional report of the Top 20 brands shows a steady stream of declines until No. 7, private label, which is up 2.5% in sales, and up 1.3% in units. Five newly introduced Green Giant 24-ounce vegetable side dishes in resealable bags were up 942% in sales and 863% in units, for the same time period. This performance does not include Green Giant Pasta Accents, which have greater sales and are higher on the list, at No. 3, or Green Giant Rice Originals, which are at No. 4, both of which showed declines in sales. Other brands showing sales increases are Golden, Inland Valley (in the West and Southwest only, mashed potatoes and twice baked), Anne's, Southland, McKenzie and Catfish Hotel (up 9.5% in dollar sales; 9.8% in units.). Glory Foods went down in dollar sales but up in units, 14.6%.
Sullivan said so many new entrees offer the customer a better vegetable, or a better potato or rice, that there could be some trade-off, keeping customers from buying the traditional vegetables. Side dishes that are unique, which don't come in an entree, like grilling vegetables and corn on the cob, show good growth for K-VA-T stores, he said.
Inland Valley, owned by Lamb-Weston, Kennewick, Wash., launched a portionable mashed potato last September, which has accounted for its gains of 10.5% in dollar sales and 5.3% in units, according to Nan Costa, retail marketing manager for the manufacturer.
"Instead of being packaged in a tray or in a bag, these are like pucks -- smaller -- and it's easy to remove as many as you want. That has helped a lot from a volume standpoint," she said.
Since so many bowl items have been introduced, frozen side dishes are having a tough time, Costa added. "You need things as a family that cook quickly. [Our product] is almost like Mom's, but in five or six minutes." The package is 28 ounces, and sells for $2.69 to $2.89, she said.
"People are looking for something quick. Look at pizza and handheld snacks. That's where the side dish has gone. People are trying to get it all in one dish, like a Lean Cuisine with green beans in it; they just take that instead," she told SN. "And anything retailers are doing in the store, like selling potato wedges with their cooked chicken in the deli, makes it that much harder [for us] to get that side dish [sale]."
Roz O'Hearn, director, division and brand affairs, for the Nestle USA prepared-foods division, Solon, Ohio, said Nestle has added new Stouffer's side dish items that began shipping last month, such as a multiserving packet of "smashed potatoes," 32 ounces of mashed red potatoes with garlic, and a hashed brown potato casserole, with cheese sauce and bacon, also 32 ounces. Clearly billed as side dishes, they cook in the microwave for 12 minutes, then another two to six minutes more after stirring.
"They would be great if you were doing something on the grill, with a little salad," O'Hearn said. Consumers have told the company that they like the potatoes that come with a barbecued chicken, she said, and suggested that Stouffer's offer it as a side dish. Blintzes are selling as well as they normally sell, since they are a steady, ethnic item, said Dick Rissman, frozen food director for Dahl's Foods, Des Moines, Iowa, who attributed some of the decline in some other dishes to the weather.
"It was not the kind of winter that makes people stay in and chow down," he told SN.
He attributes Green Giant's astronomical growth to five new items that shipped March 1. "Any time you introduce a new item, you get some soft numbers because everybody buys a case or two, so they have them. Green Giant is a good label, and it's a nice-looking package. I was concerned how they would match up vs. the 16-ounce bag, but they are holding up well, and I think they will stay," he said.
Rissman, too, thinks that competition from Uncle Ben's and "all these bowls" that people want to try has cut into sales of side dishes.
Sales for Larry's Potatoes, which was bought by Schwan's Sales Enterprises, Marshall, Minn., and reportedly has a new broker, have declined by 8.4% but still made it to the top of IRI's list of Top 20 vendors, with dollar sales of $31.7 million. "I haven't noticed them being promoted as much," Rissman said. A new, dark purple package might be confusing consumers, too, according to Ken Wiseman, a frozens clerk for the independent Fuller Marketplace in Chehalis, Wash.
Boston Market side dishes, ranked in the top quarter of brands, showed declines of 7.2% in dollar sales and of 20.8% in units, compared with the previous year, according to IRI. The frozens category manager for a New Jersey retail chain said it's a little too early to tell about the new Stouffer's items, many of which were introduced in January.
"We do a good job with Stouffer's, in that we advertise all of their items in subgroups rather than the entire line at 40% to 50% off. The Boston Market Sides responded very well to a sale we did in December 2001, when we had a BOGO sale on Boston Market dinners and gave a side dish away for free."
"Our stores are not so price-conscious," Dahl's Rissman said. "We carry all the Stouffer's and Boston Market. There again I attribute it to the weather, honestly, and the wide variety of items out there. Before, when there was less selection, your numbers were always boosted up there."
To try to boost sales back up, he suggested that retailers should do displays and promote the category on price, "and be sure you carry the items. Dahl's is big on variety. We keep our variety pretty wide to keep people's appetites going." Using a theme, such as Italian week or a cookout week, could also create sales, Sullivan said.
Variety is key at Earth Fare, too, said Bradburn, who crams as much as he can into his 15 doors. A four-foot set is all frozen vegetables, boxed and bagged.
Another idea is to use the point-of-sale material available from the National Frozen and Refrigerated Food Association, Harrisburg, Pa. Sullivan said he used the NFRA's material for Frozen Food Month, March.
"We had spectacular sales, and we will be using more of that material to help us in sections such as potatoes and vegetables, wherever we see the need." Sullivan likes the stand-up bags as used by Green Giant. "Those are the items that will have the consumer stop and examine the section; so often the customer is in a hurry and doesn't get the full effect. It really is a good billboard, attracting grownups or new users to the category."