Frozen food is alive and well, according to the results of an exclusive SN consumer survey.
In a telephone survey of 1,000 consumers conducted late last year for SN by America's Research Group, Charleston, S.C., 77% said the quality of frozen food is equal to or superior to nonfrozen foods.
"I think that's a very positive statement. You're looking at almost 80% of the people saying that frozen foods are either equal to or better than fresh," said Nevin Montgomery, president of the National Frozen Food Association, Harrisburg, Pa.
"I think it reinforces the message that we are conveying as an industry to consumers that frozen foods, from a quality standpoint, are superior or equal to other food products," said Steven C. Anderson, president of the American Frozen Food Institute, McLean, Va. Mark Polsky, senior vice president and grocery/frozens buyer at Magruder Inc., Rockville, Md., told SN that the survey's quality ratings may reflect a sign of the times.
"A lot of people that shop now don't know what fresh is all about," said Polsky, "so frozen is the best thing."
Though most consumers are satisfied with the quality of the frozen foods they purchase, the survey found that convenience is the primary motivation for buying frozen foods. Indeed, 64.3% of those polled cited convenience as the top reason for buying frozen products, followed by price (18.5%) and quality (17.2%).
"I think it's no secret that frozen foods are convenient," said Anderson of AFFI. "We've been using and marketing frozen foods with convenience and pressures that people are feeling with working and raising families."
But NFFA's Montgomery pointed out that in recent years, prepared foods have steered some consumers away from the frozen food section.
"There are other opportunities for the consumer," said Montgomery, "where convenience is going right inside the supermarket and picking up at the deli."
"They may say frozen foods are convenient, but it may be even more convenient to go to a food-service establishment to pick up dinner if you're coming home from work," said Anderson of AFFI.
According to the survey, retailers, through their choice of frozen food display fixtures, can also affect consumers' frozen food purchases.
The survey found that 72.2% of consumers surveyed would rather choose their frozen foods from doors; only 27% prefer reaching into bunkers or coffins to select their frozen food items.
Magruder's Polsky agrees with the survey: "I would absolutely prefer the doors. You can see what you want rather than having to bend over and put your head in something cold."
Mike Schnapp, frozen and dairy buyer at Seaway Food Town, Maumee, Ohio, advocates the use of coffins. "If you're talking to me as a consumer, I would prefer to shop coffins. But as a store manager, there seems to be cost savings in energy in frozen foods being in a door."
Whether consumers choose their frozen foods from coffins or doors, Anderson and Montgomery told SN that other, more critical issues face the frozen food category.
Proper handling of frozen products, according to NFFA's Montgomery, is in an ongoing concern. "We're trying to continually make educational programs available to the trade," he said. NFFA has several videos available to retailers that address the proper handling and merchandising of frozen food.
With the number of prepared food outlets increasing each year, AFFI's Anderson told SN the benefits of frozen foods should be marketed more aggressively.
"I think our companies are marketing their products in very creative ways," said Anderson. "We're trying to be very creative in how we're positioning frozen foods from nutrition and quality standpoints." In the face of increased competition, both Anderson and Montgomery stressed that communicating the nutritional value of frozen foods will entice consumers to purchase frozen foods.
"I think, when people buy a product, they just don't think convenience; they just don't think quality; they just don't think nutrition," said Anderson. "It's a combination of all the factors."
Retailers also told SN that the popularity of frozen foods can be attributed somewhat to their healthy reputation.
Two typically healthy items, frozen vegetables and juices, are purchased by 51.1% and 23.5% of consumers, respectively, according to the survey -- even though nonfrozen counterparts are available.
Both Seaway's Schnapp and Polsky of Magruder said consumers probably prefer frozen vegetables and juices because they are viewed as more nutritious.
Both NFFA and AFFI are trying to spread the word about frozen foods' nutritional benefits.
"We are very active in the 5 a Day program," said AFFI's Anderson. "What we want to do is move as many of those 5 a Day banners from the fresh aisles to the frozen."