As consumers look to slim down after Christmas and New Year's gluttony, many supermarkets are fattening up on diet-oriented entrees.
More freezer space, promotional displays and advertising will be fed to the segment in 1996's inaugural months, frozens buyers and merchandisers said. The push kicked off this month as stores began dishing out a steady diet of price specials on the major brands: Stouffer's Lean Cuisine, Healthy Choice, Weight Watchers and The Budget Gourmet.
"There will be a lot of sales on Weight Watchers, Healthy Choice and Lean Cuisine. They promote heavily during the early part of the year," said Pete Marino, frozen food director at Genuardi's Family Markets, Norristown, Pa. "With the ad monies and case allowances, they really drive that business during that time.
"People become very health-conscious and diet-oriented after the holidays. So come January, everybody is trying to shed the extra pounds they gained over the holidays. It's a key period for those brands," he explained.
Advertising all the core brands in January is important because many shoppers swear by certain brands and will be seeking sales on them, retailers and wholesalers noted.
"We try to spread it out," said Larry Miller, grocery buyer and merchandiser at John C. Groub Co., Seymour, Ind. "We'll do Weight Watchers one week, Lean Cuisine one week, Healthy Choice one week, etc., so whatever customers like, they have an option to try it in January."
Starting off with an attractive discount builds momentum for the category, explained Marty Wagner, head buyer at Roundy's Ohio wholesale division, based in Lima, Ohio. "Normally, [stores] will take the best offer they have for the first of the month. For example, if Lean Cuisine is dealing more than the others, they'll lead with that one for the first part of the month so it makes a hotter ad for them."
Health-oriented frozen meals draw considerable promotional attention early in the year, according to Bill Campbell, frozens buyer and merchandiser at Associated Food Stores, a Salt Lake City-based wholesaler. "There will be a lot of in-store coupons, [point-of-purchase] and information in magazines," he said, adding that large supermarkets supplement such efforts with end displays.
Ingles Markets, Black Mountain, N.C., serves up extra promotional and freezer space for frozen diet meals in the postholiday period. "We'll be merchandising the health-type entrees each week in January, devoting a lot of endcap and end bunker space to those items and advertising in newspapers," said J. Thomas Outlaw Jr., vice president and frozen food director.
"As the sales pick up, we give all the diet-oriented entrees more space. The [brands] that are picking up the most are Lean Cuisine and Healthy Choice. So we have increased the sizes of those sections," Outlaw said.
Since shoppers will be looking for diet entrees, Minyard Food Stores makes them easy to find by marking them off with point-of-sale aids and grouping them in one area.
"[Diet entrees] are separated and are tagged. The tags say that they're light and healthy and are good for you," said Danny Wells, frozens buyer at the Coppell, Texas-based chain. "For January, that's what we do: key on the healthy ones and the light ones."
Though diet entree sales may peak in January, consumers have a hearty appetite for them up to the spring, according to Roundy's Wagner. "I would say we sell five to 10 times as many during January as we do in other months of the year, and February is the next best and then March," he said.
The frozen dinner and entree category, however, has been flat. For the 52 weeks ended Sept. 24, its total supermarket dollar sales were $3.3 billion, unchanged from the previous year's results, according to Information Resources Inc., Chicago.
Of the health-oriented players, Healthy Choice had the highest gain, up 22.9% in dollar volume, IRI reported. Lean Cuisine, the leader in market share, had a 9.1% sales rise in the period. Down were Weight Watchers (off 23.1%) and The Budget Gourmet (off 9.4%), whose offerings in the segment include Light & Healthy, Slim Stirrers and Slim Select items.
"Healthy Choice is doing very well, and so is Lean Cuisine. Weight Watchers' sales have declined at Ingles, but they have some new items that hopefully will pick up that classification," Outlaw said. "It shows that Healthy Choice, which leans toward low-fat/low-cholesterol, seems to be taking away from [brands] just emphasizing low-calorie."
Nutritional labeling, especially of fat and cholesterol content, has helped fuel Healthy Choice's rise, according to Sam Ciardi, frozen food and dairy supervisor at Village Super Market Inc., a Springfield, N.J.-based ShopRite chain.
"[Healthy Choice] might not be any different than the other packages next to it, but customers will buy that one because its ingredient list is so detailed, they figure it has to be good," Ciardi said.
Promotion drives the segment, but its effect can differ among brands, buyers and merchandisers said.
"Whenever we have Healthy Choice and Weight Watchers on a hot price, they blow out pretty quickly," Groub's Miller said.
Regular entrees and dinners, though, are the meat and potatoes of the frozen meals category at Groub stores. "The bulk of our market area is still more of the hearty, old-fashioned-type meals. But the good news is that Healthy Choice, Lean Cuisine and those kinds of meals seem to be developing a following," Miller said.
Diet entrees haven't triggered any dramatic space shifts in the freezer case despite their heightened popularity in recent years, retailers and wholesalers reported.
Health-oriented entrees typically are displayed by brand, which makes it easier for shoppers to locate advertised items. But an increasing number of supermarkets are grouping those products in a distinct section, the buyers and merchandisers said.
"I believe a lot of stores do that now," Roundy's Wagner said. "The [diet entrees] are in with the regulars but in a separate section of the case right alongside them."
A separate diet area provides a destination, Associated's Campbell noted. "Most of [the stores] are trying to make it a diet section rather than integrating it into the regular dinner or entree section," he said. "It's been a little more effective because people are looking for that segment now."
Groub doesn't give diet meals their own section but creates that effect via brand blocks. "We try to give them the best of both worlds. We try to get them as close together as we can to have a [diet] section," Miller explained. "In other words, Stouffer's might be to the left and then Lean Cuisine, followed by Healthy Choice and Banquet to the right. It varies from store to store, depending on the layout."