With new products coming out all the time and limited freezer capacity, supermarket frozens category managers have their work cut out for them.
Some 25 years ago, everyone predicted that frozen food would become a large segment of the supermarket business. "Frozens were seen as a tremendous breakthrough in convenience foods," said Michael Sansolo, senior vice president of the Food Marketing Institute, Washington. "Then the growth did not attain the level expected."
Indeed, frozen foods usually account for 10% or less of a supermarket's sales. But this performance is partly a result of the amount of display space available in the frozens aisle, Sansolo said.
"The limited space certainly makes the job more challenging," said Nevin Montgomery, former president of the National Frozen Food Association, Harrisburg, Pa. He said supermarkets' frozens departments have yet to reach 10% of total sales on a national average.
"One reason is the supermarket has changed drastically. The supermarket of 15 years ago was a grocery store. Now you can buy almost anything there, so the percentage of frozen foods has not been able to grow to that extent.
"Also, in new and remodeled stores, the frozen-food departments are expanding space but, again, there are so many more items and players that it's still a great challenge," he said.
Kevin Mills, assistant manager of Hy-Vee's newly remodeled and expanded 61,000-square-foot store in Austin, Minn., agreed. When SN spoke with him in May, he said that doubling the frozens department two months earlier has had a tremendous effect on sales. "Overnight the category was up 35% -- literally the following week -- and it doesn't show any signs of lightening up as we head into the summer months," he noted.
"Frozen has moved from an item that wasn't terribly important to us, to where you need a frozens manager, an assistant manager and several key people who run that department. In the past, we had an individual do the ordering and somebody to run it from time to time. Now it has evolved into a full-blown department, and it does as much business as the meat department or any other department," Mills told SN.
"With our new store, and Hy-Vee's insight, now I have five permanent frozen endcaps in the main line grocery. We are giving it the attention it deserves. "We were forced to use bunkers in the past when we wanted to display. But in the retail business, presentation is the key," Mills continued. "We have five permanent brand new Hussmann freezers. They're lighted, and easy to sign, and the customers are really taking to that."
Mills said endcaps are used to promote key items on allowance. "We use [the endcaps] for image, and display," he said. Frozen pizza is usually found in at least one endcap.
Charles A. Mallowe, administrator of the Academy of Food Marketing at St. Joseph's University, Philadelphia, said frozen-food category managers "are pretty much caught in a Catch 22. They have to make a finite space -- which has a peculiar environment -- as profitable as possible. So the job of a category manager or buyer in frozens is far more difficult than it would be in other categories within the store."
Category management is a way to look at categories in stores as individual business units, Mallowe continued, but, in reality, the term has different meanings for different people. "Some people take it as looking at segments within stores; others see it as a new way of buying; and others simply change the name from buyer to category manager and think that suffices," Mallowe said.
Sansolo said category management is simply a matter of knowing who the shoppers are and matching items to their needs. "It's not a matter of having all the SKUs, but the correct SKUs," he said. "This is the same issue in all departments."
Sometimes, a frozens buyer's dream comes true and his department size doubles, as it did at Mills' Hy-Vee store, which expanded from 50,000 to 61,000 square feet over the past year to become "the most modern facility in southern Minnesota," according to Mills.
The frozens section increased from two aisles to four. "We were struggling" before, Mills told SN. "We were not able to stock enough product; we lost our packout on the shelf. If we had one case of orange juice, we'd sell it so quick we'd run out. Now, we can get two cases in there."
Short of doubling the frozens section, what can buyers do to maximize sales and profits in the aisle?
Bryan Nichols, a frozens category manager who recently left Harris Teeter, Charlotte, N.C., for Marsh Supermarkets in Indianapolis, said that "It's very important to look at each item on the merits of what's unique about it, and whether it's going to grow incremental sales and margins."
At Harris Teeter, Nichols reviewed each category quarterly, using ACNeilsen's Core Data and internal scan data, to determine which products were earning their keep. Nichols and others queried also said they allowed vendors to review the changes, so that they would have a last chance to advocate an item that might have been put on the "discontinue" list.
Joel Westrate, frozens category manager for Spartan Stores, Grand Rapids, Mich., said his team goes over the entire frozens section, which has 11 to 14 categories, twice annually. After the review, Westrate shares the results with brokers, who are then allowed to put in "their two cents' worth." Afterward he releases fine-tuned schematics to the stores.
"You send out a 'new' and 'discontinued' list, with as much advance notice as possible, so the store workers can turn tags [i.e., not order the item any more]," Westrate explained. "When a new product comes out, say from Stouffer's, or Michelina's, we try to introduce them all at the same time, within the category."
Westrate also noted that frozen foods are still one of the best meal solutions. "We sell a lot of vegetables, especially in the fall. Meal solutions are the wave of the future," he said.
As for equipment, "everybody uses a combination of doors and coffins, although coffins are on the decline, as are multidecks. Doors are the way to go. All remodeled stores use doors," said Westrate.
Joel Dahll, grocery merchandiser for Nature's Northwest in Portland, Ore., said that, of course, "Frozen space is very valuable. First we determine if we have a need at Nature's for that item. If the answer is yes, we look at what the company has to market their product, and whether that fits our need. If it does, we go through a category review process, and decide, based on sales and profitability, how we would make room for new products."
The ebb and flow of frozen products never stops, Dahll said. Nature's Northwest does a lot of demoing of new items. "If they are successful, then most likely they will stay on the shelves," he said.
The normal life cycle of any product, frozens included, is three to five years, Mallowe said. It takes at least six months for a new product to catch on, he added.