SAN DIEGO -- Consumers who participated in a fresh-meals conference said they would put simplicity and convenience at the top of the menu.
They were part of a focus group convened recently at Homer '99, an event sponsored here by the Institute for International Research, New York. The participants also gave short shrift to national brands when it comes to fresh, prepared entrees sold in the supermarket, and indicated they categorize takeout food by type such as Italian, Chinese or American.
The group of nine San Diego-area residents formed the centerpiece of a seminar led by Bill Lozito, president of Strategic Marketing Resources, Minneapolis, and Diane Prange, SMR's executive vice president.
While they seemed somewhat unfamiliar with the refrigerated, prepared foods that they were asked about, the participants indicated that the easier it is for them to make a choice, the better.
"Keep it simple, and make it easy to purchase," was the resounding message that came out of the consumer group, said Lozito.
"Don't complicate things with names like 'home-meal replacement' and 'meals solutions'; it's takeout food. That's it," one consumer in the group said, and the others concurred.
Lozito and Prange said they set out to learn from the focus group how consumers talk about fresh meals, what words they use among themselves to describe it, and what their perceptions are when it comes to national brands vs. unbranded items or store-branded products. In so doing, they found out the group wasn't very familiar with chilled, prepacked entrees, that they'd rather buy their takeout food hot, and, above all, that they want the purchase to be quick and uncomplicated.
For the purpose of the seminar, Lozito defined fresh meals as "food eaten at home, but prepared and purchased elsewhere." In this particular seminar, the focus was on packaged, chilled, fresh-prepared entrees and/or whole meals, he said.
"We went to 11 supermarkets in the San Diego area and picked up representative examples and put them all on the table, 20 to 25 of them. Some of them were store brands and some national or regional brands," Lozito said.
The group of products included such labels as Huxtable's Kitchen, Classic Cuisine -- Cooking Made Easy (from Tyson), Ralph's Private Selection (from Ralphs Grocery Co.), and several from Trader Joe's, such as Trader Jose and Trader Giotto.
"We asked the consumers to organize them in a way that was meaningful to them and they arranged them by type of food. For example, Chinese and Italian," said Lozito.
They could have sorted them by size, or brand or package type, but it's significant that they chose ethnicity as a way to categorize the items, Lozito added.
"What this tells us is they think about having a certain type of food -- Italian, Chinese, American or Italian -- when they think of taking prepared food home to eat. Probably that's because it's the way they would buy it from a restaurant."
The group didn't put a lot of importance on brands and didn't see much difference between national brands and store brands, but, between the two, they did show a slight preference for the store brand, he said.
"That wasn't so much a positive difference," but just that it would put more responsibility on the store if there were something wrong with the product. They felt they could get a potential problem resolved quicker if it were a store brand, not a national brand, Lozito said.
When asked whether it was important that rotisserie chickens be a national brand, the group said no. What mattered most to them was how the chickens looked in the store, and they said they wanted them hot.
Indeed, ironically, the participants showed little familiarity with the refrigerated products put before them and said they would prefer to buy their takeout food hot. Refrigerated or frozen foods just don't seem as fresh, they said.
"Much of this may be a question of convenience," Lozito said. They don't even want the minimal involvement of heating their food, he added.
"If I buy it ready-made, I want to be able to set it on the table and have it ready to eat," one participant said.
"Typically, these consumers are buying fresh meals for dinner, for their family, after work. They don't want something to have to think about or something that causes them anymore trouble than absolutely necessary," said Lozito.
Most also said they don't want to spend more than a 20-minute round trip to pick up such food.
To find out what this group called "food eaten at home but prepared elsewhere," Lozito and Prange asked the participants how they would address the subject with their family members if they were thinking about bringing dinner in.
"Takeout, pick-up, food-to-go" or "Let's get Chinese or ..." were the terms most often used. With that information, Lozito had this advice for supermarket operators:
"Don't complicate what you call it [fresh, prepared foods to take out] or how you market it. It's takeout food. Consumers want to buy it, take it home and eat it."
He warned, however, that some of the information gleaned from the focus group here could be market specific. In that regard, he suggested that supermarkets conduct micro-market research of their own, using techniques similar to those he and Prange used with the focus group here.
Strategic Marketing Resources is a consulting, marketing and product-development firm that works primarily with manufacturers and supermarkets.