ORLANDO, Fla. -- The frozen-food industry faces no major barriers to increasing sales volume, if it targets the right consumer with the right message about its product, according to a new study released here at the annual meeting of the National Frozen Food Convention.
The annual meeting is jointly sponsored by the National Frozen Food Association, Harrisburg, Pa., and the American Frozen Food Institute, McLean, Va. An overview of findings from the new NFFA study, titled Understanding the Frozen Food Consumer, was presented by Sue Ellen Bohac, president of The Alcott Group, Chicago, the organization that conducted the research.
The study's point of departure was the fact that while overall sales in the frozen-food category have been increasing, absolute volume has softened.
"The first thing we wanted to understand was if this was a conscious decision on the part of consumers. Were they going elsewhere for their food products?" Bohac asked.
Some other key areas the study explored were whether there are identifiable segments of frozen-food consumers; how frozens measure up to other sections of the grocery store; what "umbrella" benefits can be collectively leveraged across the category, or what unifying themes the industry can tout overall; and whether there is more opportunity in moving product from the store into the home, or from the home freezer to the table.
Phase one of the study included "turf"interviews at participants' grocery stores. Participants were then followed home to get a more in-depth perspective. Phase two, which was done in July, involved 500 purchasers/preparers in 10 markets who did not know that the topic under investigation was frozen food.
The study found that consumers are not buying less on purpose; in fact, they have a perception that they are buying more frozen foods.
"This means the onus is on us," Bohac said. "We have to figure out how we can get their behavior in line with their perceptions." Two things she suggested were looking at other areas of the store, such as refrigerated, that may be pulling purchases away from frozen; and whether consumers are giving additional meal occasions to fast food produced by outside operators.
One of the key findings of the study was its identification of five kinds of frozen-food consumers. The "Hectic Have To's", which comprise about 24% of the study sample, is the most important segment, since they purchase the most frozen food.
Bohac described them as time-starved consumers who are always in overdrive. Their definition of convenience is "quick."
"Quick can mean drive time or cook time. They don't plan meals; they motor through the grocery store; they don't use coupons. How do we talk to them? In sound bites," Bohac said. "They don't care if they cook it or not -- they want the meal done."
She said that the industry needs to provide them with convenient meal solutions on their terms, and remind them that frozen food is an option. In addition, the industry must meet their demands for more taste, higher quality and more nutritious offerings.
The next segment, "Simply Content," are also heavy users of frozen food. They account for about 19% of the study sample, and they are very satisfied with the category. Bohac described this group as not very competent cooks who are also looking for simple meal solutions.
"They are not looking for upgrades. They are looking for a few more helping hands. We are their chef in the freezer," she said.
"Good Meal Makers," the third group, are confident cooks who understand that frozen food can be used as a component of a meal that they are not necessarily preparing from scratch. They think of frozen food in terms of side dishes, vegetables, or meat and poultry cuts.
Good Meal Makers are about 26% of the sample.
Basic Cooks, about 19% of the sample, are much less likely to use frozen foods of any kind, and even feel the freezer compromises quality. They are practical and economical and are also the most "freezer constrained" at home. If they use some prepared food as part of their meal, they are more likely to incorporate canned or boxed offerings. The industry has some opportunity with this group, Bohac said, in the hot breakfast segment.
The last group, Frozen Rejecters, about 12% of the sample, don't care about convenience and don't like the frozen section. They are very competent cooks who use frozen food only as an emergency backup plan.
Bohac said the industry should target the Hectic Have To's and, secondarily, the Simply Content, noting that whatever is done to increase volume with the first group will affect the second segment.
The study also found that while people buy frozen food for convenience, that particular benefit is not news to them. Instead, the industry should pay more attention to reminding consumers that frozen food locks in "peak taste and nutrition." This attribute was the key "umbrella benefit" that the study found.
"We need to couple the convenience benefit with [the benefits of] compelling taste, quality and nutrition. This campaign could stand the test of time and could be leveraged across the industry," Bohac noted.
In terms of how frozens stack up to other areas in the grocery store, Bohac said that it has the advantage in consumers' minds over boxed and canned, and even over refrigerated entrees and some fresh food options, when it comes to providing convenience and solutions.
As for the "push vs. pull" question, or whether people need to buy more frozen food or simply take it out of their freezers, the study found that pull is needed. Freezer inventories revealed that consumers are well stocked and have every category on hand, but they have to take items out of their freezers more if the industry is to achieve increased velocity.
Finally, the study put frozen-food categories into four "buckets," in terms of how they are used: as meal components, as a complete meal solution, as a dessert and as a beverage.