Frozen vegetables have been struggling for the last few years, but they've shown strong sales gains lately in the prepared or value-added segment, the kind with the sauce. Variety has also grown tremendously, according to industry sources.
Harold Lombardi, executive director of the Frozen Food Association of New England, Arlington, Mass., claims that the variety of frozen vegetables, helped by meal starters, has doubled over the past 20 years.
A recent remodel of the Hometown Supermarket, Spring Green, Wis., doubled the size of the frozen food section, a change that Brad Baryenbruch, frozens manager, said was necessary to stock the variety that consumers demand.
"They look and try to figure out, 'What haven't I tried before?'," he said.
Leslie Sarasin, president and chief executive officer of the American Frozen Food Institute, Washington, said retail sales have been flat or slightly down for the plain varieties, but since 1997 the prepared frozen vegetable category has grown by 10%.
"The exciting part is the innovation in value-added frozen vegetables," she said. Increasing varieties has led to more stringent category management. Sometimes this needs to be retooled, if too much is cut out of frozen vegetables.
In supermarkets, frozen plain vegetables is a $1.6 billion category overall, counting private label and brands. It's impossible to discount the impact of private label into the frozen vegetable category, since it appears "the majority of the items out there are private brands," according to a frozen food category manager for a major supermarket chain on the West Coast.
Private label's unit market share of the unadorned blanched veggies is nearly half, or 48.98%, unit for unit, scanned in supermarkets in 1999, according to figures from Information Resources Inc., Chicago, provided to SN by the Private Label Manufacturers Association, New York. Dollar market share is 41.45% for private label. Changes since the prior year include a dip in unit market share of 0.3 points, or basically flat, while the dollar share was up 0.17%.
Looking at frozen prepared vegetables, a $110.8 million category in 1999, according to IRI, private label's market share is much smaller, only 1.18% in units, up 0.06 points, while dollar market share is only 1.11%, up 0.1 points.
Statistics also reflect what's available. The more specialized the category, the longer it takes to become a private label category, for the most part.
Consumers are asking for a favorable price/value ratio, said Pat Brooks, frozens category manager for Save Mart Supermarkets, Modesto, Calif. "A lot of consumers are looking for the value-added product," he said, including the blends, mixtures -- such as cauliflower, broccoli and carrots -- which Save Mart promotes in both private label and branded. C&W and Birdseye are brands that allow Save Mart to do well on tasty petite vegetables, he said, and because the manufacturers promote them on a regular basis.
During the holidays and special occasions such as the Super Bowl, Brooks has noticed Save Mart sells a lot of chopped spinach for dips. "It's a very popular dip, so at any holiday we try to make sure we have those available at a reduced price."
Some stir fry vegetables have carved out a pretty nice niche, too, Brooks said. He admits: "We did a reset about two years ago that cut too much out of the vegetable section, so within the last year and a half we went back and expanded the vegetables. We were overspaced with entrees and underspaced in vegetables, mostly in our smaller stores. Our vegetable sales have held very well."
Frozen vegetables remain a good buy for the consumer, especially the legumes, Lombardi said, which contain a tremendous amount of protein. Stop & Shop, located nearby in Quincy, Mass., does a nice job with its line of legumes, such as lima beans, black-eyed peas, pinto beans and chickpeas.
He said consumers are taking french fries out of the freezer and frying them with any type of oil or marinade, adding chicken and other vegetables, "so you're getting a whole meal with any flavor you want."
As to the nutritional value of frozen, Sarasin pointed out that studies have shown they are superior to fresh; they're flash-frozen at the time of harvest, which seals in the vitamins and minerals -- "unlike the raw product that you get in the supermarket that may have been on a truck for three days, sat in the market more days and then sat at the bottom of the fridge for a few more."
If retailers market to this point they mostly do so in demonstrations, she said, and emphasis on nutritive value comes along with many of the 5 A Day promotions and contest, which is ongoing and being co-sponsored by AFFI.
"It all feeds into meal solutions and convenience," Sarasin said. "It's a convenience factor for this crazy lifestyle we all lead now."
Baryenbruch, the frozen food manager at the Hometown Supermarket, confirmed what Sarasin said about convenience driving most purchases in the supermarket, extending to frozen vegetables. Home canning has dropped and so has gardening, he said, in his rural area about 45 minutes from Madison.
"It's rare anymore. People are going for the frozen stuff, because they don't can anymore," he said.