Slow But Steady

April 24, 2008
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Private label frozen meals and appetizers develop a niche in the industry.


“The private label foods category will continue to grow, big time. Younger consumers are much less conscious of a difference between national and private label brands. They’re living in the era of Costco, whose Kirkland Signature brand is as familiar to them, and as reliable, as a national brand,” says Andy Horvath, senior vice president of marketing at Overhill Farms Inc., Vernon, Calif.

Thanks to remarkable evolution in the past decade, private label is no longer considered inferior. Rather, the next generation of consumers has grown up being exposed to private label products and trusting them as high-quality items.

One area where private label has seen a high level of success in developing its own niche in is frozen meals and appetizers. From frozen snack rolls to dinner entrees, the private label frozen foods category has slowly and steadily built a presence in the industry. For example, private label appetizers make up 5.8 percent of the total frozen appetizers and snack roll category, according to Information Resources Inc. (IRI), Chicago. In addition, private label frozen dinners make up 2.2 percent of the total frozen dinner and entrees category.

“Private label frozen foods have proven themselves throughout the years and will continue to grow. Reason being is that consumers are realizing the high quality provided in private label products,” says Peter Cokinos, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Little Lady Foods, Elk Grove Village, Ill.

Frank Scalon, director of sales and marketing at Cambridge Fine Foods, Cambridge, Ontario, agrees: “The frozen food category will definitely grow based on the needs of consumers and the trend toward higher-quality products being developed and launched.”



The perfect balance

One trend that is impacting private label frozen foods and appetizers is the demand for healthier product options. “Consumers are realizing the importance of eating healthy and are striving to find this within the products they are buying,” Cokinos says. He notes that there has been a clear increase in sales of organic and natural products.

“We are seeing a focus on organic, natural and kosher goods,” says Jackie Breen, senior product manager of store brands, McCain Foods USA, Lisle, Ill., pointing to several leading retailers that have developed their own organic lines such as Stop & Shop, Quincy, Mass.; Kroger, Cincinnati; and Safeway; Pleasanton, Calif..

The push toward healthier meal alternatives is accelerated by consumers’ recent interest in the health implications of consuming trans-fat. Many restaurants and manufacturers around the country have worked to eliminate trans-fat in their recipes. For example, New York just passed a ban eliminating trans-fat in all city restaurants and many leading snack, cookie and cracker manufacturers have eliminated it from their products.

Now, manufacturers are jumping on the bandwagon as consumers come to expect products with no trans-fat included. According to Keith Chen, president of Culinary Destinations, Toronto, Ontario, “All of our products are trans-fat-free. It is important to be trans-fat-free because it shows a commitment from the retailers. It is more about health, because trans-fat, even in small quantities, is a health issue. I think that if manufacturers can eliminate it, they should. [But] it is not the easiest thing to get done.”

According to Breen, “0 grams of trans-fat is one of the most prevalent health and wellness trends. Many retailers are calling out 0 grams of trans-fat on their private label packaging.”

However, Dan Emery, vice president of marketing at Pilgrim’s Pride, Pittsburgh, Texas, points out: “Consumers are not willing to give up great taste and a good eating experience for nutrition. If it is really good for you but doesn’t taste so good, they won’t buy it.”

The ever-present challenge for manufacturers and retailers together is to find a balance between taste and nutrition in order to satisfy all their consumers’ needs.

In addition to healthy alternatives, consumers are looking for products that fit in with their time-crunched lives. They want the best of all worlds - healthful, tasty and easily prepared.

“With snacking on the increase, as people have less time and eat meals less often during traditional eating occasions, convenience continues to be key for casual eating, frozen appetizer products,” says Shawn Dellevoet, director of business development, Morrison Lamothe Inc., Scarborogh, Ontario.

Emery agrees: “Consumers want meals they can prepare in 15 minutes or less and that are perceived as healthy.” For example, “People perceive chicken as a healthy alternative to other things they can eat, and the cooking time frame has gone down from 30 to 15 minutes,” he adds.

“With many consumers being very busy individuals, the frozen foods and appetizers category has really opened the door for quick, hearty and satisfying meals that they can enjoy in minutes,” Cokinos says.



A bolder approach

Besides demanding healthier alternatives, consumers also are expanding their horizons with bolder flavor profiles including Mexican and Jamaican Jerk. “There has been an increase in private label SKUs that reflect a wider range of flavors and ethnicities such as buffalo fries, garlic fries, rangoon, quesadillas and spring rolls,” Breen says.

“There is an increasing interest in varieties of cuisine - Thai, other Asian foods, Mexican cuisine and so on,” Horvath says.

Asian products have gained a lot of interest recently, points out Sue Kujiraoka-Watkins, vice president of sales and marketing at Day-Lee Foods, Santa Fe Springs, Calif.

Bolder, more diverse flavor profiles have become more acceptable, in part, because people have become more adventurous. “People are much more open to trying stronger flavor profiles. Mexican has now become acceptable, whereas people once thought it was too strong,” says Culinary Destinations’ Chen. One reason for this change, Chen adds, is that, “Consumers are well-read, well-traveled and are open to new experiences and, as a result, they are more accepting of different types of cuisine… It is a convergence of the North American population. People are traveling more and eating out more. Look at the media, travel channel, food network….the world has become a much smaller place,” he says.



Innovative branding

To continue the growth of private label frozen meals and appetizers, retailers and manufacturers must appropriately promote, market and package their own brands. The best way to do this is through innovation; private label brands need to stand out. Some say the best way to do that is to avoid following the national brand.

According to Breen, “We are seeing new private label products that are not direct brand matches. There is a trend toward unique products and more of a focus on building of the retailer brand.” Retailers are accomplishing this by developing their own brands with brand images, messages and varieties that are unique, and often they have two-tiered programs to accommodate traditional and specialty items.

“Private label companies are standing their ground by developing products that are not currently available with some of the top national-brand sellers,” Cokinos says.

Of course, packaging affects an individual’s decision to purchase an item. Therefore, it is important to create packaging that catches a consumer’s eye while also being user-friendly. “We see an increased interest in bagged products, perhaps because they give the consumer more of a feeling that they are involved in the preparation of the meal,” Horvath says.

Specifically, there is an increase in stand-up packaging and steam-in-the-bag technology, Breen notes: “The stand-up packaging allows for better merchandising as well as convenience for the consumer.”

Kuliraoka-Watkins points out the importance of messaging on the packaging: “It is important to convey to the consumer that a frozen product’s taste is as fresh and flavorful as a refrigerated or restaurant product.”

The private label frozen meals and appetizers category has much growth ahead of it. One reason for this is that, “Working women and parents want nutritious foods for their family with that ‘made-from-scratch’ taste coupled with the lower cost and convenience of not having to make it themselves,” says Frank Benso, vice president of Great American Appetizers Inc., Nampa Idaho.

“Private label is competing aggressively due primarily to favorable price points and club store and store growth,” Kujiraoka-Watkins adds. However, the most important thing to remember, according to Horvath is: “Private label frozen foods are becoming much more accepted by shoppers, which is an ideal scenario for retailers looking to build loyalty and generate repeat business from these shoppers, while at the same time contributing to a stronger bottom line.”

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