FROST ADVISORY

Just like contestants on a game show, supermarkets feel like they're about to pick the winning door -- except in this case, they're not on Let's Make A Deal. These doors are in aisle eight, where the frozen foods are.Sales of frozen foods are up in general, but they're especially hot in the natural/organic sub-category. Consumer interest and improvements in freezing technologies and packaging are

Just like contestants on a game show, supermarkets feel like they're about to pick the winning door -- except in this case, they're not on Let's Make A Deal. These doors are in aisle eight, where the frozen foods are.

Sales of frozen foods are up in general, but they're especially hot in the natural/organic sub-category. Consumer interest and improvements in freezing technologies and packaging are helping to spur trial and generate repeat sales.

"[Organic and natural] frozen is a huge category, and it's increasing," said Jane Pryor, natural food manager for Coborn's, a 22-store chain in St. Cloud, Minn., which operates health and wellness store-within-a-store sets in many units.

When Coborn's started opening the special sections a few years ago, there were about six doors of natural and organic frozen food items, depending on the size of the store. Now, there are between 10 and 12 doors per store.

"There are such good new items coming along," Pryor said. Other retailers report similar growth.

"It's still very early in our process, but the response has been very favorable, well above expectations," said Randy Deschaine, director of grocery for Sweetbay Supermarket, operated by Delhaize-owned Kash n' Karry, Tampa, Fla. In business for less than a year, Sweetbay has already more than tripled organic and natural frozen offerings, from 50 or 60 when it started to about 300 now, Deschaine said.

Frozen organic and natural foods are the second-best-selling category in Sweetbay's Nature's Place departments, Deschaine added. They are so popular, the chain was reviewing 65 new items this summer.

Frozens' new status as a planned consumer purchase shows just how much shoppers are attracted again to their value and convenience. People want their food to be ready whenever they want, and for it to provide simple, easy preparation solutions. Everything from skinless, boneless chicken breasts to soups have found a home in the doors and coffin cases of the frozens aisles and, in turn, in home freezers.

The federal government has even gotten involved. For years, the Food and Drug Administration has allowed frozen produce to be labeled as "healthy," noting that the U.S. Department of Agriculture and independent researchers have found nutrients in frozen foods to be equal to fresh produce in content and efficacy -- or better.

"Some data showed that the nutrient content level for certain nutrients was higher in the frozen version of the food than in the raw version of the food," according to an FDA statement. "This is probably attributable to the fact that unprocessed (i.e., raw) fruits and vegetables may lose some of their nutrients over time under certain storage conditions."

Manufacturers have wasted no time bringing convenience to healthy eating and allowing frozen naturals/organics to penetrate more households. In stores, time-starved shoppers notice organic and natural frozen foods in store-within-a-store healthy sections or grouped together in mainline freezer sections, "so the consumer is aware these products are not just conventional frozen food items," said Terry Mayo, vice president of sales and marketing for Cedarlane Natural Foods, a manufacturer of low-fat frozen entrees and other products, headquartered in Carson, Calif.

In addition, many stores are providing fliers and other educational materials to educate consumers about their choices, as well as featuring the items in their circulars, Mayo said.

It wasn't always this way, though. Traditionally, consumers have perceived fresh to be the healthiest type of food, followed by canned and other packaged products, observers said. Now, frozen food manufacturers are pushing the philosophy that some of their foods are even healthier than fresh, particularly produce, because they are frozen right after picking, locking in freshness and nutrients.

In addition, natural frozen food manufacturers typically do not add preservatives and processing chemicals as some canned, jarred and processed food manufacturers do.

Consumers aren't the only ones benefiting from natural and organic frozen foods. Retailers don't have to worry about commingling issues or training part-time associates to keep items segregated. In addition, frozens offer retailers a longer shelf life, and therefore, a much longer selling window, according to Deschaine.

"Freezing products with no preservatives is one form to protect shelf life," he said. "Carrying organic and natural bread would be difficult to do without preservatives."

The food, drug and mass channel leads the way in natural and organic frozen food sales, according to SPINS, San Francisco, a natural foods market research firm. The category enjoyed a 13.2% sales increase for the year ending May 2005, compared with natural food stores, where sales rose 8.5%.

Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y.; Marsh Supermarkets, Indianapolis; Gelson's, Encino, Calif.; Kroger Co., Cincinnati; and H.E. Butt Grocery, San Antonio, Texas, are other supermarkets leading the way in organic and natural food selection and display, sources say.

"It's a great way for supermarkets to differentiate themselves from other channels, whether it means just offering frozen natural foods in the frozen section, or creating a store-within-a store concept that mixes frozen and refrigerated products with dry products," said Bob Hilarides, managing director of consulting firm Cannondale Associates, Wilton, Conn.

Studies have already profiled consumers of healthy frozen products. They are likely to have been buying organics for a while, but purchases are largely confined to fresh items, experts say. Organic produce, dairy and meat are among the "gateway products" in the organic shopper evolution -- most consumers start with those to avoid hormones and pesticides, according to The Hartman Group's Organic Food & Beverage Trends 2004 report.

Next, shoppers typically buy organic juice, cold cereal and snacks. Frozen foods is one of the categories in the third tier of organics adoption, which includes breads, pasta sauces and hot teas.

"These consumers have made significant changes in their food habits and are becoming more experimental. Convenience foods play a key role in this phase of adoption," the Hartman report states.

Retailers who already are invested in the gateway categories should make sure they are prepared with an adequate selection of health and wellness frozens, or they risk losing this high-margin shopper to competing formats.

While Costco, Wal-Mart Stores and other alternate retailers are carrying at least a minimum number of organic and natural frozen products, supermarkets are in a position to provide a better presentation of these items and capture the desired shoppers, observers said.

"It's a great way to attract more profitable shoppers," Hilarides said.

Consumers shopping at this level of health and wellness are not as concerned about cost as neophyte converts, consultants and retailers said. For example, Dave's Marketplace, a seven-store chain based in Warwick, R.I., carries an organic flat bread pizza that retails for about $10.99 for a 15-ounce pie. However, health-conscious shoppers find value in the organic ingredients and 100% whole wheat crust, noted Frank Lombardi, frozen food manager.

Supermarkets are also getting more involved in this category to better compete against natural food stores and chains such as Whole Foods Market.

"Grocery retailers have been more focused on mass merchandisers and clubs; meanwhile, natural food stores are picking up more sales. [Offering natural frozens] is a great way to recapture sales lost to natural foods stores in the last 10 years, as the Whole Foods' and Wild Oats' [sales] have grown," Hilarides said.

Good Advice

- Play up the "conveniently healthy" aspect of frozens -- consumers like to feel they're fulfilling multiple needs with a single purchase.

- Add doors to house an increased selection of organic and natural frozens. Buyers of fresh organic and natural products in your stores will soon start buying frozen versions.

- Offer a greater variety of organics in the frozens department than on the shelf. For example, natural and organic breads have a much longer shelf life in the freezer than on the shelf.

- Point out the benefits of frozen foods: freezing produce, entrees and other items quickly at the source locks in vitamins and nutrients.