GAME HENS

With consumers clucking about low-fat food, interest in chicken is game. Beef and pork have slipped in the meat department's pecking order as more and more grocery carts are laden with chicken, which now comes in more forms and varieties than ever. Consumer health and time concerns, too, continue to feed a ravenous demand for fresh-cooked chicken and ready-made chicken meals from supermarket delis

With consumers clucking about low-fat food, interest in chicken is game. Beef and pork have slipped in the meat department's pecking order as more and more grocery carts are laden with chicken, which now comes in more forms and varieties than ever. Consumer health and time concerns, too, continue to feed a ravenous demand for fresh-cooked chicken and ready-made chicken meals from supermarket delis and restaurants like Boston Market and Kenny Rogers' Roasters.

Yet frozen chicken has not been left to roost. Manufacturers have rolled out new products -- notably skinless, flavored varieties -- and, with supermarkets, are giving the category steadfast promotional attention.

And that apparently has helped. For the 52 weeks ended June 18, dollar volume in frozen poultry, which includes items sold in both frozens and meat departments, surged 11.9%, nudging total sales over the $1 billion mark for the first time, according to Information Resources Inc., Chicago.

"[Frozen chicken sales] have always been real good, and they are growing," said Frank Kranz, meat department manager at Byerly's, Edina, Minn. "People are looking for quick, lower-fat foods."

"The emphasis on chicken is very great at this time," the frozens buyer for a Pacific Northwest chain said. "There's been quite a few new products coming out."

Product additions in frozen chicken, which is primarily breaded, have focused on skinless fillets and parts in such flavors as lemon pepper, honey barbecue, hot and spicy, Southern fried and Cajun. More tenders, wings and nuggets, including shaped items for children, also have been added.

"There are two segments: bone-in and boneless. That's created quite a bunch of facings," said Bill Campbell, frozens buyer and merchandiser at Associated Food Stores, a Salt Lake City-based wholesaler. "I think the boneless product is gaining in popularity because of the finger-food type things."

Also on the rise is private label. Dollar and unit sales of private-label frozen poultry, which again includes products sold in both the meat and frozens departments, have jumped 27.7% and 9.7%, respectively, IRI reported.

Associated Food Stores added three stockkeeping units of frozen chicken under the Western Family private label, according to Campbell. "Because of the pricing, it sells quite well," he said.

Shurfine private-label frozen chicken has brisk movement for Affiliated Foods, an Elwood, Kan.-based wholesaler. "It sells as well or better than the branded," said Mike Dewey, frozens buyer. "[Stores] are probably pushing it more [than branded]; it's more of a value."

Private label has become more acceptable because frozen chicken's price point has increased in recent years, buyers and merchandisers said.

"The dollar ring is higher, so dollar sales are probably up. But I don't think case movement is up," Associated's Campbell said. Unit sales on frozen chicken overall have climbed just 2.7%, IRI reported.

Growth in private label and the addition of other lines have made space tight in the frozen chicken section, which still is dominated by Banquet, Tyson and Weaver, Campbell said. "There's more brand entries but, because we're limited in the number of items in the space we have, we're more selective in taking new lines on."

Byerly's has expanded its frozen chicken space to fit more products, Kranz said. "There's more new companies," he explained. "Pilgrim Pride has been pushing quite a bit. Maple Leaf has a new line. Those are the ones we've added that stand out." Including the leading brands, "there's probably at least 10 SKUs per company, so there's about 50 to 60 items" in the frozen chicken section overall, he said.

Frozen chicken space also is expected to grow at the Pacific Northwest chain, which offers mainly Banquet and Tyson, the frozens buyer said.

"Probably for each one, we have about 3 feet of space. We're getting into category management, so it probably will change. But there will definitely be more space given to the chicken section because that's what's really selling right now," she explained. "New items in that category are really important for its growth," she added.

According to buyers and merchandisers, the new products are intended to bolster the frozen chicken section, which has had to contend with the rising number of supermarket delis and fresh-prepared food operations.

However, they noted, the consumer buying frozen chicken differs from the one seeking fresh-cooked chicken. "That's more of a ready-to-serve item that night for dinner, and I think that's how people recognize it," the buyer from the Pacific Northwest chain said.

Frozen chicken provides a different form of convenience, Byerly's Kranz said. "It's an item you can keep in your freezer as a quick meal you don't have to run out for. A rotisserie chicken from our deli is something you're going out for, picking up and bringing home."

Still, the fresh-prepared foods area is siphoning some frozen chicken sales, retailers and wholesalers said.

"The deli department has to be taking something away from the frozen category. They're getting into the baked and skinless items to combat the in-store [delis]," Associated's Campbell said. "[Frozens] is trying to keep that segment, but the service deli is going to keep taking part of that segment."

Chicken restaurant chains are a greater concern to frozens, he added. "What they're fighting more than the service deli are the outside chicken businesses like Boston Market and KFC. That's why the new frozen products and flavorings are coming in."

Such competition and the plethora of new products have led manufacturers to uphold steady promotional support for frozen chicken. "They're using their ad money for stores, and they're dealing more to steal some of that outside business with displays and POP materials," Campbell said. "It's definitely an item that's advertised on a regular basis."

"It's getting its fair share of marketing and advertising dollars," said Cathy Yancey, a frozens buyer at Ukrop's Super Markets, Richmond, Va.

Frozen chicken is not an ad-driven category, though ads do bring a lift, Byerly's Kranz said. "People are always looking for it, but when the ads come out, they tend to buy more," he explained.

Holidays present an especially good opportunity for frozen chicken advertising, noted Pat Brooks, director of frozens, dairy and deli for Save Mart Supermarkets, Modesto, Calif. "July Fourth is a big holiday to promote it, and Memorial Day is a good day. We have it scheduled for an ad for Frozen Food Month [in March]," he said.

Some retailers said promotion of the category has increased. "There's heavier advertising, a lot of coupons. There are some [buy-one-get-ones], but most of it is reduced prices. We do newspaper ads, demos and tie-in coupons," Byerly's Kranz said. Product demonstrations are done monthly, and tie-ins have included barbecue sauce and honey mustard sauce displayed near the frozen chicken, he said.

Cross-merchandising has been a linchpin for the category. "We like to display the frozen chicken with french fries and related items in stores where we have end cabinets," Save Mart's Brooks said. "We will be getting into that more and more."

"We do some of that, such as with chicken and, say, Ore-Ida mashed potatoes and things like that," a frozens buyer from a large Southern chain said, adding that the items usually are put in end bunkers with signs.

Frozen chicken is a flexible item for consumers and can be paired with quick-fix frozen vegetables, potatoes and other side dishes, which have proliferated in recent years, retailers and wholesalers said.

"[Stores] did some meal-type cross-merchandising this summer, where they used chicken as the base and make a picnic meal," Associated's Campbell said.

A display-ad combination is particularly effective, Ukrop's Yancey noted. "When you have an ad feature and additional display space, you get a tremendous increase in sales," she said.

Yancey said frozen chicken sales benefit from the chain's shelf-tag program. "We have what we call our 'Special Purchase.' With that, we put a reduced-price tag in front of the item. That could run for two, three, four or six weeks, depending on the promotion a company is offering. We've found that the reduced-retail tag affects sales. They do get a little spike," she said. Frozen chicken could get a further boost if it is displayed in one area of the store, several buyers and merchandisers told SN. Many supermarkets offer it in both the frozens and meat departments. "It needs a permanent home of its own," Affiliated's Dewey said.