HEALTHY HARVEST

Consumers have long been prodded to eat their veggies. Now that they're starting to comply, retailers are searching for ways to get their frozen aisles in on the action.Sales of frozen vegetables have sprouted in the past year. But interest in healthy eating isn't the only reason. Convenience is a major driver as consumers look for products that save them time in the kitchen.Thus supermarket dollar

Consumers have long been prodded to eat their veggies. Now that they're starting to comply, retailers are searching for ways to get their frozen aisles in on the action.

Sales of frozen vegetables have sprouted in the past year. But interest in healthy eating isn't the only reason. Convenience is a major driver as consumers look for products that save them time in the kitchen.

Thus supermarket dollar sales of versions with added sauces, crumbs, herbs and spices that are as easily prepared as plain frozen vegetables grew 5.2% to $210.9 million, while those of frozen plain vegetables declined 1.1%, according to Information Resources Inc., Chicago.

Strong sellers of frozen prepared vegetables included Birds Eye Steam and Serve, with $10.5 million in sales; Green Giant Select frozen prepared vegetables, with $10.4 million in sales; and private label, $8.8 million in sales.

Penn Traffic Company, Syracuse, N.Y., attributes an increase in sales of frozen blends in its 114 stores to the convenience of the premixed, heat-and-eat products.

"We've seen that consumers are often drawn to microwavable lines rather than vegetables made for the skillet," chain spokeswoman RenTe Petrichevich said.

Petrichevich said Penn Traffic looks forward to Green Giant's coming launches of a single-serving line of frozen vegetables, 24-ounce bags of veggies with sauce, and a line of vegetables blended with cheese, pasta or potatoes.

Microwavable products also have spurred sales of frozen vegetables at IGA Village Market in Hannibal, N.Y., by appealing to shoppers' desires for novelty, convenience and health, store owner

Jim Mirabito said.

"Most people buy them for a change in their dinner menu rather than fixing the same old peas," he said, of Birds Eye's Steamfresh line. "Plus, they taste good and are easy to fix. I've also noticed that our shoppers are reading labels more closely, and they're searching for healthier options."

Frozen-food manufacturers also are catering to consumer demand for products that give them choices in portion size.

"One of the first things consumers look for is convenience. But they also want options, and Birds Eye and other companies are coming out with frozen vegetables in resealable packaging so people can take out the amount they want and put the rest back in the freezer," said Marcia Mogelonsky, senior research analyst for Mintel International Group, Chicago. "This plays into the portion-control diet trend, which is starting to really catch on, as well as the large number of baby boomer households that have gotten smaller since the kids have grown up and moved out."

At Sweetbay Supermarkets, Tampa, Fla., frozen vegetables sales have climbed about 5% in the past year, grocery director Randy Deschaine said. He credited growth to sales of products in steamable bags that are healthy, convenient and aid in portion control.

Another factor in category growth is the government's recently revised food pyramid, which puts a greater emphasis on vegetable consumption than its predecessor did. Some retailers are using the pyramid to encourage people to meet their recommended veggie intake with frozens.

Mirabito has plastered his IGA store, including its vegetable freezer cases, with food pyramid signs downloaded from the Internet. He also encourages associates to mingle with shoppers and recommend products.

"Being in the store where we can interject and add a comment that directs their purchase is crucial," he said. "It's become one of our biggest keys to differentiating from our competition, especially since we've changed wholesalers and no longer have wholesaler-backed signage and sampling programs. Without that help, we're on our own as an independent and need to find ways to increase product awareness ourselves."

If creating product awareness is a goal, Mogelonsky suggests that retailers prepare to promote organic frozen vegetables, which she expects to fare well.

"Organics might cost twice as much as a regular bag of potatoes, but they have the aura of being healthy, and the price doesn't seem to slow down the consumer too much," she said. "Plus, as Wal-Mart continues to lower its cost of organics, with the plan to eventually sell organic at only 10% above the cost of regular fruits and vegetables, the price of organics in all channels should level off."

While new products are boosting frozen vegetable sales, the category still faces challenges. It has to compete with fresh produce, which is also coming out in more easy-prep forms.

"Fresh produce is now available in so many convenient ways, with precut carrots, diced onions, sliced peppers and even mixes of cut-up vegetables," Mogelonsky said. "Frozen-food manufacturers really need to step it up a notch if the category is going to compete."

Like all food categories, frozens have to keep evolving their offerings to retain shoppers' interest.

"Consumers' tastes are erratic, and right now, the frozen veggies with sauces and those with meat, which have been doing well, have reached their height, and consumers are already looking for the next thing," Mogelonsky said.

The longstanding perception that fresh produce is better than frozen also troubles the category.

California's new Fresh Start school nutrition program, for example, encourages schools to serve fresh fruits and vegetables over frozen and canned.

The American Frozen Food Institute, Washington, claims this perception is changing. AFFI recently studied consumer attitudes towards frozens and found that while convenience is still a big factor in purchases, people are increasingly aware of the improved quality of frozen foods and the ability of the freezing process to preserve nutrients, AFFI spokesman Chris Krese said.

The institute found that at least one crucial demographic appears to be well-informed of the benefits of flash-freezing, he said.

"In AFFI's research, mothers with children living in the home were most aware about the ability of freezing to lock in nutrients and are the most appreciative of the ability to keep vegetables on hand and use them as desired with little or no waste, as compared with usage of raw products," Krese said.

The research also showed consumers are open to messages promoting frozen foods. That's where demos can come in, Krese said.

Retailers are helping change the perception that fresh is better than frozen by offering shoppers in-store tastings, Mogelonsky said.

Some manufacturers are trying to improve frozens' reputation through on-package statements about the nutritional benefits of flash-freezing. "Frozen vegetables are as nutritious as fresh!" proclaims Green Giant's Just for One! package. Steamfresh maker Birds Eye calls microwaving the best way to retain nutrients because overcooking is less likely.

Package graphics also work to convey a fresher, healthier message. "Consumers often believe that a quality appearance equals a quality product," Penn Traffic's Petrichevich said.