THE ICEBOX COMETH

When it comes to frozen vegetables, sales in the category are anything but cool. Consumers can't beat the convenience of frozen vegetables, which come in dozens of varieties and mixtures. These products are frozen within hours of being harvested, so they are fresh tasting and every bit as nutritious as their fresh counterparts in the produce department.According to Leslie G. Sarasin, president and

When it comes to frozen vegetables, sales in the category are anything but cool. Consumers can't beat the convenience of frozen vegetables, which come in dozens of varieties and mixtures. These products are frozen within hours of being harvested, so they are fresh tasting and every bit as nutritious as their fresh counterparts in the produce department.

According to Leslie G. Sarasin, president and CEO of the American Frozen Food Institute, all frozen vegetables are also handy and easily used. "Consumers tell us that one reason they buy frozen vegetables is that they are so easy to prepare, they keep well and they're always available," Sarasin said. "You don't have to worry about the spoilage factor that we all deal with when we buy fresh produce because they're ready to eat and you can have them ready at a moment's notice."

Statistics prove that even today, when there is more emphasis than ever before on fresh and natural products, frozen vegetables have continued to be hot sellers. Sarasin reported that retail sales of frozen vegetables were $1.7 billion in 1998, up about a percentage point over 1997 levels. Vegetables represent about 7% of total frozen-food retail sales, and total sales of frozen foods generated $23.7 billion at retail in 1998. Frozen vegetables today are packaged to make the products even more convenient for consumers. The traditional 10-ounce cardboard boxes are microwaveable, for instance, and many vegetable processors are packaging the products in resealable containers. Sarasin also noted that manufacturers have done a great job in coming up with different-sized packages to suit different consumer needs. "The variety of sizes of packaging has been a big boon to consumers," she explained.

"You have the smaller 10-ounce boxes that have been the traditional packages and the 16-ounce packages that a lot of processors use. You also have the much larger packages available for larger families or for people who want to store large quantities."

In addition, processors have been introducing blends that can be mixed with meat for easy meal preparation. Some of these vegetable combinations even include meat, for an easily cooked, one-dish meal. "These products really play to the convenience factor and ease of preparation for today's working people who don't have the time or energy to put together full meals," Sarasin said.

Verl Bills, frozen-food category manager, Associated Food Stores, Salt Lake City, Utah, told SN Associated has a strong selection in both the commodity vegetables and blended vegetables and stir-fries, and he has seen some revamping of the "create-a-meal" vegetable blends that don't contain meat.

"Most buyers of these instant meal products are dual-income families with one or two children, or couples," Bills said. "These products generally serve two people as entrees." He added that Stouffer's has come out with a club pack of an instant meal product, to serve larger families.

According to Bills, the sales of vegetables in the traditional 10-ounce boxes have been declining. "Most of the year, customers can get a 16-ounce bag for the same price as a 10-ounce box," Bills noted. "We have had to use some of the boxed vegetable space for the growing number of bagged and blended vegetables."

Val Vivenzio, director of frozen food and dairy at Big Y Supermarkets, Springfield, Mass., has observed that much of the whole home-meal replacement category seems to be shifting to the frozen-food aisle. His store has seen growth in the entire frozen-foods area, which is causing the chain to look to expand the area in its stores.

"Customers are leaning toward products like Stouffer's Skillet Sensations and Bird's Eye Voila, that are similar to Create-A-Meal, but already have the chicken or beef included with the vegetable blend," Vivenzio said. At Big Y, the 16-ounce bags outsell the 10-ounce boxes. "In most cases, the cost of the 16-ounce bag is actually less than the 10-ounce box at retail," Vivenzio said. "The only difference is that Green Giant bags are slightly higher due to the design of their bags."

Both national-brand vegetables, like Green Giant and Bird's Eye, and store-brand frozen vegetables are strong sellers in stores across the nation.

Sarasin noted that the branded products do well because in some consumers' minds, this may indicate higher quality. "But the truth is that both store brands and private-label products are of high quality," Sarasin explained.

"Store-brand frozen vegetables are sometimes less expensive because there's less money spent on national advertising and related expenses that go along with them," she noted. "But it's really just a consumer preference."

Buehlers Foods, with 29 stores in Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky, only carries two lines of frozen vegetables, Green Giant and Fresh Like brands, which Kim Heseman, category manager for frozen foods, said do well with consumers. However, the store is currently in the initial stages of developing its own private-label frozen vegetables.

"We're planning to offer the basics, including corn, peas, carrots, broccoli, lima beans and spinach," Heseman said. "We're also going to be offering blends."

At Marsh Supermarkets, Indianapolis, Ind., Bryan Nichols, category manager for frozen foods, said that both brand-name products and store brands sell well. "The store brands sell better in the basic vegetables and the name brands sell better in the premium vegetables, including the boxed sauce vegetables, your create-a-meal vegetables," Nichols said.

For Whitco Foods, Visalia, Calif., which has nine Food 4 Less and Nickel's Payless stores across three counties, price is the main driver of sales. "In our market, price sells," said Tom Dunnigan, buyer. "I don't want to take anything away from national brands, but the private-label products sell the best in frozen vegetables in our stores."

He added that the Mega Pack -- five- and three-pound bags and two, two-pound bags with an over wrap -- are best-sellers. "People want the biggest bang for their buck and if it's private label we're low on, that's what's selling," Dunnigan explained. "We promote according to the quick nickel, we're not concerned about the slow dime."

Eleanor Bennett, manager of frozen and deli purchasing, Unified Western Grocers of California, Los Angeles, Calif., said that most of the wholesaler's frozen vegetable sales are in its private label. "The vegetable category for us is skewed by the private label, where chains may have more growth in the brands," Bennett said.

Products that pull in the most consumer dollars are mixed vegetables and corn, she added. "I've seen growth in the green beans and broccoli, as well as carrots and cob corn, and in all of those categories, the private label is a better seller than the name brands," Bennett pointed out. Unified's best-selling SKU is a two-pound package of mixed vegetables.

To move vegetables, Buehlers uses an EDLP program for one line of vegetables, and a high-low approach on the other. "The EDLP program has been pretty steady," Heseman said. "The high-low approach works well in ads," she added. The chain also features buy-one, get-one-free promotions on frozen vegetables, which always results in spiking sales.

Marsh Supermarkets focuses most of its frozen vegetable promotions around key holiday seasons. "We sell a lot of our base vegetables, like corn, broccoli, peas and that sort of thing, around the holidays," Nichols said.

"Throughout the year, we have had luck promoting the value-added vegetables -- boxed vegetables in sauce, stir-fries and create-a-meal kinds of things -- with fairly aggressive pricing."

Nickel's Payless and Food 4 Less stores all feature an end cap program where they maintain a frozen vegetable in at least one end cap of all stores at all times. "We keep consistency in all of our stores," Dunnigan noted. "Since our stores are spread between three different counties, we have zone pricing. However, we try to maintain the same product promotions at the same time."

The AFFI also runs an annual promotion in conjunction with Frozen Food Age Magazine that has resulted in increased sales of frozen vegetables reported by retailers across the country. The "Five-a-Day for Better Health" contest runs from the beginning of December through late March.

"It's an opportunity for brokers and their retail customers, in conjunction with the manufacturers of frozen fruits and vegetables, to put in promotional programs for frozen fruits and vegetables," Sarasin explained.

"Entrants have told us that not only do the sales of fruits and vegetables increase during the contest time, but sales in the frozen food aisle go up dramatically as well."