A MIXED BAG

Retailers agree that being single is not always easy, especially when you're a frozen pea.Sales of traditional one-item bags of frozen vegetables take a hit whenever more sophisticated blends are introduced into the market -- such as those that marry a few different vegetables, enrobe them with sauce or even include a protein, like chicken.Indeed, sales figures from market research firm Information

Retailers agree that being single is not always easy, especially when you're a frozen pea.

Sales of traditional one-item bags of frozen vegetables take a hit whenever more sophisticated blends are introduced into the market -- such as those that marry a few different vegetables, enrobe them with sauce or even include a protein, like chicken.

Indeed, sales figures from market research firm Information Resources Inc., Chicago, show Stouffer's Skillet Sensations posting sales growth of 20.8% to $82.1 million in the grocery channel for the 52 weeks ended Jan. 25.

These combination products, like the protein-added Stouffer's or the Simply Grillin' line of vegetables and sauces from Birds Eye, have improved the convenience component of such items, and are primarily responsible for the category's growth, retailers told SN. "The traditional vegetables are still the top-selling items in our category -- broccoli, corn, corn on the cob. However, the sauce items add a convenience to the category and are steadily growing as a share of the vegetable section," David Bjork, frozen food buyer at Brookshire Grocery, Tyler, Texas, told SN.

The frozen food industry has touted convenience since the days of its inception and, in that respect, not much has changed. However, what has changed dramatically over the years is the quality of frozen foods. Frozen vegetables are no exception.

"When my parents were going out for dinner when I was a kid, I'd eat the TV dinners and, man, we've come light years since then," said Leslie Sarasin, president and chief executive officer of the American Frozen Food Institute, Washington. "The variety that is available and the quality of the products that is available and the technology that has been employed to create that [have] been overwhelming," she added.

To that end, frozen veggies are benefitting from recent scientific findings that indicate they are a tremendous source of nutrition and, in some ways, can be healthier options than fresh vegetables.

"Fresh products sit in a warehouse, and then they're transported, and then they sit on the supermarket shelf, and then you bring them home and leave them in the refrigerator until they are just about to go bad, and then guilt overtakes you and you cook them. There's a lot of time that goes by there, and they are losing nutrition every day," Sarasin said. "[Frozen vegetables] are picked at the height of freshness, they're frozen and the nutrients are locked in."

Big Y, Springfield, Mass., is being proactive in sending this message to its consumers by linking its frozen vegetables to the produce-oriented 5 A Day program, which encourages consumption of at least five fruits and vegetables a day. Static clings provided by AFFI read "The Cool Way to Get 5 A Day" and have recently been placed on the doors that house the frozen vegetables. It's a category that has been experiencing a sales lift over the last year at the chain.

"Overall, our vegetable sales are up 13%," said Michael D'Amour, Big Y's frozen food category manager/buyer. Everyday gross profit margins, when items are not on sale, amount to about 43% for frozen vegetables, compared with 55% for fresh produce, he told SN.

"As long as you promote [frozen vegetables] a little bit and put signs out so the customers know you have it and you bring them to the category, it does well."

Big Y features a different frozen vegetable in its circular every week. D'Amour said the fact that frozen options can provide consumers with their favorite veggies year-round will always give the category a slight advantage that can be driven home through promotion anytime throughout the year.

"I think [the freezing technology] is helping the overall category and they are able to come out with really good-quality frozen asparagus 12 months out of the year, where in produce you have to pick the times that you're over there, and the size can vary as can where it's coming from, what part of the world." D'Amour said. "That's the type of item that's seasonal -- you can't get that year-round unless you go frozen."

Brookshire Grocery also keeps an eye open for strategic times to promote the section, regardless of the temperature outside.

"We promote this category with a main ad at least three times a month. Meal solutions is something we keep in mind while setting up ads," said Bjork, adding that schematics range from 6 to 11 doors.

In fact, one of the only detriments to the frozen category, according to Big Y's D'Amour, is the restricted space available to host a myriad of products. The chain has allocated nine doors for frozen veggies over the past several years and, he told SN, he avoids overwhelming frozen vegetable sets by only carrying a select few stockkeeping units. "I think a green bean is a green bean is a green bean. And if you have a good one out there and it's on sale, people are going to buy it. You have private label, Green Giant and Birds Eye, and that's really all you need," he said.

This rule of thumb works just as well in independent supermarkets where less square footage often equals smaller sets.

"Space becomes an issue anytime it becomes frozen for any category because it is so limited," said Brian McGregor, manager/owner of the two-store Archie's IGA operation in St. Maries, Idaho. "We just carry a private label and a national brand," he said, adding that private label does very well in his stores.

Improvements in quality, coupled with the value proposition they offer, are leading consumers more and more to the private-label frozen vegetables, observers said.

"With the economy the way it's been, people are looking for value and that doesn't mean they won't get it with branded because they do, but I think they are willing to branch out a little more and try the private label," Sarasin from AFFI said.

Numbers back up her theory. Private-label frozen peas, for example, were the best-selling SKU in the grocery channel for the 52 weeks ended Jan. 25, generating $85.3 million in sales, according to IRI. Birds Eye frozen peas, a distant second, saw sales of $22.8 million, and Pictsweet frozen peas posted sales of $14.9 million, rounding out IRI's top three best-selling brands.

At Brookshire, private label makes a strong showing, according to Bjork.

"Our private label distribution mirrors the national brands," he said. "Anything that does well in branded does well in our private label."

Although there are no immediate plans to roll out product, D'Amour said he would like to see Big Y eventually offer store-brand versions of higher-end vegetables like snow pea pods and sugar snap peas, much like a Trader Joe's would offer.

"We want pencil-thin green beans, and we're looking for the gourmet mushroom mixes and stuff like that," he told SN. "These are areas that I think we're missing that produce does well with. Frozen, for whatever reason, has just been thought of as corn, green beans, peas and carrots and that's it, and there's a lot more to it."

Frozens Get Muy Caliente

New to this year's Frozen Food Month promotions from the National Frozen & Refrigerated Foods Association will be a special focus on the Hispanic market. A Spanish version of marketing materials has been sent out to more than 650 different Hispanic publications.

"This is one of the fastest-growing markets, and there is very big consumer spending in terms of dollars. Research has shown that [Hispanics'] interest in frozen foods really has to do with how acculturated they are," said Julie Henderson, vice president of communications for the NFRA, based in Harrisburg, Pa. "We wanted to put the release out there to drill a little bit deeper and put the message out that frozen foods are quality products and there's also the convenience aspect. Frozen foods really speak to that."

The association has also joined forces with the In-Store Broadcasting Network for the two-year-old Bring Us To Your Table! Freezer Favorites campaign. The partnership is offering CDs to its retail members that contain 30-second, in-store announcements directing shoppers to the frozen food aisle for special promotions and meal solution ideas.

In addition, an alliance with the Produce for Better Health Foundation links the 5 A Day Program, encouraging the consumption of at least five fruits and vegetables a day, to the frozen food department in supermarkets. Freezer door clings stating "The Cool Way to Get 5 A Day" are available to retailers.

"We want to remind consumers that they can find their five servings in the freezer aisle," Henderson told SN.