The boom in frozen foods, driven by homebound consumers during the pandemic, has given way to a more nuanced landscape in which some subcategories have shown solid staying power and others have shown signs of thawing.
As restaurants have reopened, and many workers have returned to their offices, consumers overall may be cooking less at home and have less demand for some frozen items. However, those who continue to work from home, as well as those who may be cooking more at home because of price inflation, are still shopping the supermarket freezer case for everything from frozen dinners and entrées to breakfast foods, snacks and appetizers.
“As more people eat meals at home to save money, frozen foods continue to do well,” said Bennett Morgan, senior vice president and chief merchandising officer at Grand Rapids, Mich.-based grocery distributor/retailer SpartanNash.
Increased variety in the freezer case helped drive sales, especially in subcategories such as meatless options and multicultural flavors, according to Morgan.
“A significant share of the frozen demand is driven by younger customers, and they are buying healthier frozen meals, especially lunch options,” he said, adding that this may be due to a return to the office for many workers.
Sally Lyons Wyatt, executive vice president and practice leader of client insights at IRI, said consumers are discovering the many values that frozen foods can provide.
“It's convenient, it's affordable, it's got variety,” she said. “You can get a variety of cuisines, and there are different sizes depending on your household size.”
As in other categories across the store, manufacturers and retailers continue to be challenged by out-of-stocks in the frozen department.
“Frozen is really poised to do well, if the in-stock rates can stay good,” Lyons Wyatt said. “If they can keep the products on the shelf, and if they can really get to the right price points to match up with consumers budget, they are poised to do better. But it has been a struggle because of the supply chain situation.”
Breakfast segment remains eye-opener
The enduring success of frozen breakfast foods — up 6.4% for the 52 weeks through April 17 — could be due in part to both consumers working from home and the increasing adoption of breakfast foods as anytime meals or snacks, said Anne-Marie Roerink, principal and founder of 210 Analytics.
“When people work from home, they are taking a bit more time and are less focused on the on-the-go portability,” Roerink explained. “Additionally, breakfast foods have decidedly morphed into snacks for occasions throughout the day, and that includes breakfast sandwiches, waffles and other items found in the frozen food aisle.”
Cathy Bates, product business manager for UNFI Brands+ at distributor United Natural Foods Inc., agreed. “Retailers will want to focus on offering a diversified assortment to penetrate new-occasion consumption, such as family breakfast options, mid-morning and late-day snacking,” she said.
Besides breakfast, some frozen categories might also be benefitting from inflation in other areas, such as beef. Frozen processed poultry sales, for example, were up 7.3% in supermarkets in the most recent 52-week span and rose 13.4% across all outlets as the top gainer among subcategories with the highest sales.