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Frozen Vegetable Sales are Steaming

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Innovations in packaging and preparation have kept the frozen vegetable category fresh in recent years. New steam technology and innovative vegetable combinations have captured customer attention and dollars, as many believe frozen is fresher than canned. The latest cook-at-home trend has also benefited the category as consumers search for fast, healthy meals to prepare.

Frozen vegetable sales have been healthy over the past few years. The category has grown steadily since the introduction of steamable vegetables; sales increased 5 percent in 2008. Category sales totaled $3.6 billion (The Company, week ending March 21, 2009, excluding Wal-Mart). Mixed , steamable varieties, have steadily picked up speed with sales up 13.5 percent in 2006, 11.7 percent in 2007 and 6.1 percent in 2008 ().
 
“The trend I’m seeing in frozen vegetables is continued growth,” says Diane Roberts, senior director, frozen food, . Roberts does not believe category growth is necessarily related to the economy. “What we’re seeing is continued growth following the introduction of steamable vegetables. The category has been healthy ever since – and growth [is coming] not just from steamables.” Pittsburghbased operates over 150 corporate stores and over 60 independently owned supermarkets in western Pennsylvania, Ohio, northcentral West Virginia and Maryland. 
 
Keeping it Private
 
Private label plays a huge part in frozen vegetables, accounting for 40 percent of the category, according to Mintel, a Chicago-based research firm. Diane Roberts of Giant Eaglenotes that her company carries an extensive line of “own brand” vegetables. She attributes growth in private label sales of frozen vegetables to convenience, value and fresh taste. “Along with the fact that the national guys turned TV back on, as well as the product innovation [steamable bags],” she adds.  
 
“Private label frozen vegetables are as good as, if not better than, any other frozen vegetables out there today,” says Greg Lenski, director, business management, frozen foods for Skokie, Ill.-based Topco Associates, LLC. “They are the same vegetables as those that go into national brands.”
 
Lenski points out that private label has been in the category almost since the advent of frozen vegetables.
 
“The industry’s ability to provide a private label solution tied to innovative concepts and packaging has greatly improved of late. In years past, it would take months, if not years, to innovate what brands did into private label products,” he says. Now, the two major national brands rely on the same suppliers that Topco does, so the lag time has been cut down to weeks or months from years, he notes.
 
Steamables have been good for the category, Lenski observes, by bringing new customers to frozen vegetables. “We’ve seen an increase in our core frozen vegetable business on top of the new steamables business, which we began in 2007. Our frozen vegetable business was up 40 percent in unit sales last year, 2008 vs. 2007. Half of this increase was in new steamables but the other half was growth in existing business.”
 
Topco members offer steam-frozen vegetable brands such as Food Club Steamin’ Easy, Full Circle Organic and World Classics Trading Company to their customers. Members can also elect to offer the product under their own corporate name. Topco members are promoting frozen vegetables more often, Lenski says, and offering a fuller line to a bigger consumer Base.
 
The economy exerts some influence on the category. “The consumer is definitely eating out less,” Lenski says. “Business has gravitated to retail and private label. While it is not a one-to-one equal trade-off, private label has seen more than its share of the increase.”
 
Lenski also points to a change in consumer habits that benefits the category. “Generations X and Y don’t have the same time for preparation as previous generations, so they rely on the microwave to help manage their time and provide ready meals. Steam-frozen vegetables tied into the vacuum that existed before, when fresh or canned vegetables were quicker and easier to prepare than frozen.”
 
Steam and Sauce
 
Birds Eye, the category leader, revolutionized frozen vegetables just a few years back with its Steamfresh Line.
 
“ Steamed vegetables continue to drive growth in the category because of the preparation ease, perfect taste and texture that steam technology offers,” says Lisa Murley, brand manager at Birds Eye Steamfresh Vegetables in Rochester, N.Y. “Convenience is still a key consideration for consumers – they are looking for a variety of items that fit into their busy lifestyle in a healthful way.”
 
A new product line from Birds Eye Steamfresh debuts in July and will be available nationally in August. Steamfresh Lightly Sauced features six sauced vegetable and pasta side dishes. “These side dishes have the perfect amount of sauce to complement the vegetables and pasta, not overwhelm it,” Murley notes.
 
Four of the six dishes are low-fat. Varieties include Broccoli and Cheese, Corn and Butter, Roasted Potatoes and Chive Butter, and Penne with Vegetables and Alfredo Sauce. Murley offers ideas for promoting the Steamfresh line, including placing it alongside a ready-to-eat item like rotisserie chicken. “When consumers are in the store at 5 p.m. on a weekday, they are looking for a quick meal solution, and supermarkets can help consumers by staging the components of a meal together,” she says. “We have also seen great success with in-store coupon machines, given the renewed focus on saving money.”
 
Green Giant was the first company to introduce steamed vegetables with sauce last year. Six new varieties in the Valley Fresh Steamers line feature frozen nuggets that distribute sauce evenly as the vegetables steam. Varieties include Broccoli, Carrots, Cauliflower and Cheese Sauce, and Roasted Red Potatoes, Green Beans and Rosemary Butter Sauce. Seven additional varieties of Valley Fresh Steamers are available without Sauce.
 
“In spite of the broader economic slowdown, the frozen vegetable category is still performing well, including 8 percent sales growth in the past three months,” observes Steve Finnie, marketing manager, Green Giant Frozen Vegetables. The company is part of Minneapolis-based .