Frozen Is the Answer in 2022

Anne-Marie Reorink, principal with market research firm 210 Analytics, reviews the state of the food sector in 2022 and provides data-based insights into how the frozen food category is performing in an evolving landscape.

“The only constant is change” idiom seems truer than ever for the food sector so far in 2022. There appears to be a steady string of supply chain, weather and labor issues, and food inflation continues to accelerate. Initially, consumer demand remained strong, but the prolonged and 40-year high inflation levels are starting to wear on U.S. consumers. In response to incredible pressure on income, eight in 10 Americans are shopping for groceries differently. The all-important question: Where do those changes net out for the frozen food department? Let’s have a look.

How high is high?

According to data insights firm IRI, the average price per unit across all food and beverages at retail has increased 10.4% over the 52 weeks ending August 28, 2022. Compared to pre-pandemic, food and beverage prices are up 19.8%. While frozen food has experienced above-average inflation, both year-on-year and compared with pre-pandemic, 79% of consumers believe frozen foods are cost-effective and frozen continues to maintain high shares. It is important to position frozen food as great value — not just great price — by combining the notion of cost effective with the versatility, convenience and the lack of food waste offered by the category.

Price per unit Price/unit Change vs. 2021 Change vs. 2019
Total food and beverages $3.60 +10.4% +19.8%
Frozen food department $4.49 +11.5% +22.2%

Source: IRI, Integrated Fresh, MULO, FW + RW, 52 w.e. 8/28/2022

To cook or not to cook

Restaurant engagement was as close to normal in July of 2021. Since then, new COVID-19 variants in combination with rising inflation have pushed dollars and trips back to retail, especially for lunch and dinner. Consumers estimate they prepared an average of 78.4% of all meals at home in August, resulting in robust demand. While down from the pandemic peaks, the frozen food department still sells 6.5% more units now than in 2019. At the same time, life’s hecticness is back and many shoppers need a helping hand. This opens the door to stressing the convenience of frozen meal ingredients and meal solutions as a back-up or planned occasion. Light users of frozen food may have items in the freezer as a backup while heavy users are actively meal planning with frozen meal solutions in mind.

Dollar size Dollars vs. 2021 Dollars vs. 2020 Dollars vs. 2019 Units vs. 2021 Units vs. 2020 Units vs. 2019
Frozen food department $69.7B +6.5% +11.4% +30.2% -4.5% -3.5% +6.5%

Source: IRI, Integrated Fresh, MULO, FW + RW, 52 w.e. 8/28/2022

Money-Saving Measures

Inflation is prompting 78% of shoppers to engage in money-saving measures when buying groceries, up from 50% in the fall of 2021. Among the top measures are the usual suspects, such as looking for what’s on sale and buying more private brand. Yet, frozen supply chain issues challenge the ability to promote heavily and the share of units sold on promotion remains down 13.4% year-on-year. Given consumers’ greater willingness to experiment with new brands, products or flavors, leveraging creative promotional approaches can help drive trial and purchase frequency. These can be shorter promotions or cross-promotions, linking frozen-item discounts with other frozen items or items elsewhere in the store to help take pressure of inventory.

A Change in Channel Shares

Shoppers increased willingness to shop for deals across multiple stores has prompted a move in dollar shares. Traditional grocery stores have lost nearly three percent of their share in many departments, whereas club, supercenters, online and value channels have gained share. Walmart recently reported strong second-quarter sales and Costco has seen a significant uptick in annual memberships for a while now. This means it is important to be laser focused on optimizing distribution, especially during times of supply chain disruption and shortages.

Convenience

At the same time that they’re trying to cut back on restaurant spending, Americans are tired of scratch cooking and seek convenient meal planning, shopping, preparation and cleanup. This quest for convenience can be seen in an above-average performance for frozen dinners/entrees, breakfast items, snacks and appetizers — all focused on delivering convenient, nutritious solutions across meal occasions.

The Future for Frozen

One thing is clear, while change is constant, it is complex and uneven. The return to retail does not automatically mean scratch cooking nor a race to the bottom. Sustainability, health and wellbeing, and convenience remain important. There simply is no linear way in which consumers are addressing the inflationary pressures. Instead, the market reflects a careful balancing act between ultra value and items/occasions worth the splurge. Above all, consumers are tired of their routine, go-to meals. Help ideate, delight and surprise, and frozen food will continue to catch consumers’ eyes in the remainder of 2022.

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