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Pandemic boosts frozen food sales, category growth

frozen food aisle
Frozen ready-to-eat (RTE) meals are naturally attractive to busy consumers, but even more so during a global crisis. Nutritious offerings with positioning such as vegetarian, protein-packed, low sodium or organic meet a variety of consumer desires. And advances in formulation and processing are allowing for flavorful, upscale creations that quickly become repeat purchases.

Nearly a year after the COVID-19 pandemic began, “The Power of Frozen in Retail 2021” report from The American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI) and FMI revealed frozen foods were among the fastest-growing categories in the grocery store, with clear signs that Americans’ fondness for frozen will continue to grow.

“The frozen food aisle has been a growth driver for retailers since 2016 with acceleration ahead of most other departments,” said AFFI President and CEO Alison Bodor. “Frozen foods are a pandemic powerhouse ringing in $65.1 billion in retail sales in 2020, a 21% increase compared to a year ago.”

Increased engagement in all categories

According to the report, 2020 frozen food sales grew in both dollars (+21%) and units (+13.3%), with nearly all types of frozen foods seeing double-digit sales increases. The top-three frozen food categories with the largest percentage of dollar growth in 2020, according to IRI, include seafood (+35.3%), poultry (+34.7%) and appetizers (+28.9%).

“Shoppers are nearly a year into the COVID-19 pandemic and are having more family meals at home than ever before. They are looking for meal plans, culinary creativity and convenient, cost-effective solutions,” said FMI Vice President of Industry Relations Doug Baker. “The frozen foods category offers these benefits to shoppers and that’s why we see all areas—from meal ingredients to meal solutions—reaching new audiences and increasing purchases.”

Online shopping boosts sales

As consumers turned to online shopping at a record rate, the vast majority were adding frozen to their digital cart. Over the past year, 42% of households that buy frozen foods have bought frozen foods online, up from 23% in 2018. Online frozen food dollar sales increased 75% in 2020, with frozen dinners/entrees, meat, poultry and seafood being the biggest online sellers.

Health and well-being

Across many nutrition and production traits, frozen food consumers are most likely to be interested in “real” ingredients, followed by fresh frozen and the absence of artificial colors.

The interest in fresh frozen also aligns with another key finding from the new report. To most frozen food consumers (72%), it’s not frozen or fresh—it’s frozen and fresh. “Mixing fresh and frozen in the same meal is a tell-tale trait of our core frozen food consumers,” Bodor noted.

Amid the pandemic, the share of core frozen food consumers, defined as those who consume frozen food daily or every few days, rose from 35% in 2018 to 39% in 2020. High-frequency frozen food consumers are more likely than low-frequency consumers to purchase frozen foods for planned, specific occasions.

Market outlook

Frozen ready-to-eat (RTE) meals are naturally attractive to busy consumers, but even more so during a global crisis. Nutritious offerings with positioning such as vegetarian, protein-packed, low sodium or organic meet a variety of consumer desires. And advances in formulation and processing are allowing for flavorful, upscale creations that quickly become repeat purchases. Selecting the right ingredients in formats best suited for a specific application is key, and anything lending a health halo to the product will provide additional appeal.

Food & Beverage Insider’s “Frozen ready-to-eat foods” Deep Dive recently examined this booming category including trending ingredients, formulation challenges and solutions and future growth projections.

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