Consumers who fear or loathe cooking, or believe themselves to be too short of time to rustle up a 'proper' meal, and want a simple, convenient way to get food on the table, have been liberated by a rise in the choice and quality of ready meals. Those less lazy, inept or time-pressed embrace cooking from scratch, whether they are driven by financial constraints, celebrity chefs, health concerns or simply enjoy the process. Not everyone sits on one side of the fence all the time; weekends allow more time for culinary adventures, while ready meals can offer a useful stopgap.
TV chefs such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver have been active in promoting simple recipes, using good-quality ingredients, to even the most reluctant cooks. However, Delia Smith recently performed an about-turn with a series and recipe book that encouraged cooking using branded ingredients that require the minimum of preparation.
This complex environment has had a mixed impact on sales of ready meals. Historically, the sector has enjoyed strong growth, although more recently it has stalled. As the obesity debate has gained momentum, shoppers appear to be paying closer attention to their salt, fat and sugar intake. This has had a negative impact on sales of ready meals, many of which have not stood up well to more detailed scrutiny of their ingredients.
In total, the market, which includes both frozen and chilled meals, will be worth £2.1bn in 2008, according to Mintel estimates. For the past three years growth has been static; it fell slightly in 2007, but is showing a slight improvement this year. The trend for price promotions in the sector, especially in the previous two years, has helped buoy volumes, but not value.
Chilled ready meals account for £1.6bn of the market's value, with frozen worth £488m. The latter's value has slid significantly from £684m worth of sales in 2003.
Over the past few years the overall frozen-food sector has lost out as consumers have switched to chilled options. This trend has been mirrored in the ready-meals market. However, a campaign by Birds Eye to promote frozen food has helped change public perceptions and ready-meal sales in the category are expected to grow this year.
Demographic shifts in the population have been good for this sector. There has been, and will continue to be, a rise in one- and two-person households, a core target group for these meals.
But while penetration remains high, the frequency with which such products are bought has fallen off. According to TGI, nearly 70% of consumers use ready meals, but mostly on an occasional basis (two to three times a month or less). It seems that growth is more likely to come from encouraging users to buy more, as opposed to trying to convert non-users.
Even among shoppers happy to buy and eat ready meals, there are competing markets, most notably ready-to-cook products and cooking sauces. They are quick and easy to prepare, but leave enough leeway for consumers to feel some control over the ingredients used and satisfaction at having been involved in the preparation, even if only to a minor degree. Convenience foods such as pizzas have also maintained more steady growth.
Within ready meals, NPD has centred on premium products, healthier options and new cuisine ranges such as Mexican. However, such development is not promoted heavily, mostly because chilled meals are dominated by own-label brands. Frozen meals, which tend to be more brand-oriented, receive a greater level of support.
There are a few niche chilled brands, such as vegetarian range Quorn and kids' brand Annabel Karmel. In spite of this, the tough conditions have meant some frozen-food brands have fallen by the wayside, most recently Patak's, which has withdrawn from the market.
Birds Eye is the leading frozen brand and last year relaunched its whole range with fresh packaging. This year it has responded to the trend for healthier products by introducing its Eat Positive range. Heinz's Weight Watchers brand is well placed in this respect as it has added a premium range, Taste Temptations.
Retailers' shares in this market are generally in line with their share of the total grocery market. Marks & Spencer is the exception, with a disproportionately high share of ready meals. For a long time it dominated the high-end market with ease, but the growth of premium own-labels, such as Sainsbury's Taste the Difference and Tesco Finest, has put its position under pressure. It has responded by focusing on the provenance of ingredients and an active NPD strategy.
Looking forward, by 2013 the ready-meals sector is predicted to be worth £2.3bn, a rise of 12%, according to Mintel. When food inflation is taken into consideration, however, this represents a decline of 3%. Frozen meals are expected to continue to decline sig-nificantly, by 22%, to a value of £381m in five years' time.
Francisco Redruello, senior analyst - packaged food, Euromonitor International
Chilled ready meals retail value sales reached £2.4 bn in 2007, 3% up on the previous year. Frozen ready meals registered a much weaker performance, declining by 7% to £662m.
Competition between chilled and frozen products intensified during 2006 and 2007. Despite Birds Eye's ad campaign to promote frozen food, ready meals in the category continued to lose value share to chilled.
Frozen ready meals suffered from constant price promotions, which undermined any potential growth in value sales that might have been generated by new product launches.
Moreover, consumers continue to perceive frozen ready meals as being less healthy and of poorer quality than their chilled equivalent.
Meanwhile, the latter benefited from a trend toward premium products, which supported strong growth in value sales and further emphasised the differing fortunes of the two sub-sectors.
Products based on traditional British cuisine remained the most popular chilled ready meals in 2007, accounting for a 19% share of value sales, up one percentage point on 2004. This was thanks, in part, to the gastropub phenomenon and the efforts of celebrity chefs to bring traditional British cooking back to the public's attention.
Value share gains were also attributable to the launch of more premium chilled products based on traditional British dishes. Products based on Indian dishes were the second-most popular, followed by products based on Italian cuisine.
The share of traditional British products was even higher in frozen ready meals in 2007 at 30%, followed by Italian-inspired products and then Indian cuisine.