While the U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend five servings (2½ cups) of vegetables per day, the average consumer gets only 3.7 servings. Ask them why and they'll say other foods taste better and are easier to prepare and eat.
In their early history, frozen vegetables were considered luxury items. Birds Eye, the first manufacturer of frozen vegetables, in the 1940s and ‘50s targeted women in upper-middle-income households with frozen products that were "grander than the grandest" and the "work-free-est," so they could relax and read a book while the pre-cleaned, pre-cut vegetables practically cooked themselves.
In the intervening years, frozen vegetables, like their canned counterparts, became commodity items. Now Birds Eye wants to move them upscale again with Steamand Serve Vegetables, offered in six different blends that include nuts and other unique ingredients (for this review we focus on Spring Vegetables in Citrus Sauce).
The brand is maintaining the ease of preparation and arguably better nutrition, adding gourmet flavors and ingredients and packaging them in a relatively new steamable tray. The real benefits are greater convenience (cook in the package - no prep, no mess, no clean up) and fresher vegetables steamed to the right level of crispness with a gourmet sauce that announces you know good food.
Understanding the marketplace
World trade has brought us fresh fruits and vegetables in all seasons from growing locations all over the world. Imports were valued at $12.7 billion in 2004, according to USDA. So the challenge for frozen vegetable processors was to prove their products' superiority in some way.
Packaging is one source of superiority. Fresh vegetables have a short shelf life, but canned or frozen vegetables can be kept for months.
A 1956 study by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation found frozen vegetables were nutritionally superior to canned veggies, asserting frozen vegetables had higher levels of thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin A, vitamin C and niacin. More recently (2002), the American Institute for Cancer Research provided ammunition that frozen may be better than fresh, or at least imports. Researchers found that shipping and long storage diminishes nutrients, especially vitamin C, in fresh produce. Frozen vegetables are processed within hours of picking and so may retain more vitamin A, C and fiber.
Some numbers for the retailer and manufacturer ton consider: Only 48 percent of all store SKU's are profitable, according to Willard Bishop Consulting's 2005 Grocery Super Study. Fully 60 percent of frozen SKUs turn a profit, while produce produces only 17 percent of the store profit. But 49 percent of consumers perceive private label frozen vegetables as equal to or better than the national brand, according to some studies. That's a tough perception to overcome, especially with this pricey a product.
So while frozen vegetables clearly have profit potential, high-end branded products must have something that makes consumers want to pay more than a commodity price for them.
Frozen vegetables experienced 4.5 percent growth from 2004 to 2005 with an overall market size of $3 billion. Key growth areas include breaded vegetables, vegetables in sauce and onion rings. The market size of mixed vegetables is $400 million with a growth rate of 1.5 percent, while vegetables in sauce is growing at 5.6 percent from $250 million.
The big drivers of change in the category are the shift from plain vegetables to prepared vegetables (crumbs or with sauces) and newer packaging, including resealable and steamable. Although steamable packaging has been available in Europe and Asia for years, the first U.S. version hit the shelves about a year ago at H.E.Butt grocery stores, where it was offered under the HEB Steamables private label. Boiling vegetables causes up to a 30 percent loss of nutrients, but steaming retains nutrients and is easier and faster.
At retail in the frozen vegetable category, consumers see Green Giant, Birds Eye and other brands. Per capita consumption of fresh vegetables is 147 lbs., consumption of canned vegetables is 100 lbs. per person and per capita consumption of frozen vegetable is 79 lbs., according to 2004 USDA/Economic Research Service data. Fresh consumption has increased 3 lbs. per capita since 2002, while canned decreased by 1 lb. and frozen sales were flat. Clearly, frozen needs some excitement. And consumers are looking for more sauces and unique items in their foods.
Birds Eye is trying to meet the needs of the consumer for the 75 percent of meals that are eaten at home. The company is seeking to shift the paradigm for frozen vegetable convenience from one of access to nutritious vegetables at any time of the year to nutrition plus ease of preparation and cleanup.
Birds Eye also is addressing the issue of freshness. This is a complex idea because it involves consumer perceptions of what is fresh and how does it link to value and shelf life. Can a frozen food be fresh?
From our own Healthy You! research, we find the key attributes for frozen meal products in ranked order are: taste, price, portion size, product appearance and calories. These attributes can easily lead to a commodity perception, since price is the second most important attribute. Consumers, when asked to trade off a variety of ideas, are looking for: indulgent flavor; zesty flavor; traditional home-style; crunchy vegetables; moist vegetables; branded; and all natural…no artificial flavors or preservatives.
Key ideas that can impact the category are convenience, flavor and healthfulness.
Convenience: Manufacturers are responding to consumers' hectic lifestyles by creating packaging that assists convenience. Being able to cook in the plastic tray and not use cooking pots allows the consumer to have less mess and less cleanup.
Flavors: Adding seasonings and sauces to frozen vegetables saves the step of seasoning and reduces the number of items in the home pantry. This also gives meal prepares not only the appearance of knowing how to cook but a gourmet image. The flavors and sauces also fit with growth trends in the category; plain vegetables are down 1 percent, mixed vegetables are up 1.5 percent and vegetables in sauces are up 5.6 percent in sales.
Healthfulness: Vegetables have both the halo of health and reality of health. Fruits and vegetables are vigorously promoted because they offer a wide array of health benefits. They are leading sources of several essential nutrients, such as vitamins A and C and iron. In addition, diets rich in fruits and vegetables are associated with a decreased risk of several chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers. Most fruits and vegetables are also naturally low in calories, although their value in weight-control efforts may depend on how these foods are prepared.
Birds Eye Steam and Serve Spring Vegetables in Citrus Sauce is available in a 10-oz. (2½ servings) tray for $2.69-2.99. On average, low-income households spent $3.59 per week on fruits and vegetables in 2000, while higher-income households spent $5.02, according to USDA/ERS data. So this price point is asking a lot.
The label has the Birds Eye logo on the front with a very large beauty shot of the vegetables: "carrots, asparagus, sugar snap peas and red peppers with zesty cilantro and lime." Steam and Serve is the brand, and an image in the lower left says "steam cooks in the microwave." At the bottom, the package proclaims: "steams to perfection in under 6 minutes."
The key to preparation, of course, is steaming. Steaming in other categories is all about fresh and healthfulness. This is a technology that consumers inherently perceive as healthy. The package was easy to microwave. No piercing was required, and the lift-off tab on the plastic overwrap was large enough to get the wrapper off.
Appearance, aroma, flavor and texture are critical to the perceptions of quality and freshness of vegetables. This product initially surprises. The texture is of fresh vegetables. They are crunchy, not mushy. The taste is strongly of the sauce of butter and lime. The perception of ease of cooking (no preparation, microwave cooking, no cleanup) is apparent.
For anyone who has had mushy, overcooked vegetables, this is a godsend - especially as consumers are becoming less aware of how to cook vegetables. The pieces of vegetables are good size, and the colors are bright.
Our taste-testers said the vegetables tasted great. Asparagus is difficult to cook for some, and this is good asparagus - crunchy and tasty. However, some felt this was like airplane food. Some testers wanted less of a mixture and more plain vegetables - but this is more an issue of personal preferences. For our vegetable gourmets, the product was no big deal - they could make it better themselves. For the rest/most of us, this was a very easy way to cook quality, delicious vegetables.
Does the product deliver?
Birds Eye is a brand has focused on making vegetables "an inspiration on your plate and in your life." The vegetables and sauce are chef-inspired. They deliver consistent cooked quality and sauces. The flavor is premium, as is the texture.
How to make the idea bigger? Maybe make it smaller. The package is 2.5 servings per container. Birds Eye could market this as an easy, warm snack that could get consumers (especially kids after school) to eat more vegetables. This would require a smaller package and consumers' acceptance of cooked vegetables as a snack. But we see the possibility.
Other opportunities are to bundle these with prepared meats so the meal is simple and complete. These other prepared meats must also cook in their (separate) containers so there is no prep, cooking is simple and cleanup involves just throwing away the packages. The creativity is in the presentation. This begins to compete on the level with restaurant take-home food.
The container is a size that, after cooking the vegetables, can also be the serving unit. It's also big enough that you could add rice (which might also be cooked in its microwave stand-up bag).
Rating: Birds Eye Steam and Serve Spring Vegetables in Citrus Sauce does deliver on taste and texture. This is a product space that few have been to.
Market Potential: Great! Great for the busy consumer, great way to get your vegetables.
About the Authors
Hollis Ashman ([email protected]) is chief strategist and Jacqueline Beckley ([email protected]) is president of the Understanding and Insight Group, a strategy, business and product development firm. See www.theuandigroup.com.