Pride and Prejudice and Prepared Salads

The English city of Winchester is renowned for its architecture and for being the place where the celebrated 19th century novelist Jane Austen died. Tour guides in Winchester regularly quote from her works, particularly: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”.

This quote would not be so popular across the Anglo-Saxon world were it not for the fact that it has become a rhetorical device all its own, used to underpin the key point of whomever utters it. Recently, for example, a presenter at a well-known food conference backed up his point on the growth of ready meals in Europe with the following statement: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that the daily diet of a single man in his 20’s/30’s comprises mostly three products: Ready meals, ready meals and ready meals!”

In Euromonitor International’s view, this may be correct to a certain extent. However, ‘the universal truth’ explaining consumer demand for ready meals in Western Europe is slightly more complex.

First of all, let’s look at the data. Retail volume sales of ready meals in Western Europe are projected to rise by 1% in 2012. The growth is not consistent, however, across all categories. Frozen and dried ready meals each stand to decline by 2%, while canned/preserved formats are expected to stagnate. Western European growth will effectively come from chilled ready meals, which will have grown by 3% in retail volume by the end of 2012.

What is driving the growth of chilled formats? Innovation of various types remains crucial. In prepared salads, for instance, manufacturers are combining sauces with different type of fresh-cut fruit and vegetables. Consumers, typically women looking for more explicitly health-conscious ready meals, are happy to pay a premium for such salads offering a wide range of flavours and ingredients. One example is Plateau Apéro, which was first introduced in France by Florette in 2009 and most recently extended in February 2012 with Saveurs de Sud, (Flavour of the South). The new range includes Mediterranean sauces and fresh-cut fruit in different compartments of the same package.

Another trend driving growth of chilled ready meals is the development of ‘hybrid’ lines that offer consumers the possibility to replicate the cooking experience without actually spending the time that it necessarily involves. One key example is UK retailer Morrisons’s Fresh Ideas range. The consumer simply needs to follow a set recipe and the time cost of cooking is below 20 minutes. These meals do not target singletons looking for one-minute cheap alternatives to fast-food. They target consumers who like cooking for themselves or for others, including time-pressed parents, but with little time to cook.

Price remains an issue as well. Dining at home with friends is becoming a tradition in countries where persistent recession and/or economic uncertainty has made eating out at restaurants unaffordable to many. Spain is but one example of this trend. In response, on-line retailer currently offers premium seafood ready meals like Japanese surimi, to be eaten as a dish in its own right with family or friends. The line, available in a 400g format, contains 18 surimi portions and retails at around €12.

Chilled ready meals are thriving in the current recessionary environment because brands have understood the importance of consumer segmentation. Prepared salads are specialising into different types of international cuisine and flavours. Ready meals now offer fresh ingredient combinations that can be cooked quickly and with minimal effort. Larger formats for sharing help to recreate the restaurant experience at home. Manufacturers still regarding ready meals as a cheap meal solution for male singletons coming back home late at night are failing to understand new consumer realities. In contrast, concepts such as ‘specialise and succeed’ are set to become the new truth universally acknowledged by the industry.