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Thirty years of amazing QFF changes, and at least as many more to come!

Thirty Years of Amazing QFF Changes, And at Least as Many More to Come!

It is surely always more cosy to contemplate, in quiet reverie, the years behind than to attempt to predict the harsher realities of the years ahead. In this report I will try to assess how much of the past can offer guidance as to future trends for the frozen food market in the United Kingdom.

It is rather conveniently coincidental that 1989 marks the 30th anniversary of this magazine because 1959 was very memorable for me personally. It was the year when it could be said that I completed my apprenticeship in QFF marketing as general sales manager of Birds Eye Foods, and was invited to join the board of that company as marketing director. It was also the year when I made my first extensive study tour of the North American Frozen food market and looked with considerable awe upon developments over there -- and the great knowledge of the leaders of that market. I devoured as much of the exciting U.S. scene as possible, and this included eating my way through hundreds of products that were new to me. It was on this visit that I was greatly taken with frozen bananas in chocolate. What ever happened to them, or indeed to so many of the other novelties of that time?

In the U.K. 30 years ago most frozen foods were themselves something of a novelty with thousands of consumers trying them for the first time. This despite the contrary advice that they were still reading in the cookery columns of magazines and newspapers. Yes, in 1959 the quick frozen foods industry had to fight against some pretty entrenched views as even the large multiple grocery companies were still very hesitant to invest in suitable shop refrigeration. And that despite the considerable impact made by the introduction in the late '50s of fish fingers, the U.K. version of American fish sticks.

What's in a Name?

If there was ever any evidence needed of the importance of getting the product name correct then that decision to use fingers instead of sticks is an excellent example. About that time too the Birds Eye company first began to sell beefburgers, again after much mind searching as to whether the product should be called hamburgers. Since then the same company has introduced a great variety of meat products including steakburgers and, more recently, PrizeBurgers, which they claim is the "ultimate in burgers." I wonder!

In 1959 most frozen food items were processed in plate freezers. It was really not that easy to sell a so-called convenience item that could be very inconvenient to make table-ready from frozen block form. Spinach was a classic example, and I do not think that this vegetable has ever fully recovered from such an inglorious start -- although today it is available in cubes.

The move to blast freezing and free-flowing product was a really vital development for the image of frozen vegetables and fish fillets, as it ushered in the age of the polybag. In this respect the U.K. industry got ahead of the American market. In fact this change in itself was the main reason why Birds Eye doubled their turnover from 1960-63, instead of by 1966 as was in the company plan.

This terrific increase in consumer acceptance of QFF encouraged the multiple grocers to finally admit that they had been slow to appreciate the growing importance of this form of food presentation. However, this belated decision to invest in zero sales cases had let in the freezer centres, an almost uniquely British development. These centres were primarily responsible for the amazing increase in the purchase of domestic refrigeration and, especially, home freezers. The freezers were usually cheap "coffin" type chests that were not very convenient to use; they were invariably placed in the garage or out-house! And the freezer centres concentrated on the sale of bulk catering packs of inconsistent quality.

Fortunately those centres that survived -- and not many did after the supermarkets began to get behind the sale of QFF -- quite quickly realized that frozen food quality was more essential than sheer convenience. That is another important lesson learned on my first study tour to the U.S.A. when I came across the Birds Eye slogan: "The Top Half of Top Quality." I have preached this attitude ever since.

Over the last three decades there has been a major change in the method of distribution of frozen foods in the U.K. In 1959 there were dozens of small depots, usually equipped with a telephone sales section to supplement the personal calls made by salesmen to the individual shops. These depots received deliveries from larger regional stores often based at the processing factories. Shops received two or three drops a week into their limited zero space, as very few retailers had back-up storage.

Nowadays, with the construction of large "edge of town" superstores, and the advent of own labels, most of the frozen food volume moves from factory to retail store or from factory to wholesale distributor. Birds Eye (which is still the dominant brand in the U.K., but with more like one-fifth of the market rather than the two-thirds it claimed 30 years ago) recently announced that before the end of the year trade contact will be from one telesales operation. This followed word from more large retailers that they will centralize distribution.

All this is quite difficult for an old hand like me to comprehend, but such is the most unbelieveable change in the needs of the trade coupled with the telephonic and electronic administration revolution. Certainly these changes in the distribution pattern have helped some smaller, specialist companies to make an effort to establish a niche in the marketplace, usually with retailer brand production. There is still little room in the sales cases for "limited share" products, but there remain plenty of "me too" items as the grocery multiple buyers all attempt to obtain exclusive production contracts. These same buyers will also drop any item that does not quickly enough earn its keep. Therefore manufacturers must be careful not to build capital or administrative overhead ahead of reasonably assured sales.

Looking at the consumer end of the market one supposes the major change over the years has been the installation of domestic refrigeration, and more recently combined refrigerator-freezers. But the immediate domestic market is developing around the availability of the microwave oven. This has, from necessity, meant a major review of frozen food packaging to take advantage of the convenience of moving the product from the freezer to the oven to the table in the same container. While we are in the early days of this development, it is clear that it is likely to dominate the market in the years ahead. One result will be new opportunities for the imaginative introduction of really convenient, satisfying products across practically the whole range of frozen food sectors. This includes vegetables, fish, meat, confectionery, and hot puddings.

Today's consumers are being encouraged to be much more wary of all processed or packaged products as the result of the recent salmonella and listeria scares. Although frozen foods were not the subject of direct criticism, they do sometimes get confused with refrigerated or cook/chill products. The Government have recently launched "Food Safety," a leaflet advising consumers how to avoid food poisoning in the home. Some 12 million of these tracts are in distribution, but critics still say that a more comprehensive approach is needed to ensure the all-around quality of the food supply.

The manufacturer maintains contact with the consumer through the product, packaging and publicity -- all adding up to brand imagery. Publicity is either bought in media space or encouraged by effective P.R. activity. Certainly contemporary specialist food and cookery columnists do write more favourably about frozen foods than they did 30 years ago and, in many ways, the public's ready acceptance of QFF has influenced these writers rather than the other way around! As for paid advertising since 1959, probably more than three quarters of all space has been bought in support of one brand: Birds Eye. The only other consistent advertisers have been Findus and Ross, with McCain joining in during the '80s mainly in support of their very successful potato products. In fact, frozen chips and other more "novel" potato items represent one of the biggest product innovations in decades, although ready meals or entrees will likely assume this No. 1 innovation role in the years ahead.

It is perhaps difficult to remember that in 1959 commercial TV had only just begun in the U.K. -- and it was in black and white! Then for many years, through the '60s and '70s, food advertising really dominated the television screen. Today financial services are probably the major spender, having taken over from retailers who led in the early '80s. But food retailers very seldom feature frozen food in their TV or press advertising, unlike in the U.S.A. And couponing, which is the feature of so much food advertising in the States, is not commonplace in the U.K. The reason being the resistance of the large grocery retailers who prefer to highlight the favourable pricing of their own labels, which take about a 20% share of the frozen food market. It is possible that this own label share will now stabilise -- but only if the food manufacturers spend appropriately on their brands.

It should also be noted that the availability of satellite TV is likely to affect the media scene considerably in the next 10 years despite the language difficulties in Europe.

So, what will QFFI be reporting on its 40th anniversary? More of the same? The history of the industry suggests this will be so despite all the extraordinary technological advances. Of course, there is this little matter of CFCs to occupy the minds of the refrigeration experts. And if they do not respond, then there are non-frozen extended shelf life products waiting to step into the breech! So I guess there is no room for any complacency. But then there never has been!
COPYRIGHT 1989 E.W. Williams Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:quick frozen food
Author:Webb, Kenneth J.B.
Publication:Quick Frozen Foods International
Date:Jul 1, 1989
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