Cool economy heats up microwavable meal sales


With consumers looking to save money by eating dinner at home or grabbing lunch at their desks, sales of microwavable meals are expected to grow. The downturn in the economy already has had an impact on how frequently consumers are visiting restaurants for dinner.

A recent poll by NPD Group found that nearly 12 percent of lunchtime meals were brought from home last year, up from 11.3 percent in 2007, and an all-time high since 2001. Those polled said cost saving was their primary motivation for packing their lunch.

Packaged meals that can be easily prepared and eaten in their containers are especially appealing to office workers looking to grab a quick, inexpensive lunch.

Dollar sales of microwavable package dinners increased more than 22 percent in supermarkets, drug stores and mass outlets (excluding Wal-Mart) for the 52 weeks ended Aug. 10, according to Information Resources Inc.

IRI data showed Hormel Foods Hormel Compleats in the lead, with a 36 percent dollar-share of the category.

Competitors are positioning their brands as healthful choices as well. Hormel recently extended Hormel Compleats to include six healthful SKUs that contain fewer than 320 calories and less than 10 grams of fat. Compleats healthy line, which is branded with green packaging to set it apart from the rest of the line, will hit store shelves in spring 2009.

Hormel Foods, which was included on Information Resources 2007-2008 New Product Pacesetters Rising Stars list of projected top 10 food and beverage brands, has tripled in sales in the past three years making it the fastest-growing product in the company’s grocery division.

General Mills also is beefing up its quick-meal offerings with premium line extensions to its Bowl Appetit! brand and additions to its Hamburger Helper Microwave Singles brand.

Ramen noodles also are a key segment in the quick-lunch category. IRI data show dollar sales ahead 8 percent for the 52 weeks ended Aug. 10, in all three channels with Maruchan in the lead, with double-digit dollar sales increases on its ramen noodles.

The drug channel, which has significant lunch hour foot traffic, has done very well with these categories. “In the last few years, we’ve seen the number of items on drug store shelves jump from two to six, on average,” said Brett Asay, product manager of Hormel Compleats.

The drug channel has been very promotional in the category, often running deals on multiple purchases. CVS recently used an endcap to feature a Simply Asia’s rice noodle soup bowl variety four-pack priced for $3.99.

Safeway is heavily promoting noodle lunches, including Nissin Souper Meals, Chow Mein and Chow Pasta products at four for $5, while Maruchan Yakisoba Japanese-style noodles were priced five for $5. Maruchan six-pack instant noodle lunches were being promoted at two for $6.

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