A. Elizabeth Sloan

Getting Fresh
Next to “free,” “fresh” has long been the most important food product attribute. A “fresh” label claim on food labels is extremely/very important for two-thirds of shoppers, according to HealthFocus. “Guaranteed to be fresh or you get your money back” tops the list of reasons 51% of consumers would purchase more at in-store delis, reports the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association. Fresh, high-quality fruits/vegetables and meats rank second and third (a clean neat store ranks first) in selecting a primary supermarket—all above low prices; use-by and sell-by freshness dates rank seventh. And the future looks good. Fresh, mentioned by 74% of respondents, tops the list of food selection criteria most important to those age 15–18, reports Buzzback Research.

Not surprisingly, categories that are inherently fresh are enjoying brisk sales. AC Nielsen reports that sales of fresh packaged meats grew three times faster than total grocery sales in 2003, with every meat category recording dollar sales gains. Fresh-cut packaged salad sales jumped to $3.1 billion in supermarkets alone, while the fresh produce category—plagued by several years of declining sales—grew from $39 billion in 2002 to $40.4 billion in 2003. With per-capita consumption of fruits rising by 4 servings to 132.6 servings/year last year and consumption of vegetables by 2.2 servings to 134.8, according to the NPD Group, the future looks better even brighter.

At the same time, consumers are selecting more refrigerated options. Refrigerated meat entrees were up 23% in sales last year, according to AC Nielsen. Store-branded fresh, refrigerated, and prepared ready-to-cook family meals and entrees—from fresh salmon topped with dilled butter to stuffed, ready-to-bake chicken cordon bleu—are drawing customers in droves to club stores like Costco and Sam’s Club, and to local supermarkets, too.

Refrigerated salad dressing—up 16.5% last year—was the second-fastest-growing supermarket category, according to Information Resources, Inc. Marie’s Chunky Feta Cheese and Jalapeño Ranch are two new refrigerated dressings that also fit into the fast-growing refrigerated dip segment. Of the fastest-growing categories, salad toppings ranked 9th (up 11.9%), refrigerated meat/poultry 10th (up 11.8%), refrigerated baked goods 12th (up 10.0%), and refrigerated seafood 13th (up 9.8%).

Refrigerated side dishes—such as Fairfield Farm Kitchens’ Moosewood Organic Macaroni and Three cheeses—climbed 9.2%, breakfast meats 7.1%, and refrigerated pickles/relish 1.0%. Refrigerated soy milks jumped 22.1% and refrigerated milkshakes and nondairy drinks 34%. Refrigerated fresh soups such as Stockpots’ Fresh from Italia line which includes upscale items like Bada Bing Bolognese Soup with Italian Sausage & Dry White Wine, are fast gaining in popularity. Fresh refrigerated salads, such as Sandridge Food Corp.’s Artichokes & Pasta with Pesto Salad, are another explosive segment.

Shoppers are also turning to in-store delis—whose use was up 3% last year—for fresh options of traditionally frozen foods, especially salads and appetizers, such as Schwan Food Services’ new Zing’s Salsa Verde Chicken Mini Egg Rollz™ with Cucumber-Avocado Relish Chipotle Salsa.

And restaurants are no exception. “Eat fresh” has kept Subway near the top of the fastest-growing restaurant chain list for the past several years. The fast–casual segment, led by McDonald’s Chipotle Grill and Baja Fresh—where fresh customized foods are quickly assembled in front of consumers—has long been the fastest-growing restaurant segment.

Among the fastest-growing new restaurant concepts are Mongolian barbecue chains like HuHots, where diners select from fresh ingredients; P.F. Chang’s Pei Wei, where fresh foods are wok-cooked, and franchises like Cold Stone Creamery, where home-made ice cream is customized with “add-ins” and sold in fresh-baked cones.

But with fewer trips to the grocery store and a growing attitude that perishability isn’t practical for some, the pressure will be on food manufacturers to extend the shelf life of fresh foods even longer with sophisticated controlled-atmosphere packaging, sous vide processing, and other fresh-directed technologies. Among the two-thirds of consumers who are now occasional purchasers of organic, the shelf-life problem is even more pronounced, according to the Hartman Group.

At the same time, consumers are carefully self-monitoring freshness. The percentage of shoppers who regularly check freshness dates jumped from 89% in 2003 to 95% in 2004, according to the Food Marketing Institute. Eight in 10 say they make sure their food is fresh as a mean of ensuring food safety. Those age 18–24 years index the highest for using freshness as a barometer of food safety, closely followed by those 24–35. Perhaps most important, consumers are increasingly inclined to accept technologies that keep their foods fresh and safe. In 2004, FMI reported that 48% are very or somewhat likely to buy irradiated food, such as poultry, pork, beef, or strawberries.

Contributing Editor
President, Sloan Trends & Solutions, Inc.
Escondido, Calif.
[email protected]