Frozen Food in France – Positive Perception Can Spell Growth

While frozen food is sometimes associated with a poor quality image, especially in markets such as the UK, French consumers approach the freezer aisle with a different attitude. In France, many consumers perceive frozen food to be fresh, healthy and of a high quality. This fits in well with consumer attitudes in this health conscious nation, where half state that they are always striving for a healthier lifestyle.

The positive view of frozen food is no doubt boosted by the strong positioning of the French premium frozen food brand, Picard, in the country. In the past five years, Picard has accounted for one fifth of all new frozen food launches, continually maintaining its foothold in the market, and boosting the image of frozen food with its innovative launches. In France, the majority of new product launches in the frozen food market are in the Desserts and Ice Cream, and Meals and Meal Centres categories, which together accounted for more than half of frozen food launches between 2008 and 2012

Ice cream dominates NPD

In France, the Desserts and Ice Cream category accounts for three in 10 frozen food product launches. The volume of ice cream sold in the country is falling, however, dropping by 2.3% in 2012 compared to 2011, with per capita consumption down 2.6% in the same period. While penetration is high (eight out of 10 adults eat ice cream), there is a significant proportion of light users, who eat in moderation and infrequently. The value of the market is continuing to increase, however, although at a relatively slow growth rate, which reflects how the French prefer to eat less ice cream but of a higher quality. This suggests opportunities to drive more frequent consumption, with NPD activity potentially boosting interest.

Patisserie themed ice-creams

Within the ice cream category in France, the majority of product launches are for new products and new variants. Flavour is central to ice cream choice, and consumers are attracted in particular to new flavours, with 71% of French consumers agreeing that they would like to try new flavours from a brand that they typically buy, and 67% agreeing that they would like to try new or limited edition flavours. The proliferation of dessert category flavours has been a recent trend, as it has in other sweet good sectors, such as confectionery. In recent months in particular, the focus has strengthened on a more specific French dessert/patisserie positioning. For example, La Laitière, a French dessert brand owned by the Nestlé/Lactalis joint venture, has recently leveraged its chilled dessert positioning by focussing on introducing ice creams with a dessert theme.

A raft of recent launches have seen the brand become the most active in terms of new launch activity over the last two years, although it sits behind retailer Picard, which is the dominant overall player. One of the products launched under the La Laitière brand in 2013 is a multipack containing two of each Macaroon and Salted Butter Caramel Ice Creams and Crazy Raspberry Ice Creams (Glace Macaron Caramel Beurre Salé et Glace Framboisier), initial sales of which have been promising. Other dessert-themed products within the La Laitière range include Crème Brûlée Flavoured Ice Cream, which contains small nougat pieces, and Speculoos Flavoured Ice Cream, which contains Chantilly flavoured mousse and speculoos biscuit pieces.

Taking the French dessert/patisserie trend further, there are perhaps opportunities to introduce other patisserie variants. For example, following the macaron boom, gourmet éclairs have been noted as a trend in the French market, and there may be ways to incorporate an éclair theme (e.g. éclair pieces) into ice cream. For this, inspiration could be taken from Picard, which offers Chocolate & Ice Cream Choux Buns, in addition to Tarte Tatin Style Ice Cream Cups, Raspberry Macaroon Style Ice Cream Cups, and Vanilla & Red Berry Millefeuilles. Crossing dessert flavours with the emerging alcohol flavour trend, as tiramisu themed products often do, could also be a future direction. Such a move adds to the adult indulgent positioning of ice cream products which many of the biggest brands are focussed around.

Frozen meals account for only a small share

Although Meals and Meal Centres is the second largest category in the frozen food market in France, the frozen meal segment of the overall prepared meals market is in fact the smallest, accounting for just over a quarter of the market when ready meals and pizza are combined. In 2011, frozen meals accounted for less than one fifth of the ready meals market volume in France, while chilled meals accounted for almost a quarter of the volume, and almost two fifths of the market value. The dominance of chilled meals is also reflected in NPD activity, with chilled ready meals accounting for around three in five product launches. However, after falling year-on-year between 2008 and 2011, the number of frozen ready meal launches increased in 2012, with a further boost seen in the first seven months (January to July) of 2013. This suggests that while consumers may still show a preference towards chilled meals, efforts are being made to draw them to frozen meal solutions.

Prepared meals likely to suffer setback

While France is one of the most-developed markets for prepared meals in Europe, the country looks likely to suffer a significant set-back in 2013 in the wake of the horse meat scandal. A recent survey conducted by the British Veterinary Association suggests that as many as a quarter of French meat and ready meal eaters have stopped eating ready meals containing beef, while more than a fifth are avoiding meat-based meals altogether.

This is expected to significantly impact sales of beef lasagne, cannelloni and hachi parmentier (similar to cottage pie) – key minced beef recipes in both chilled and frozen meals. Support for local or regional suppliers is particularly well-developed in France relative to other leading European economies. Prior to the horse meat episode, as many as three in four French consumers of ready meals agreed that they would like to see more of these kinds of products, inviting regional manufacturers to flaunt their local credentials and small-scale, semi-artisanal production techniques.

Following the scandal, promoting small-scale manufacture and the use of local ingredients seems even more important to attract consumers and gain their trust, and this is something that could be explored to broaden usage and acceptance of prepared frozen meals. In practice, it is very difficult for national manufacturers or retailers to incorporate credible notions of small-scale or local production without completely re-working business models that rely on scale to hold down cost. More realistically, companies can look to source more ingredients locally and promote their origin, with specific regional ingredient use a trend that is expected to evolve in ready meals. In the frozen food market, very few ready meal brands currently tap into this trend, although manufacturers could, again, look to take inspiration from Picard, which leads NPD activity in the frozen prepared meals category.

In 2012, the retailer launched Picard Pâtes & Risottos Tagliatelles aux Truffes Blanches d’Été et aux Champignons de Paris (Tagliatelle in a White Summer Truffle and Paris Mushroom Sauce), which combines freshly made egg noodles, cooked in a creamy sauce, with white truffles from the region of Umbria. This is in addition to Picard + d’Équilibre Saint-Jacques Ready Meals Saint-Jacques au Lait de Coco, Légumes et Riz Basmati (Saint Jacques in Coconut Milk with Vegetables & Basmati Rice), which contains nuts from Saint-Jacques, cooked with coconut milk and seasoned with lemon, accompanied by basmati rice and vegetables. Moreover, it will be especially important for manufacturers to be more transparent with consumers in the aftermath of the horse meat scandal in order to re-establish trust. Honesty can be a selling point for ready meals manufacturers, and using high-quality ingredients from named small-scale specialist suppliers goes some way towards achieving this, whilst resonating with the considerable number of French consumers already attuned to these values.

Innovation is needed in pizza toppings

French consumer’s interest in the provenance of food could also be a hook on which to support the development of pizza ranges that emphasise the provenance of the ingredients used. The lack of interesting innovation in the French pizza market in recent years has contributed to the market’s lacklustre performance. In 2010, France accounted for just 9% of pizza launches in Europe, well below Germany, the UK and Italy. Although this has since increased, with France accounting for 15% of European launches in 2012, there is still notable room for improvement. Although penetration of pizza is relatively high at 70%, the vast majority of French consumers are light users, with pizza very much an occasional purchase. The strong preference for preparing meals from scratch and relatively high awareness of calorie intake are inhibiting factors in the development of retail pizza sales in France. However, French consumers are also very interested in new recipes, ethnic food, and in trying new food products, suggesting that pizza producers could find success with more varied pizza toppings and formats, moving away from the common mixed cheese variants. Inspiration could be taken from pizza launches across Europe, which have injected the market with more exotic and interesting toppings in order to attract consumers’ attention.

Opportunities for organic claims

Although the economic recession has slowed down the pace of organic market expansion in France, the country is just behind Germany in total value, with an organic market value of some €3.8 billion in 2012. Sales have risen in all product categories, and are predicted to increase to reach €5.6 billion in 2015. Demand for organic products has been boosted by a growing number of French farmers turning to organic agriculture as a way out of economic recession.

At the beginning of 2010, there were already some 20,600 organic producers in France, representing a 50% increase on 2008, according to BioFrance. Organic is the second most popular claim featured on all food products in France, with the number of products featuring the claim increasing since 2008. In the first seven months of 2013 (January to July) ‘Organic’ has been featured on one fifth of product launches. Despite the proliferation of organic claims across food categories, however, organic has only been featured on between 4-6% of frozen food products since 2010.

This suggests under-use of the claim in the frozen food market, and thus presents considerable opportunities to expand consumer acceptance of frozen food products, giving them a more premium and enticing positioning. This is likely to prove fruitful as only one in 10 French consumers are buying fewer products than previously in order to save money, which suggests that organic is still important to consumers even when spending power may be reduced. More significantly, this is consistent across age ranges, suggesting that organic produce has wide appeal.

Driving frozen food consumption

Looking at the French frozen food market as a whole, and considering French consumers’ positive perceptions of frozen food, there is ample opportunity to further drive consumption of frozen goods; even though the size of some key frozen food segments, such as prepared meals, are relatively small in comparison to their chilled and ambient counterparts. Overall, frozen food manufacturers operating in France should focus on expanding flavour offerings across categories by tapping into key flavour trends, such as ethnic, to make products more exciting and appealing to a wider consumer base. Moreover, utilising provenance, organic and premium claims is likely to resonate well with French consumers, reassuring them that frozen food is high quality, whilst drawing them away from alternatives, particularly in the chilled aisle.