The horsemeat saga hit sales of ready meals but SymphonyIRI’s Tim Eales believes demand for chilled products will bounce back once memories of the contamination fade.

With sales of over GBP2bn in 2012 in the UK and EUR1bn (US$1.3bn) in France, market for ready meals has been a high-growth category driven by the overwhelming need for convenience and value for money in people’s lives. However, eventually even this category experienced a slowdown in its spectacular growth trend – but not just because of the horsemeat scandal. 

We had been seeing signs of a cold wind blowing through the ready meal market even before the horsemeat scandal, with the rising price of packaged groceries had taking its toll by the end of the year.

Consumers are stocking up less and adopting a ‘buy-it-when-I-need-it’ attitude to their supermarket shop. As a result even some of the fastest growing categories are struggling and the horsemeat scandal has merely added to this demise. 

SymphonyIRI has recorded a decline in the sales of frozen ready meals in the UK over the last two years – down from 295 million sold in 2010 to 271m in 2012 (y/e 5th February 2013) whilst the chilled sector grew from 660m to 800m.

By the end of January and into February this year, there was further pressure on the category brought about by the horsemeat scandal, with products removed from shelves. In the three weeks to 2 March, year-on-year sales had dropped by as much as 8%, driven by an 18% fall in frozen ready meals sales and a 6% slide in chilled sales. While chilled volumes were down 7%, frozen volumes matches the drop in sales by value, declining by 18%.

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However we often see with such crises that consumers’ memories tend to fade quickly and old buying patterns often return. Given the longer term decline in frozen ready meals, we are more likely to see chilled ready meals return to growth, although at not quite the rate they enjoyed in the past.

We may also see a change in the marketing strategies of ready meal providers, with an emphasis on the quality and origin of the ingredients. Provenance is certainly playing a part in the changing dynamics of the ready meal market with more shoppers paying attention to where their food comes from. Our latest survey of shoppers across Europe (conducted at the end of 2012) showed on average 74% of shoppers in Europe (65% in the UK) wanted to buy less ready-made food and cook more. 

Research from Mintel also highlights the origin of food which, it says, has risen in importance. Shoppers want to support farmers and they want to be sure of the quality of food even while they search for price savings. 

The impact of major events – like the horsemeat scandal – highlights the importance of deeper analysis of consumer attitudes and shopper behaviour alongside broad analysis of category trends and other FMCG trends from the perspective of the shopper’s basket – after all, it is shoppers’ decisions that ultimately influence the FMCG weather.