Preparing for the future of meal solutions is no easy task. To take a lead in this dynamic sector, you first have to identify exactly what a meal solution is. Then you have to anticipate, stimulate and learn from (but not overly rely on) both consumers and competitors. While the answers were not handed to them on a plate, delegates at the recent Institute of Grocery Distribution’s conference on Meal Solutions were certainly given something to think about.

One of the hardest tasks for manufactures of meal solutions is to identify the scope of the category and envisage the enormous range of potential products for the market. “Meal solutions” is not a well-defined sector but a hazy design brief, and respondents who take up the challenge can find themselves creating diverse products to appeal to children for their lunch box; the twenty-something executive who’s got five minutes to microwave an evening meal; middle aged couples putting together a dinner party, or a live-alone pensioner who fancies an easy-to-prepare version of a traditional family favourite.

Furthermore, meal solutions can come in a number of forms, and are not easily defined in terms of basic characteristics, explained IGD Programme Manager Anna Dawson. For example, there is no set degree to which the product may be cooked or prepared before it is purchased. Meal solutions can be bought at a variety of Ready to… stages; …Make, Heat, Prepare or Eat. Dawson argues that as manufacturers collaborate across the food industry, these definitions will become even less clearly defined. Food producers will focus less on producing Ready to Prepare foods, or Ready to Heat foods and instead approach the meal solution from the point of view of all its components.

A convenient solution

The concept of the meal solution as it exists today is largely defined by speed, convenience and impulse. Social requirements dictate consumer trends in food choice, as in fashion, and producers have focused on the pace of modern life as the dominant trend. There can be little doubt that in contemporary society the hardworking fast-moving 20- or 30- something is a captive market for manufacturers, however as the categories that define meal solutions merge, the food industry must anticipate other requirements and therefore the future trends which will define every consumer.

Whether compelled to make purchase decisions while mentally stock-taking the basics in the larder, or by following a habitual perusal of the same shelf space, consumers argue they are looking for inspiration and retailers can spoon feed this captive audience by offering bold recipe suggestions for foods many are unsure how to prepare, or tastings of exotic foods many would never otherwise try. Without changing their stock, stores can play an active role in helping consumers make the most out of the products already on offer.

A technique of choice editing can also be employed by stores seeking to make the most out of the meal solutions shopper. If speed is the catchword, stores can help consumers by grouping similar or related products and eliminating the need to traipse through the aisles looking for complementary foodstuffs. Sometimes there can be too much emphasis on providing as many convenient meal options as possible without helping the consumer to select quickly.

Convincing the consumer

If it’s about pre-empting consumer desires, it’s also about convincing the consumer that this is the meal solution they’ve been looking for. Apposite marketing in this case can be a powerful persuader and sales reflect impulse shopping decisions probably more than they reflect the shopper’s discovery of a long sought-after dish. Stores can also assist here by providing a relaxing retail environment that helps the consumer feel important and, importantly, proactive in their food choice.

The Safeway store at St Katherine’s Dock in London is a case in point for this strategy for selling food. The refurbishment of the outlet created a retail area that blurs the boundaries between foodservice and supermarket, an integrated approach that mimics the shift of food away from clearly defined meal categories. Safeway has ploughed resources into creating in store theatre, explains commercial manager David Jeanes, and this atmosphere breeds customer excitement and sales. The store has gone a long way towards changing the attitudes of local consumers concerning what a supermarket should offer, since the St Katherine’s store offers products and meal solutions from a variety of decorative and interactive areas; the colourful fresh pasta and sandwich bar or the stone bake pizza oven and its bell-ringing chef for example.

At each different bar, consumers are confronted with a variety of sensations; particularly sound, sight and smell, but customers are also encouraged to taste the products. Importantly, Jeanes revealed that, rather than detract from the rest of the store and the pre-packed products on display, the bars actually boosted their sales, suggesting that sustaining consumer excitement can have a broad impact on food purchasing habits.

Tailoring to trends

Looking for current social trends is the key to successfully providing meal solutions in the future, according to two colleagues from Corporate Edge, marketing consultant Gareth Pugh and managing director Simon Ratcliffe. Pugh pointed out that while manufactures are creating home meal replacements, they need not copy the format of a traditional home meal. Indeed, many social critics claim the family mealtime no longer exists, and as such the food industry must be prepared to capitalise on the myriad of meal potentials that have opened up for each family member.

The older generations have also been ignored for too long by meal manufacturers. “Growing old gracefully ain’t what it used to be,” grinned Pugh as he posited a growing disparity between a mature body and the mature mind. With medical and dental care as it is, future generations of pensioners can be expected to demand food of a higher quality. They are also more adventurous than it is often assumed. The pensioners of today were among the pioneering curry lovers of the 1960s and 70s, and there is nothing in the rulebook about avoiding ethnic food after a certain age. Manufacturers need simply to tailor the foods to the older palate, while still satisfying the curiosity. 

Consumer enablement

Ratcliffe stresses that “the drive for the new can lead to frustrations”, but it’s about pulling with trends rather than away from them. Among those up-and-coming trends identified by Corporate Edge, the challenge of consumer enablement emerged as the most important. And it was also the most demanding for food manufacturers. This involves manufacturers finding a way to allow the consumer to make a meal his or her own. While speed is still a determining factor in meal production, manufacturers who conveniently remove as much of the preparation chore as possible may be placing the kiss of death on their product.

As society moves away from made-to-measure uniformity in terms of clothing, cars or even interior design, the one-size-fits-all approach to creating meal solutions might prove fatal. Whether it’s down to portion size, the consistency of the gravy or simply whether the carrots are sliced or diced, consumers can be expected to demand more input as they reject the anonymity of the mass market. And there’s the rub, what “fun” bits can manufactures leave for the consumers to do? Which parts of the preparation process will allow for the satisfying freedom of self-expression? It’s a veritable minefield, still waiting for some explosive innovation.

All this is bad news for producers of generic meat pies or lasagne, but for those willing to invest in bespoke meal ideas it could be a blessing. Let’s give consumers a chance to cook up the future of meal solutions themselves.

To view related research reports, please follow the links below:-

Growth Strategies in Meal Solutions

Ready Meals: The International Market