The UK has the largest ready meals market in Europe, according to the latest research from Mintel. In 2002, the UK accounted for some 42% of total value sales, way ahead of the French market in second place with 21% followed by Germany (20%), Italy (9%), and Spain (7%).

Mintel said that not only are British consumers more likely to eat ready meals, with over three quarters of British housewives having served ready meals compared to a third of Italians, they are also much more likely than their European counterparts to do so more frequently. Some 30% of the adult British population eat ready meals more than once a week compared to just 16% of the French.

British set to keep the lead

Changing lifestyles means changing habits, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the way eating habits have and continue to change. New working and family patterns, with fragmented family meals and an emphasis on eating out, snacking and lighter meals have also increased families’ reliance on convenience foods.

Ready meals represent the ultimate convenience food, requiring no preparation, and delivering a full meal once heated. This factor prompted strong growth in the market during the 1980s and 1990s, and between 1998 and 2002, sales of ready meals in the five major European markets rose 29%, from €5.4bn to €7bn (US$7.6bn).

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Demand for convenience is more pronounced in the UK than anywhere else in Europe with some 80% of the population owning a microwave compared to only 27% of the Italians.

Mintel’s consumer research reveals that British housewives lead by a long way in the ready meal stakes with some 77% of them having recourse to ready meals. This compares to 71% in Germany, 68% in France, down to 46% in Spain and as low as 35% in Italy.

Ready meals are much more likely to be eaten by younger consumers, but usage is relatively broad, with only the oldest consumers showing lower usage. Consumption is at its strongest among consumers in the highest income bands and is markedly above average in households with children and among working consumers.

“This supports the industry view of consumption patterns – younger and middle-aged consumers are the most likely to experience time pressures resulting from trying to balance home and work,” Anne Bourgeois, European Consumer Goods Consultant, said.

More than just convenience

While convenience has been a major growth factor, manufacturers have encouraged ready meals uptake by exploiting other current trends, such as the burgeoning interest in ethnic cuisine, the trend towards a healthier diet and the high media profile currently enjoyed by cookery and by celebrity chefs, several of whom have lent their names to ready meal recipe ranges.

“As the market has become more diverse and more sophisticated, purchasing decisions are no longer based primarily on convenience, but take into account a wide range of other factors including the price to value equation, cooking method, portion size, authenticity of flavour, perceived health issues, quality of ingredients, and packaging and product design” commented Bourgeois.

Premium lines boost sales

Total retail sales of ready meals in the UK were valued at some €2.9bn at current prices in 2002, a rise of 44% on 1998. Virtually unknown at the beginning of the 1990s, chilled ready meals are today dominating value sales. Between 1997 and 2001, sales of chilled ready meals rose by 90% at current prices, while the value of the ambient sector rose by just 32% and that of the frozen ready meals sector by just under 14%.

“In the UK, the ready meal has undergone a change of image from being deemed as unhealthy, lazy food to being repositioned as a premium, indulgent option, and retailers have further enhanced the image of chilled meals by using premium packaging and premium positioning”, said Bourgeois.

Frozen and ambient ready meals fare better on the Continent where there is a very strong market for canned ready meals, with a variety of traditional stews and meal centres being sold in this format.

Ethnic recipes tempt adventurous British taste buds

Ethnic meals, such as Indian, Chinese and other Asian recipes, now account for more than 40% of the chilled ready meals sector, and international cuisines claim almost 50% of frozen ready meals. The increasing visibility of ethnic recipes has helped to attract new consumers to the market, attracted by the possibility of enjoying meals often otherwise bought at takeaways and in ethnic restaurants.

“The traditionally insular British are becoming ever more cosmopolitan, a trend initiated by the spread of cheaper air travel and the democratisation of foreign holidays, and reflected in the wide range of ethnic restaurants mushrooming in high streets across the land” commented Bourgeois.

Mintel’s consumer research shows that some 55% of the adult population claim to enjoy eating foreign foods, rising to 57% of ready meal users, thus highlighting the potential for sales of all ethnic foods in the UK.

Apart from France, where some 58% of the population claim to enjoy eating foreign foods, European consumers appear a lot more conservative. German consumers need to be encouraged to try new food products, with four in ten enjoying foreign foods. This is even more the case with the Italians and the Spaniards, where only some 23% and 19% have developed a taste for foreign foods.