Center Store

Frozen Still Tops Three Months Into Pandemic

Sales up but selection still spotty
Photograph: Shutterstock

Thirteen weeks of high double-digit sales gains is the net result for frozen food amid the pandemic to date. With restaurants reopening, the competition for the food dollar is heating up, but thus far, grocery sales remain far above prior year levels and frozen food sales along with it. 210 Analytics, IRI and the American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI) partnered to understand how retail sales for frozen foods are developing throughout the pandemic as the total food demand landscape continues to change from week to week.

Three months into the pandemic, shopping and spending patterns remain very different. Total store sales sat about 10% over last year’s levels during the week ending June 7, which is slightly below the 13.7% gains in center-store edibles. Driven by continued high gains in meat and produce, but deep declines in deli and bakery, the fresh perimeter gained 11.2%. That means fresh foods did outperform total store but fell behind both center store and frozen foods. With a 20.4% gain for the week of June 7 compared with the same week in 2019, frozen foods were once more a sales leader.

Dollar Growth vs. Comparable Week in 2019

Source: IRI, total U.S., multioutlet, one week percent growth vs. year ago

Frozen foods generated nearly $1.3 billion in sales the week of June 7—$215 million more than the comparable week in 2019. The dollar gains were achieved with many fewer items in the aisles. Supply chain issues combined with the highly elevated consumer demand drove continued limited assortment at some stores.

On the Retail Feedback Group’s Constant Customer Feedback (CCF) program, a shopper wrote, “There were several individual items out-of-stock this trip, but frozen vegetables have been the most consistent product that is rarely in stock. My children are getting tired of eating broccoli spears and spinach, which always seems to be in stock.” Another said, “Out of stock on frozen diced onions, the frozen pepper and onion mix, and other frozen vegetables. What is the story with having hardly any frozen vegetables at all?”

IRI’s measure reflecting assortment variety shows the average number of frozen food items available per store has been down for weeks. While the average saw a small uptick to 1,344 during the week of June 7, from 1,340 the week prior, the difference in item availability compares with last year actually declined.

Assortment variety was down 7.7% for the week ending June 7 vs. the same week in 2019. This reflects 112 fewer items on average than the same week a year ago—the first time the average is off by more than 100 items since the onset of the pandemic.

Some of the hardest-hit areas included the following, with assortment levels down from the prior week for most:

  • Frozen pizza: -19.8%
  • Frozen fruit: -9.5%
  • Prepared vegetables: -15.9%
  • Frozen entrees: -13.4%
  • Plain vegetables: -9.6%
  • Processed poultry: -8.5%

One of the very few areas with an increase in the average number of items per store was frozen meat (up 1.9%). Frozen seafood, on the other hand, saw its lowest assortment levels since the onset of the pandemic. The average number of items per store selling was down 5% the week of June 7.

Supply chain issues are also felt in inflationary pressure in several categories, including meat. While volume sales measures are not available for all areas, several subcategories show a gap between dollar gains and volume gains, pointing to price increases. For meat, dollars tracked 15 percentage points ahead of volume, signaling significant price increases. All frozen food areas had higher dollar than volume gains during the week of June 7 vs. the same week in 2019.

A Deep-Dive Into Frozen Food Sales

The week of June 7 brought double-digit increases vs. the same week a year ago for all areas, with the exception of prepared vegetables that actually lost some ground. Frozen meals regained their position as the top sales category, representing just shy of 33% of dollar sales, followed closely by animal protein, at 32% of total dollars. Frozen seafood was once more the leader in percentage gains, with another terrific performance, at 45.9% vs. a year ago.

 

Dollar Sales Percent Change vs. Comparable Week in 2019
Category3/13/8-3/294/5-4/265/35/105/175/245/316/7
Frozen department (excluding poultry)2.6%52%37%36%35%31%30%27%20.4%
Frozen meals-3%53%28%20%19%18%20%18%10.4%
•Breakfast food1%44%30%22%21%24%27%21%13.5%
•Dinners/entrees-3%44%16%12%12%12%15%13%6.6%
•Pizza-2%79%53%35%31%28%26%24%16%
Frozen meat/poultry/seafood8%65%48%60%59%51%48%42%33.5%
•Processed poultry4%75%48%50%51%45%47%42%31.6%
•Meat11%91%57%61%62%48%38%30%29.3%
•Seafood17%46%46%66%65%61%63%56%45.9%
Frozen desserts2%28%32%35%30%25%21%21%18.3%
•Ice cream/sherbet-0.2%30%35%34%29%25%21%19%16.3%
•Novelties6%28%31%35%30%24%20%23%19.3%
•Desserts/toppings0.2%23%18%43%37%34%25%29%29.9%
Frozen fruits and vegetables4%67%44%43%39%35%34%29%22.3%
•Fruit10%64%46%53%48%48%46%42%36.5%
•Potatoes/onions3%67%56%54%49%44%42%37%30.2%
•Plain vegetables5%72%38%34%31%24%25%19%12.6%
•Prepared vegetables-13%35%12%9%6%4%5%2%-8.1%
Frozen baked goods-1%46%32%46%40%39%37%31%22.9%
Frozen snacks1%67%60%48%47%48%47%39%27.1%
•Appetizers/snack rolls1%67%60%48%47%48%47%39%27%
Frozen beverages2%80%58%49%55%49%38%36%35.7%
•Juices2%80%58%50%55%49%38%36%35.7%

Source: IRI, total U.S., multioutlet, one-week view percent change vs. year ago.

What’s Next?

Frozen foods have experienced three months of double-digit gains. Restaurants are reopening and competition for the food dollar will heat up further over the next few weeks and months. Thus far, retail sales have only seen a small erosion in gains but nothing that resembles normalization quite yet. Many states have officially started summer vacation, but fewer consumers are traveling, and summer camps in many states are restricted with social distancing measures in place, which will once more alter the demand landscape for next week’s sales review of the second week of June. Additionally, retail and restaurant sales may be affected by shortened store hours due to local curfews, particularly in urban areas. It is likely that demand for frozen foods at retail will continue to track well above 2019 levels for the foreseeable future.

Please recognize and thank the entire food supply chain for all they do to keep supply flowing during these unprecedented times. These sales surges are only possible thanks to the heroic work of the entire food supply chain. 210 Analytics, IRI and AFFI will continue to provide weekly updates as sales trends develop.

Anne-Marie Roerink is principal of 210 Analytics, which specializes in research for the food retailing industry and authors studies in meat, produce, bakery, deli, frozen, confectionery, snacks and retail operations. She can be reached at aroerink@210analytics.com.

Trending

More from our partners