When the COVID-19 pandemic put Americans' dining-out routines on ice, U.S. consumers turned for meal and snack help to the frozen-foods aisle.
The "Power of Frozen 2021" report, released Feb. 18 by FMI—the Food Industry Association and the American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI) details frozen foods' strong performance in 2020, with sales of frozen items climbing 21% in dollars and 13.3% in units year over year.
"Less mobility (for consumers) ... favors frozen foods like no other department," Anne-Marie Roerink, president of 210 Analytics, said in an online presentation of the report's findings at AFFI-CON, AFFI's annual conference. Within the frozen category, seafood (up 35.3%), poultry (up 34.7%) and appetizers (up 28.9%) were top performers in terms of dollar growth in 2020. But "every frozen department drove growth," Roerink noted.
"The frozen food aisle has been a growth driver for retailers since 2016, with acceleration ahead of most other departments,” AFFI President and CEO Alison Bodor said in a news release about the report. And as more consumers worked from home and schools moved to remote and hybrid learning, frozen foods across dayparts saw sales climb, with frozen snacks and breakfast items contributing to the category's overall growth for the year.
Now, nearly a year into the pandemic, consumers are "looking for meal plans, culinary creativity and convenient, cost-effective solutions," FMI VP of industry relations Doug Baker said. Frozen foods meet those needs, he said. Further, the flexibility of frozen options ranging from chopped fruits and vegetables to special-diet-friendly sides (e.g., riced cauliflower blends for those following low-carb diets) and complete meals can lend welcome simplicity to meal-planning and prep, Baker and Bodor indicated.
For consumers ordering groceries online, frozen foods can offer some consistency and quality assurance—attributes that aren't guaranteed when they entrust a shopper to pick out fresh items, and fresh produce in particular. And many consumers incorporate both fresh and frozen items into their meal preparation, Bodor said. "Mixing fresh and frozen in the same meal is a tell-tale trait of our core frozen food consumers," she noted.
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In the past year, 42% of consumers who buy frozen foods have ordered frozen foods online, up from 23% in 2018, according to the report.
Additional data released this week from IRI suggests a strong start to 2021 for frozen, as well: Frozen-food sales were up 19.4% in dollars in January year over year, compared with growth of 11.4% for fresh perimeter foods and 12.7% for all edibles.
In January, dollar sales growth outpaced unit sales growth in all frozen categories. Notably, volume sales growth also exceeded unit sales growth in several categories, including frozen pizza, snacks, and dinners/entrees, suggesting consumers were trading up to larger or multipack SKUs, IRI noted.
Frozen seafood continued its hot streak in January, posting year-over-year dollar gains of 38.6%, beating the 32.4% growth frozen seafood recorded for the fourth quarter of 2020. While growth in many frozen categories was moderated from the highs seen last spring and summer, some frozen items picked up the pace from their performance at the end of 2020: In addition to frozen seafood, frozen snacks and frozen beverages in January also beat their fourth-quarter 2020 growth.