Prepared dinners: Oven meals challenge microwave

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Betty Crocker has been helping people make a great meal for 31 years and all but claiming full ownership of the dry dinner mixes category in the process, but now Helper parent General Mills may have to become a little more helpful.

In the last few years, major food marketers like Kraft Foods, Campbell Soup Co., and Unilever Bestfoods have entered dry dinner mixes with their own convenient meal offerings, making the category one of the fastest growing in the supermarket aisle, achieving 17% growth in dollar sales in 2001, according to Information Resources Inc. In the process, they have knocked General Mills' category share from 72.2% in 2000 to 58.7% for the year ended April 21, 2002, according to sales data from IRI.

ConAgra Foods' shelf-stable Banquet Homestyle Bakes meal kits are turning up the heat even more. In just under a year, the brand has grown to $102 million in sales, and commandeered 16.8% of the category, according to IRI. It's the only player in the category with meat, says Tim McMahon, VP-marketing and communications for ConAgra. "We make the concept of preparing a fresh hot meal a little easier on the head, cutting out the step of looking for a cut of meat and offering a good, quality protein inside the product. That was the eureka for us."

Accentuating its point of difference, ConAgra will add 10% more meat in September. It has sparked the highest repeat purchase rate in five years according to IRI.

MEAT VS. MEATLESS

The competition has not come out with its own meat-filled offerings despite Homestyle's home run. Betty Crocker Hamburger Helper will counter this year by introducing four Mexican varieties, Cheesy Enchildada and Beef Taco among them, co-branded with the Old El Paso seasonings that came with General Mills' acquisition of Pillsbury Co. "At this point, we don't have anything planned for the Helper line with meat in it," says a General Mills spokeswoman.

Kraft, its share in the category resting at 8.9% last April, down from 12.6% in 2000, "continues to focus and leverage the [Stove Top Oven Classics] line without meat," a spokeswoman says. This year it will add three new entrees, including a Soft Taco Bake, its first Mexican item and the first to require consumers to add beef rather than chicken.

Campbell Supper Bakes, unveiled last year, is gaining Southwest Chicken with Rice and Cheesy Chicken, sauces in an easy-open can. "At the end of the day, we think you end up with a much more high-quality meal than with other varieties," a Campbell spokesman says.

For its part, Unilever recently shifted its large-scale ($17 million) ad spending, away from Sizzle & Stir to its far larger Lipton side dish line, in the process shelving the Sizzle & Stir campaign. The brand has withered, dropping 24% to $25 million in sales for the year ended April 21, according to IRI.

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