BIG 3 DUKE IT OUT IN FROZEN ENTREES

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CHICAGO-It's now the battle of the Big 3 in frozen entrees.

With H.J. Heinz Co.'s agreement last year to buy the All American Gourmet Co. from Kraft General Foods, three marketers-Nestle Frozen Food Co., ConAgra and Heinz-controlled a hefty 60.3% of the $3.2 billion frozen entree market for the 52 weeks ended Nov. 12.

Nestle was solidly in first place with the Stouffer's and Lean Cuisine brands and 27.8%, up from 27.4% a year earlier. ConAgra was also on the rise, with its Healthy Choice, Banquet and Marie Callender lines commanding a 16.2% share, up from 14.4%. A 41.3% gain in dollar sales propelled Marie Callender into ninth place, up from 13th.

Nestle continued Lean Cuisine's upward momentum last summer with the addition of Cafe Classics. The nine-item line with a suggested retail price of $2.69 each aims to carve a niche for itself at the higher-price end of the freezer case.

Conversely, the share of Heinz's top brands, Budget Gourmet and Weight Watchers, fell to 15.3% from 18.2%, due in large part to a 21.5% decline in dollar sales by the Weight Watchers line. The falloff came in spite of a major Weight Watchers campaign last year starring TV newswoman Kathleen Sullivan. The company last summer cut entree prices 10% to 15% to try to end the decline.

Budget Gourmet managed to improve its dollar sales slightly on a 1993 revamp that cut prices about 15% and targeted younger consumers. However, the brand still lost 0.5 market share points compared with a year earlier.

The comer of the brands not part of the Big 3 is Michelina, the 5-year-old line from Luigino's Ltd., owned by Jeno Paulucci. The line, named for the former pizza king's mother, was developed to thrive totally on price rather than advertising, though the brand has received heavy promotions in supermarkets.

However, Mr. Paulucci recently teamed up with Freberg Ltd., Los Angeles, for a series of radio spots for the line. Mr. Paulucci and Stan Freberg were the forces behind the successful 1970s Chun King and Jeno's pizza rolls campaigns.

Chef America's Hot Pockets and Lean Pockets are keeping the heat on. Both experienced a greater rate of growth than the category as a whole. Together, the sandwich lines control more than 50% of the market. Hormel Quick Meal passed Red Baron for fourth-place honors.

There was a chill among the top three brands. While Kellogg Co.'s Eggo, Quaker Oats Co.'s Aunt Jemima and Pet Inc.'s Downyflake all declined in dollar sales, none saw market share suffer appreciably. Campbell Soup Co.'s Swanson had the biggest percentage gain.

McCain Foods in 1994 struggled over who should be the family-owned business' CEO. But internal problems didn't hurt frozen potato sales. The McCain brand rose from fifth to third with a 34.7% sales gain. H.J. Heinz Co.'s Ore-Ida remained in the catbird's seat as category leader.

ConAgra is in command. The marketer's Healthy Choice and Banquet swapped second and third places, and Marie Callender more than doubled its share, moving up to No. 8. No. 1 Swanson, owned by Campbell Soup Co., managed to pick up 2.3 share points itself.

The acquisition of Jack's solidifies Kraft Foods' No. 1 position. The budget-price line rose a notch in the rankings, while share for Kraft's Tombstone was static. Tony's, owned by Schwan's Sales Enterprises, lagged the industry in growth but managed to hold on to the runner-up spot.

Fish may be brain food, but consumers just aren't buying frozen fish products the way they once did. The leaders, Pet Inc.'s Van De Kamp's and General Mills' Groton's, actually managed to increase share simply by recording sales declines that weren't as big as the rest of the category.

Pillsbury Co.'s Green Giant made some inroads against private label, due in part to the popular "rush hour" recipes print campaign. Green Giant scored a healthy 10.4% gain in sales while private label fell 1.7%. Hanover Foods Corp. was another bright spot, with sales up 22.5%.

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