Penguin Power

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Penguins may not be ready for primetime like certain other highly exposed critters that endorse tacos, soft drinks, beer, and such. But they've earned their keep as the spokesbird of choice for the National Frozen Food Association (NFFA). Every March-the trade group designates it National Frozen Food Month-penguins fan out to grocery stores nationwide, launching in-store promotions designed to warm consumers to frozen dinners, entrees, pizzas, juices, and desserts.

Nationwide, some 47 percent of Americans buy frozen dinners, the largest segment of the $23.7 billion industry, and these households tend to be scattered all over the map. Demographic surveys show that the biggest fans are blue-collar families, older couples, and retired singles-particularly those living in second-tier cities with relatively few carryout chains and sit-down restaurants. By contrast, those least likely to buy frozen dinners are consumers at either ends of the socioeconomic spectrum: affluent suburbanites who see the products as declasse, and downscale country folk who'd rather grow their own than splurge on frozen food.

As a group, Southerners tend to turn a cold shoulder to frozen dinners -even though they buy more frozen desserts than consumers from other regions. The reason may have less to do with demographics than distribution patterns. Experts note that two of the largest frozen-dinner brands grew up outside the South-Swanson in the Northeast and Marie Callender out West-and it takes time to create loyal customers. "Frozen dinners are mostly driven by brand names," observes Gary Handelman, market research director at Nestle. "And no frozen-dinner companies have come out of the South."

Invented by Clarence Birdseye in 1930, frozen foods are lately proving to be a tougher sell in more touchy-feely supermarkets, where consumers can sniff broiling chickens or throw together their own dinner salads in the prepared-food aisle. Part of the problem is the nature of the frozen-food aisle itself, where products are hidden behind glass doors or ice-crusted "coffins." According to Information Resources Inc., segment-wide revenues rose 3.8 percent in 1998, while unit sales declined-a sign of both price creep and the popularity of larger-size portions suitable for feeding whole families. The industry is also feeling the heat from take-out chains and pizza delivery franchises offering ready-to-eat alternatives to home-cooking.

Despite such challenges, frozen dinners and entrees are among the best-selling items in the aisle; IRI reports revenues were up 6.2 percent, to $3.9 billion, in 1998. Popular dishes include comfort food like macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, and mashed potatoes-"actually, anything with mashed potatoes," notes Lori Pohlman, vice president of communications and new media at the NFFA. But these traditional products have been joined by 536 new offerings in the last year alone in categories such as ethnic cuisine-Mexican, Thai, and Indian dishes are hot-as well as new kinds of frozen entrees that ignore the microwave, downplay the calorie count, and focus on taste. Every one of Stouffer's Skillet Sensations, manufactured by Nestle, contains quick-frozen veggies, protein, starch, and sauce, all concocted to be sauteed into a meal in ten minutes.

"Consumers are turning back to frozen foods as home-cooked meal replacements," says Lynn Dornblaser, editorial director of New Product News. "They can stock up on them in the freezer, whip them out one at a time for a meal, and be all set to go in a few minutes."

But whether such products will create new markets for frozen dinners among the rich and the poor remains to be seen. The NFFA is banking on penguins to attract those big-city dwellers who still cruise past the frozen-food aisle. In northern California, supermarkets are even linking their promotions to the upcoming Star Wars prequel, adopting a "Let the Fork be with you" theme and featuring a penguin holding a fork. No joke, past promotions have helped U.S. retailers boost frozen food sales between 1 percent and 4 percent every March. Marketers are hoping that retail sales, fueled by new frozen dinner options this year, will finally blast off into outer space.

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