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As consumers turn a cold shoulder to the hottest recent innovation in convenience meals, marketers are racing to pull back the frozen-food bowls that only four years ago reaped $190 million in sales for segment leader Uncle Ben's.

The Masterfoods unit is set to yank those Uncle Ben's Bowls, citing continuous volume declines, while Nestle whittled its once-bountiful Stouffer's and Lean Cuisine bowl offerings to a handful and Luiginos withdrew its Michelina's Bistro Bowls. Advertising spending on the bowl lines from Nestle and Uncle Ben's reached $40 million in 2002.

Though ConAgra pioneered the trend with the 1998 launch of Healthy Choice Bowl Creations (discontinued a few years back), it was Uncle Ben's that sparked intense consumer interest and a slew of bowl-meal copycats from Nestle to H.J. Heinz (AA, Aug. 14, 2000).

But Uncle Ben's lineup-which grew to include Rice Bowls, Noodle Bowls and Pasta Bowls, among others-saw sales of only $56 million for the 52 weeks ended Oct. 2, a 30% drop from the prior year, according to Information Resources Inc.

"The success of Uncle Ben's whetted everybody's appetite and all their competitors seemed to come out of the woodwork with bowls, but there were too many me-toos and we've weeded out most everything in the category," one Midwest retail executive said.

`Training wheels'

According to Datamonitor's Productscan Online New Product Database, the number of new frozen-bowl products plummeted from 71 in 2000 to 13 through Nov. 2 of this year, a fact that surprised Productscan Online's executive editor, Tom Vierhile. "The bowl concept seems to dovetail nicely with the trend toward smaller-portion meals," he said.

But Steven Addis, president of brand strategy firm Addis Group, said the category was "propped up by advertising but never really sunk into the routine or consciousness of American consumers." When a company innovates in a new category and comes out with heavy advertising, he said, advertising "acts much like training wheels ... and when you take them off, it either stands on its own or falls." Masterfoods put a weighty $26 million into measured media for Uncle Ben's Rice Bowls in 2001, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR. A launch campaign from D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, New York, targeted young couples with the tagline, "Stir up some passion with Uncle Ben's."

But its marketing spending waned to $22 million in '02 and $13 million in '03 before falling off completely, and consumer ardor diminished with it. The line dwindled from 50 to 16 varieties and will be history by the end of the year.

The decision to discontinue the line was made as part of Masterfoods' strategy to streamline efforts in core segments. "To stay in the [bowls] business was going to take a significant investment and we want instead to focus on key growth segments like dry rice and ready-to-heat segments," said Masterfoods spokeswoman Alice Nathanson.

A 90-second Ready Rice line that launched last year, along with a renewed focus on whole grains, helped drive Uncle Ben's total rice sales up 9.2% to $170 million for the 52 weeks ended Oct. 2. Ms. Nathanson said new products are planned in a bid to continue that momentum.

Nestle is also no longer bowled over by bowls. Though the company did support its now six-variety line of Lean Cuisine Cafe Classics Bowls (launched in 2002 with $16 million in media) with $3 million in media earlier this year after a two-year hiatus, it is putting its big bet on a new frozen form: panini. It will launch a line of 12 microwaveable Stouffer's Corner Bistro Paninis next month with an estimated $20 million push.

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