With apologies to Mick Jagger, mother's little helper in the 1960s was actually the frozen dinner -- a convenient way for working women to put a hot meal on the table. But today, it's the frozen dinner that needs help.
As consumers gravitate to healthier, fresher options, the frozen dinner has become frozen in place. Frozen meals eked out a 0.6% increase in sales in 2011, rising to $7.9 billion, following two years of declines after peaking in 2008 at $8.2 billion, according to Mintel.
Women are now more likely to look in the freezer for a diet meal rather than hearty offerings to please the whole family. Weight-management brands are growing faster than non-diet brands. At Nestle -- the largest frozen-meal marketer -- four of five Stouffer's Lean Cuisine varieties gained market share in the 52 weeks that ended Feb. 19, according to Mintel. By comparison, the core Stouffer's brand lost 0.2 percentage points, although it remains the largest frozen-food brand, with a 12.5% share, or $432.5 million in sales.
And the category is getting less attention at supermarkets, with the brands that migrated from restaurants to retail losing steam. H.J. Heinz has ended its licensing agreement for Boston Market-branded frozen meals and is phasing out T.G.I. Friday's frozen entrees, although it still sells T.G.I. Friday's frozen appetizers. (Frozen-appetizers sales are still growing, having risen 2.46% in the year that ended Aug. 12, according to SymphonyIRI.)
CEO William Johnson recently blamed the frozen-entree decline on stores' putting more emphasis on the perimeter, where fresh foods are usually sold. "Consumers are walking in with a budget," he told analysts in May. "By the time they get out of the perimeter, their budget is gone."