Convenience holds its own

by Josh Sosland
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Following a brief lull, new product introductions featuring convenience as a salient benefit are again attracting consumer interest, according to analysts interviewed by Food Business News. Driven by a range of factors, though, the face of convenience in food products is changing and will continue to evolve.

The increasing successful melding of convenience with health and wellness into single products has been a particularly compelling growth driver, said Lynn Dornblaser, director of consulting, Mintel, Inc., Chicago.

"Health and wellness is never going to go away, and neither is convenience," Ms. Dornblaser said. "Sometimes these two trends seem to be working in opposition to one another, but they actually work very well in partnership. Where would low-fat meals be without single-serve packaging, for example? What are 100-calorie packs but the perfect marriage between convenience and health?"

An increase in new products offering convenience represented a return to historical averages, Information Resources, Inc. said. At 23%, the proportion of new products offering convenience benefits in 2006 compared with 24% in 1997-2006. Bite-size hand-held snacks accounted for 15% of new products in 2006, versus 11% as the average for 1997-2006.

While preferring the term "bundled," Ms. Dornblaser concurred that multiple benefits increasingly are a key to the success of new products.

"This means the companies bundle together several key claims or positionings for consumers," she said. "And, yes, that often means convenience and health and wellness. Perhaps one of the biggest successes lately is that of 100-calorie packs, which offer grab-and-go convenience plus portion control.

"But we also see some companies doing a good job of combining convenience with good taste. One example that comes to mind of that is the Healthy Choice Cafe Steamers line. The product is a bit complicated to prepare (more than just pop it in the microwave and wait seven minutes), but its positioning is that the preparation method helps enhance the flavor and enjoyment of the product."

The Healthy Choice line features a microwave steam cooker allowing consumers to "lock in all the naturally fresh flavors of restaurant-inspired meals by steaming them" themselves, ConAgra said. "With new Healthy Choice Cafe Steamers, vegetables stay bright and crisp, meat and seafood are juicy and tender, rice is moist and fluffy, and pasta is firm," the company continued.

In the view of Ms. Dornblaser, such innovations are part of a broader trend that she describes as a more thoughtful and creative approach toward convenience.

"I think the biggest change we’ve seen in the last couple decades is a movement away from convenience for convenience sake, or use of unusual packaging or technology to provide the convenience (e.g. bottled water with a carabiner on the top), and instead a movement toward packaging or functionality that is simple, easy to understand, and that makes sense to consumers. For example, Folgers coffee now comes in a plastic can with an integrated grip and an easy-to-open lid. Lightweight, easy to hold, and endorsed by the American Arthritis Foundation. That’s a great example of practical convenience."

Still another way the focus on convenience has been shifting may be seen in a de-emphasis on "hand held" products, a principal driver of new product development in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

"Hand held in the traditional sense (e.g. Hot Pockets) is still a driver, in that we do see more product introductions that fit this format, but it does not have the cachet that it once did," she said. "Rather, the focus is on other types of products that are naturally hand held, e.g. sandwiches. We’ve seen the concept of frozen microwavable panini, for example, from Lean Cuisine and now Healthy Choice. They mirror the choices consumers have from sandwich shops."

While it could be assumed that the emergence of popular cooking programs on television in recent years could work as a way to diminish the importance of convenient foods, focusing instead on traditional home preparation, Ms. Dornblaser said the cooking television shows have spawned the creation of a different class of convenience foods.

"The way we have seen an impact here is with more sauces or seasoning blends appearing on the market, making it easy for consumers to make a unique homemade meal at home," she said. "We do see some celebrity endorsed products that help capitalize on the popularity of some celebrity chefs. The impact of cooking channels is more on what we see in terms of cooking recipes for consumers, I think. And the types of products those recipes use (precooked meats, bottled sauces, precut veggies) are things that have always been around."

This interest in sauces and seasonings has been a catalyst for growth at McCormick & Co. in recent years. Beyond its traditional collection of individual spices, McCormick has been developing and selling with considerable success blends of spices under its Roasting Rubs, Signature Blends and Grill Mates brands. In addition, the company has developed a number of Finishing Sauce varieties aimed at convenience. The sauces are packaged in microwavable pouches. "Just snip off the pouch’s corner, heat in the microwave for 45 seconds, and pour over your chicken, beef, or pork for a flavorful finish to any entrée," is McCormick’s description.

Similarly, McCormick and other spice companies have enjoyed a "hit" with disposable grinder bottles, allowing consumers to freshly grind their pepper or other spices.

Also holding the potential to affect convenience as a trend is mounting consumer interest in sustainability issues, general minimizing wasteful packaging in particular. Ms. Dornblaser said no such impact has been evident in the United States yet.

"We see an impact in restaurants (some restaurants in Los Angeles and New York are no longer serving bottled water because of the plastic waste)," she said. "We think that there will be an impact on convenience in some categories in the months and years to come. We think we’ll see an impact first in plain bottled water, as consumers begin to understand the impact of the plastic waste, regardless of the recyclability of most plastic bottles.

"I think what we will see in the U.S. is less of a turning away from the current types of convenience foods (single serve, etc.), a growing importance in other types of ‘good to the environment’ movements, such as growing popularity of farmers markets and the like."

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, November 13, 2007, starting on Page 1. Click here to search that archive.

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