CHICAGO — Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last March, Conagra Brands, Inc. has gained the equivalent of an estimated 4.5 years’ worth of incremental new buyers, according to Sean M. Connolly, president and chief executive officer. Many of the new customers tend to be younger, and the company is focused on earning their continued loyalty.
“Historically, younger adults have eaten at home less than older generations,” Mr. Connolly said Feb. 16 during an investor presentation at the virtual Consumer Analyst Group of New York meeting. “Historically, a meaningful shift toward at-home eating occurs during the family formation years, and COVID has accelerated the timing of this shift.”
With COVID-19 keeping more younger consumers at home, many have gravitated toward Conagra’s portfolio of frozen food, snacks and cooking staples.
“The data show that these new younger buyers are stickier across our entire portfolio,” Mr. Connolly said. “Our new brand buyers have higher repeat purchase rates than other category buyers across the board: in frozen, snacks and staples. Again, while the entire industry benefited from higher repeat rates, our portfolio clearly outperformed peers. And we believe this comes back to the investments in our products and brands.”
Mr. Connolly identified two trends he sees offering growth for Conagra Brands, particularly in frozen foods, including a lasting shift to working from home and greater demand for convenience.
“One of the primary drivers for more at-home eating is the increase in working from home,” he said. “Importantly, some aspects of the remote workforce adoption are expected to be permanent. A recent study of executives found that nearly 80% of respondents felt that office culture could be maintained with employees physically in the office less than five days a week. The way we work is changing, and consumer eating habits are changing with it.”
From March to November, consumers included a ready-to-eat or heat and eat food in 47% of their dinner occasions, according to Mr. Connolly. They increased their consumption of frozen foods by more than 9%, and the youngest demographics, Gen Z and millennials, drove frozen food growth by an outsized margin.
“We expect the millennial demographic’s frozen adoption rate to continue to grow,” he said. “We know that annual frozen spend per buyer increases in households with young kids and it increases as the kids get older.
“To put this in perspective, during the important family formation years, there will be 25 million or almost 40% more millennials than there were Gen Xers. Almost half of millennials have not yet started to have kids, and we fully expect their consumption of Conagra products will grow along with their families.”
Frozen food innovation on tap in 2021 to capitalize on the trends include Healthy Choice Max, a bowl 40% larger than other Healthy Choice products and featuring 33 to 34 grams of protein per bowl. Under the Gardein banner, Conagra will be introducing burgers made with falafel and chickpea. Healthy Choice Zero are frozen meals made with no added sugar, and a Marie Callendar’s pot pie variety will feature a cauliflower crust.
Value-added frozen meals sold under the Birds Eye brand will include Sheet Pan Meals in such varieties as chicken with rosemary brown butter potatoes and Italian sausage with peppers. Value-added frozen sides will include Oven Roasters featuring zesty ranch broccoli and Parmesan peppercorn cauliflower, and Skillets featuring garlic and white wine mushrooms and balsamic brussels sprouts.
“Several years ago, we began to reimagine our frozen portfolio by responding to changing preferences and incorporating modern food attributes into our wide array of iconic brands,” Mr. Connolly said. “We then added even more breadth to our frozen portfolio by acquiring Pinnacle Foods during fiscal '19. The results of our disciplined approach and portfolio investment have been clear. Since beginning our work on frozen in fiscal 2017, the business has grown by $1 billion, and we see lots of runway ahead.”