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The chilled ready meal market in Northern Ireland
The chilled ready meal market in Northern Ireland
Influences on consumer food choice
Food choice is a complex process influenced by a variety of interrelating factors, broadly categorised into those related to the food, to the person making the choice and to the external environment in which the decision is made. Consequently, the task of determining consumer acceptance of a new food product is challenging partly due to this complexity but also related to fickle consumers' tastes and demands. Currently, convenience would appear to be one of the most important attributes demanded by consumers in a new food product. The chilled ready meal market is one product category which aims to satisfy the consumer's desire for convenience.
Chilled ready meals
Chilled ready meals are generally defined "as any products, whether based on meat, poultry, fish, vegetables, Quorn, pasta or rice, which have recipe skills added and form part or all of the main meal. They include complete meals, which require nothing to be added by the consumer, such as lasagne, chilli con carne with rice, and part meals or meal centres to which vegetables and or rice or pasta need to be added for example chicken tikka masala" (Consumer Goods UK, 1998).
Penetration of chilled ready meals appears to continue to grow as two-thirds of British households purchase the products at least once a week (Food and Drink Business, 1999). This is reflected in chilled ready meal sales which have been increasing steadily over the last decade. The market for chilled ready meals was estimated to be in the region of £570 million in 1997, representing a growth of 67 per cent since 1993 (Consumer Goods UK, 1998). Several factors, particularly changing consumer trends and lifestyles, have contributed to the development and impressive growth of this particular segment of the chilled food market including:
an escalating consumer demand for convenience/flexibility in eating;
growth of single person households;
increase in working women;
decline in cooking skills despite the popularity of television cooking programmes;
growing household ownership of microwave ovens and freezers;
less formal eating occasions moving towards an increase in snacking/grazing;
increased experimentation with foreign food.
The chilled ready meal market can be segmented by cuisine type. There are various varieties emerging although Italian, Indian and Chinese significantly outperform other market segments. High levels of activity and interest in product development fuelled by consumers' demand for more authentic and adventurous meals have led to the growth of all sectors of the market but in particular the ethnic sector has benefited tremendously (Reed et al., 2000). Chilled ready meal manufacturers driven by the food retailers have also launched new varieties such as low-fat versions, healthy choice, vegetarian products, new flavours and cuisines, all of which increase product range and choice to satisfy the more affluent, discerning and variety seeking consumer.
There has been very limited research carried out to investigate the factors involved in chilled ready meal food choice and our understanding of how an increased choice and possible change in consumer lifestyles can combine to determine and direct consumer demand for these products remains limited. An understanding of consumers' purchasing habits, perceptions, attitudes and beliefs towards these products would be interesting, relevant and beneficial to the food industry and indeed to nutritionists, as the largest proportion of consumers' salt intake comes from widely used processed foods (Halliday and Ashwell, 1994).
This paper outlines some initial findings of an investigation into the chilled ready meal market in Northern Ireland, focusing on identifying consumers' purchasing habits and the factors influencing consumer chilled food choice. The preliminary investigation commenced with qualitative research including semi-structured interviews with food retailing managers. Their views were noted on the retailing environment in Ireland and the range of chilled convenience foods available to consumers. This was followed by an analysis of the chilled ready meal product range available in the major supermarket outlets in Northern Ireland. Ten consumer focus groups were also conducted to assess consumer views on the chilled convenience food range and to identify influences on chilled food choice. The interviews and focus groups were audiotaped using a pocket sized dictaphone and later transcribed for analysis. QSR Nud*ist version 3.04 was utilised to assist with analysing the qualitative data. The qualitative investigation then informed the design of a two part questionnaire which contained questions focusing on chilled ready meal food choice, consumption habits, purchasing behaviour, perceptions and attitudes towards the products. The final section of the questionnaire gathered socioeconomic and demographic details. A number of pilot tests were performed on the questionnaire prior to main study administration. It was subsequently amended and personally administered to 470 consumers in supermarket/shopping centre locations within both urban and rural areas of Northern Ireland. Questionnaire responses were analysed using the Statistical Package for Social Sciences (SPSS) version 9.
Results and discussion
Supermarket manager interviews
The interviewees were of the opinion that food retailing in Northern Ireland has changed over the last number of years due to changing consumer lifestyles and to the arrival of the major UK food retailers in the province. The introduction and growth of the chilled convenience food sector was identified as a major improvement in food availability in recent years. One interviewee commented, "the Irish market wouldn't have seen them (chilled ready meals) for a few years without Tesco bringing them in". As another interviewee stated "of all the product categories that have changed over the last couple of years with the influx of the UK multiples, the biggest change would be in the fresh foods, like chilled ready meals". The interviewees recognised that chilled ready meals were not entirely novel to consumers in Northern Ireland because Marks & Spencer previously held the monopoly on the chilled ready meal market. However the products had not been as readily accessible to the mainstream supermarket shopper, but rather had traditionally been aimed primarily at the premium sector of the market.
According to the interviewees, the chilled ready meal market in Northern Ireland was experiencing a period of growth. They confirmed that this was an area that had experienced extensive food product development activity, evidenced by the introduction of new and improved cuisines to maintain interest and variety for the chilled ready meal consumer.
Following on from the interviews, a detailed analysis of the chilled ready meal products in the major supermarket outlets was conducted. In considering the range of chilled ready meals, products were recorded according to cuisine type and each individual item and pack size was accounted for separately. It must be noted that given the innovative nature of the chilled ready meal sector with high levels of product development activity, products are introduced and replaced at a considerably fast rate to satisfy consumer demands and to maintain consumer interest in the sector. In addition, it enables supermarkets to differentiate their product range from their competitors.
Table I depicts the availability of chilled ready meal cuisines in a major supermarket in Northern Ireland. Clearly there was quite an extensive range of products available to the supermarket shopper. Italian, Chinese, Indian and vegetable products were the most prevalent in the supermarket. The least available dishes were Mexican/American, and other ethnic dishes such as Thai, and fish/meat substitute dishes. A total of 7 per cent of the dishes available in this selected supermarket were marketed as "Healthy Eating" reflecting current consumer trends. In addition, the majority of the products available were either poultry or vegetable based. Although meals based on red meat were available, it would appear that there are opportunities to extend the range by introducing
Table I Availability of chilled ready meals in a Northern Ireland supermarket additional varieties of pork and lamb based products (Reed et al., 2000).
The chilled ready meal market in Northern Ireland is primarily own-label dominated. Therefore prices tended to vary across the extensive range of products available. At the lower end of the price scale were value products priced at approximately 99p to £1.49 for a small portion size, offering very little differentiation from products in the frozen food sector. This section of the chilled ready meal market would normally comprise products such as lasagne, fisherman's pie and cottage pie. In contrast, the premium sector of the market included products which were of a perceived superior quality, such as Tesco's Finest and Marks & Spencer Connoisseur range including products such as Finest Beef Bourgignon £5.99 for 600g. Italian dishes would appear to be less expensive than Chinese and Indian products. For example chicken and smoked ham tagliatelle was £1.99 for 350g, whereas chicken tikka masala was retailing at £2.79 for 350g. It would appear that the combination of perceived quality, convenience and innovation in chilled ready meals means that a premium price can be charged, from which a premium margin can be achieved (Consumer Goods UK, 1998).
Focus groups were conducted with a broad spectrum of consumers. Nine groups were all female and one was a mixed sex group thereby explaining the high percentage of female participants (92 per cent). The majority of the participants were in the 35-44 age bracket and C2 socioeconomic grouping.
Over half of the participants were regular chilled ready meal consumers. It was suggested from the focus groups that consumers with higher incomes utilised chilled ready meals throughout the week but tended to spend their discretionary time at the weekend cooking for their family. For example: "the convenience foods that Tesco's – I practically live on them apart from the weekends when I have time to cook". Alternatively, participants in lower socio-economic groupings stated that they cooked during the week and purchased a ready meal at the weekend as a treat. This was also recognised by the supermarket managers who stated that "some people buy it as a treat every now and again because it is a treat not to have to prepare the whole thing yourself". This finding is similar to that of Furst (1988) who revealed that "on weekdays we move away from traditional food, but this primarily applies to the preparation of food. On weekends we do the opposite. It seems that we make up for the rest of the week by doing some 'real home cooking' in the traditional manner using raw materials. The difference between weekdays and weekends illustrates the way in which work has changed and developed in modern societies".
It was evident from the focus groups that competition for the chilled ready meal market included home cooking to some extent, frozen ready meals and increasingly, the fast food sector, particularly ethnic restaurants (Chinese and Indian) with an eat in/take out and delivery service. Although participants did agree that take out options were slightly more expensive than chilled ready meals, they were of the opinion that the former was far superior to chilled ready meals in terms of portion size and authenticity in taste. They also perceived that a take away meal was a more acceptable treat.
These trends were further investigated and substantiated by the questionnaire.
Four hundred and seventy consumers completed the questionnaire, the majority of whom were female (82 per cent). The age profile of the respondents ranged from 18 to over 65 years old with the majority in the 25-34 age category.
Research to date would indicate that 61 per cent of respondents in Northern Ireland consumed chilled ready meals. The product was primarily purchased for individual consumption as only 21 per cent of the respondents stated that the entire family would eat the product. This reinforces data from the focus groups where comments included "I would never buy anything like this because that wouldn't feed a family. Two quid for the like of that there, sure you could make a home meal for that"; "they are expensive but when I buy them I only buy one. I'd give it to my son or daughter but I wouldn't buy it for the family". Of respondents, 64 per cent stated that they would consume the product once a week or more, with a further 27 per cent claiming to eat the product two or three times a month. This would suggest a fairly high penetration product.
Age appeared to influence chilled ready meal consumption ( x25 = 18.5, p < 0.01). Respondents in younger age brackets, particularly those aged 25-34 were significantly more likely to consume chilled ready meals. Griffiths (1999) also found that "penetration increases significantly in the younger age groups where busy lifestyles mean that there is less time to cook". Respondents in this age category normally have higher disposable incomes, are more travelled and therefore can afford to indulge in premium priced products which appeal to their desire for convenience food. Consumption was shown to decline to 41 per cent with respondents of pensionable age perhaps possessing spare time and an interest in cooking. Educational level of the respondents also appeared to have an impact on chilled ready meal consumption. Of respondents who had completed third level education, 65 per cent said they consumed chilled ready meals. This is in contrast to those who had only completed primary education, with 45 per cent claiming to purchase chilled ready meals. In addition, location had an influence on chilled ready meal consumption with respondents in urban locations more likely to consume the product compared to those residing in a rural area (x21 = = 4.9, p < 0.05). The persistence of traditional eating habits (meat and two vegetables) particularly in rural locations can perhaps assist in explaining these differences in consumption between urban and rural areas. People who reside in an urban location may be more experimental and adventurous in their eating habits due to increased choices and exposure to novel foods in both the hospitality and retail sectors. Currently, gender, marital or socioeconomic status would not appear to influence chilled ready meal consumption.
Not surprisingly, convenience (78 per cent) was the predominant motive for purchase of the product, satisfying the increasing consumer requirement for added value food products. Other occasions for purchase included being suitable for tea or lunch (45 per cent), freezing at home (37 per cent), as a standby (34 per cent), product was on promotion/advertising (33 per cent), personal preferences (32 per cent), and suitable for family members eating at different times or do not eat what the family eats (e.g. vegetarian) (28 per cent). The least popular reasons for purchasing the product included as a treat (14 per cent) and they are healthy/nutritious (17 per cent). There were numerous reasons mentioned by the respondents explaining their rationale for not purchasing the product. The primary barrier to consumption was a preference for home cooked food (50 per cent). A total of 18 per cent of the respondents were of the opinion that the product was too expensive. Other reasons mentioned by the respondents included "don't buy ready meals", "tasteless", "don't like", "poor nutritional value", "buy frozen ready meals" and "portion size too small".
Consumer preferences/liking for the various chilled ready meal cuisine types were measured on a five point hedonic scale with an additional option for never tried/do not know. Italian was the chilled ready meal cuisine that was most preferred by the respondents and lasagne was identified as the favourite product. The popularity of Italian food can perhaps be attributed to the authentic, high quality taste described by the focus group participants as well as being reasonably priced. It was observed that Chinese dishes were more popular than Indian ready meals which is in contrast to trends in Great Britain where Indian dishes are leading the chilled ready meal market. McIlveen and Chestnutt (1999) also found that ethnic food is increasing in popularity with the Northern Ireland consumer, albeit at a slower rate than in other parts of the UK. Products that were disliked by respondents included fish, meat substitute dishes and other ethnic meals such as Thai and American/Mexican dishes. The lower popularity levels of these dishes can perhaps be attributed to their recent entry to the market and the fact that consumers have not become totally accustomed to these products. Retailers may need to encourage trials by conducting tasting sessions in supermarkets and introducing the products at special offer prices to increase awareness and develop familiarity with the products. In the UK Mexican food is the fastest growing ethnic food category (Hallam, 1998) so the situation may be reversed in a number of years, whenever consumer palates have become more adventurous and sophisticated.
Gender would appear to influence consumer preferences for the various cuisine types. There was a highly significant difference in liking for traditional cuisine between males and females with males preferring the traditional product (z = 4.1, p < 0.001). Males also significantly preferred food of ethnic origin, particularly Indian food (z = 2.7, p < 0.01). Interestingly, females gave healthy eating dishes a higher mean score for preference compared to males (z = 2.9, p < 0.01).
A Kruskal-Wallis test revealed that age had an impact on consumer liking for the numerous cuisines available. Chinese, Indian and Mexican/American dishes received higher mean scores from younger consumers, perhaps reflecting their more adventurous eating habits (p < 0.01). Respondents aged over 55 years reported a strong dislike for ethnic based products and there was a broad range of responses to consumer liking for vegetable based dishes. Respondents aged under 34 gave the lowest mean score for preference, whereas respondents in the 55-64 age group give this particular product a higher product score. Respondents aged 65+ indicated that they liked traditional cuisine, whereas the rest of the respondents reported a dislike for this particular cuisine. Italian was liked by all the respondents especially those aged 25-34 and 55-64.
Socio-economic status would also appear to influence consumer preferences for the various cuisine types. Italian cuisine was liked by all social groups particularly B and D. It was revealed that unskilled consumers gave a higher preference score for traditional products compared to professional respondents (x25 = = 17.9, p < 0.01). All socio-economic groups gave Chinese dishes a fairly high score apart from B and E groups indicating a slight dislike for the product (x25 = = 13.8, p < 0.05). It would appear that all social groups disliked Indian and Mexican/American cuisines and it was revealed that only C1 consumers reported a preference for healthy eating ready meals. Fish/meat substitute dishes and other ethnic meals were not particularly liked by any of the respondents.
Food choice is influenced by a variety of interrelating factors. Table II illustrates that in the case of chilled ready meals it was found that "convenience" (37 per cent), "taste" (28 per cent), "price" (26 per cent), "what family/partner will eat" (21 per cent) and "quality/freshness of the product" (20 per cent) were perceived to be among the most important factors when selecting the product in Northern Ireland. These results are somewhat similar to those of Lennernas et al. (1997) who found that quality/freshness of food (74 per cent), price (43 per cent), taste (38 per cent), trying to eat healthily (32 per cent) and family preferences (29 per cent) were influencing food choice. The least popular factors which were taken into consideration when selecting a chilled ready meal were "as a treat" (0.4 per cent), "vegetarian/special eating habits", "presentation/packaging/appearance" (3 per cent) and "advertising/promotions" (3.4 per cent).
Table II Factors influencing chilled ready meal food choice
Table III Influences on top five chilled food choices
Table III illustrates that "price" and "taste" were more frequently selected by males when choosing a chilled ready meal. This result is in agreement with a study carried out by Schafer (1978) who found that husbands rated taste as being the most important determinant in food choice. Quality/freshness of food and family/partner eating habits were deemed to be of higher importance by females. The more frequent selection of quality/freshness by females in comparison to males is in accordance with findings by Lennernas et al. (1997). In addition, since women are normally responsible for purchasing and cooking food for the household, they are perhaps more attentive to both the quality and freshness of food. Furthermore, they are also more likely to be aware of and considerate to family/partner preferences, likes and dislikes. "Convenience" was considered to be of equal importance to both males and females when choosing a chilled ready meal.
Respondents aged 18-24 chose "price" most frequently. This is the age bracket when consumers may have a limited disposable income and perhaps cannot afford to buy or are very conscious of the perceived high price of chilled ready meals. It was revealed that "convenience" was important to respondents in the 35-44 and 65+ age brackets. The former age category is normally when people are trying to balance career and family life and may appreciate the convenience aspect of chilled ready meals. Older consumers may also highly regard the convenience of a chilled ready meal, rather than cooking from scratch. "Quality/freshness of food" was considered important by all the age groups but particularly 18-24 year olds. "What family/partner will eat" was important to both 25-34 and 55-64 year olds. This illustrates the social influences on food choice.
"Price", "convenience" and "quality/freshness of food" were more frequently selected by respondents with primary school education. Secondary school educated subjects choose "taste" more often whereas "what family/partner will eat" and "quality/freshness of food", were considered of prime importance by third level educated respondents. Perhaps respondents with third level education are in well-paid/professional jobs with higher disposable incomes and may therefore be more prepared to accept a higher price for a perceived high quality food.
"What family/partner will eat" and "quality/freshness of food" were selected more frequently by consumers belonging to social grade A. "Convenience" was selected frequently by all the respondents particularly C1 and C2 groups. E social group consumers more frequently chose "taste". "Price" was perceived as an important influence by those in lower social groups D and E. Lennernas et al. (1997) also found price to be most important in unemployed and retired subjects.
Preliminary findings would suggest that the chilled ready meal market in Northern Ireland is experiencing a period of growth. All types of consumers consumed chilled ready meals, however they were more popular with young, urban, professional consumers. The main reason for non-purchase was a preference for home cooked food. Italian cuisine and lasagne in particular were the most popular chilled ready meal dishes. The results from this research also revealed that "convenience" (37 per cent), "taste" (28 per cent), "price" (26 per cent), "what family/partner will eat" (21 per cent) and "quality/freshness of the product" (20 per cent) were perceived to be among the most important factors involved in consumer chilled food choice. Demographic and socio-economic factors would seem to have an associated impact. Influences on chilled food choice must be understood if they are to assist in the development of products that are suitable for the marketplace in Northern Ireland, thereby not only fulfilling consumer needs and expectations but also surpassing them. This study will continue with some evaluative sensory work, considering the role and intensity which sensory attributes play in the consumer's choice of chilled ready meals.
Zandra Reed, Heather McIlveen and Christopher StrugnellUniversity of Ulster at Jordanstown
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