Natural Foods Merchandiser

Asian invasion in your freezer

Just because the economy is slowing down doesn't mean consumers are eating less. They're keeping healthy appetites as they work hard and take care of their homes and families. As time and pocketbooks tighten up and cooking nutritious and classy meals from scratch isn't always an option, convenience foods, especially Asian and Indian varieties, are increasing in popularity.

In a bite, convenience shoppers have two primary motivators: “I'm hungry now,” and “I want something for later.” Both behaviors may be rolled up in the same shopper, which can present cross-merchandising opportunities. Overall, both modes are selling well, and new products in each category are attracting buyers.

Sanjog Sikand of Hayward, Calif.-based Sukhi's Natural Authentic Indian Cuisine says in today's market, the grab-n-go convenience section is a growth area that presents opportunity for retailers. “It's a chance to create a clear presence with a call to action,” she says. “Using packaging and merchandising techniques such as pack-n-go, heat-n-eat and open-n-eat include a call to action and tell the customer what the item is, how to handle it and how to eat it.”

Sukhi's recently introduced a Naanwich, made with the Indian bread called naan, that Sikand says is selling very well. The Naanwich comes in vegetarian and chicken varieties including Channa Masala and Chicken Curry.

“The Naanwich is growing in popularity as customers are getting more knowledgeable about ethnic cuisine and looking for more of these flavors,” Sikand says. “We are in stores where these ready-to-eat items are offered in the prepackaged area by category or type of cuisine such as global or Indian.

“The refrigerated section is definitely the place where we see more growth,” Sikand says. “This area is quite undefined in the grocery store, and product movement in this area is very strong. There is opportunity here to define the space so the customer knows exactly where to go to locate his next meal, be it Indian, Thai, Chinese or mac and cheese.”

The other buying pattern for convenience food is prepared meals and appetizers. These include frozen, freeze-dried and dried varieties that can be stored in the pantry or freezer. The combination of prepared-food convenience, delicacy of exotic flavors and often-perceived nutritional value of Asian and Indian varieties make them great sellers.

“Our frozen potstickers and wontons are generally considered as healthier alternatives to other frozen appetizers because they contain a lot of vegetables,” says John Sim, sales and marketing director at Ohana Foods, based in Paramount, Calif. “In fact, we've noticed that when we do demos and talk about the fresh vegetables in the product, our sales increase.”

Ohana offers organic potstickers in several flavor combos, including chicken and vegetable, pork and vegetable and vegetable and tofu.

Sim says Asian customers typically go for the traditional pork filling whereas non-Asian customers prefer the other varieties. He also says that potstickers are very popular among the younger crowd and with mothers as snacks for the kids.

More fanciful entrées are also popular with the convenience shopper.

“For most Americans it's really hard to figure out how to cook a traditional Japanese meal,” says Patrick Lawler, national sales director at Japan Gold USA, headquartered in Osaka, Japan, with U.S. offices in Apollo Beach, Fla. “But Japanese Delight is a great transition product that is shelf-stable, easy to prepare and can take the conscious shopper into a great Japanese meal.”

Japan Gold USA's research before launching Japanese Delight sampled 300 women age 30 to 59 and found that 67 percent had a favorable impression of sea vegetables such as seaweed. Those customers most familiar with the Kombu variety found in Japanese Delight products were “upper-class, frequent Whole Foods Market and organic-oriented.”

For the cost-conscious customer, piece count seems to be a big buying trigger.

“One of the big trends we are seeing is the reality that the piece count is determining the value of the meal in the consumer's mind,” says Bob Catinella, vice president of sales and marketing at Norwell, Mass.-based Original Rangoon Co. “We have seen a decline in sales in the higher-end appetizers and are developing products with smaller sizes but larger piece counts.”

Cantinella says that now is an important time to offer the right balance between value, quality and price.

“People are scared to death,” Cantinella says. “They don't want to spend money anymore—they don't have the discretionary income. So we see our growth coming in value items that still maintain a certain level of quality without pushing the price point too much.”

Sim says merchandising Ohana's frozen appetizers is best done with the other appetizers and frozen snacks. “If you merchandise these products with other Asian foods, customers tend to pick an entrée over the appetizer,” he says. “But they sell very well against other appetizers.”

However, because Japanese Delight is a dry and shelf-stable entrée, it's best merchandised in the Asian-food section. It can also be cross-merchandised with other dry entrées and in the fresh-produce section as an easy meal alternative, according to Lawler.

Sikand says the typical natural foods convenience shopper is actively looking for variety and ethnic flavors.

“Today's consumer is well-traveled and expects a variety of cuisine on the dinner table,” she says. “The average American has now been exposed to Indian cuisine and demands more of it. Prepared Foods magazine reported that 12 percent of all Americans have tried Indian food in the last 12 months.”

Sikand says her company's customer base covers a broad demographic, from “college students exploring new cuisines to urban professionals who want more variety and convenience to the mother of three who wants to explore new options for her dinner table.”

Chris O'Brien is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.

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