The time-pushed consumer has never had it so good – manufacturers have been busy spending millions on research and technology to come up with meal solutions that are not only quick and easy to prepare but have a quality taste and feel to them too. The market – catering to those on the way home from work or mid-week top-up shoppers – has now expanded to include everything from chilled pasta and ready meals to microwaveable rice and takeaway-style meal kits.

According to Mintel’s latest report on chilled ready meals (Chilled Ready Meals UK May 2004) the chilled ready meals market is worth around £1.58bn having almost doubled since 1999. The rate of growth is inevitably slowing down now but value sales of chilled ready meals still grew by 12% in 2003 and are expected to grow at a slightly lower level in 2004.

Not surprisingly, Mintel puts the demand for convenience as a key factor behind growth – and this, of course, puts convenience retailers in a strong position. Steve Carter, Budgens’ trading manager confirms that forecourts are ideally placed to capitalise on this market. “The drive home after work is a good sales opportunity for forecourts and ready meals can do very well, especially if they can provide equally convenient accompaniments such as ready-prepared salads and vegetables, fresh bread and chilled drinks,” he says.

And it’s chilled meals rather than frozen that are bringing in the returns for retailers with sales around double that of frozen ready meals. Mintel’s report says: “Chilled meals form an attractive fixture for shoppers, often situated near the entrance to the store to catch shoppers early. By contrast, the frozen aisles are generally the subject of a quick foray, with little time spent browsing.”

The ready meals sector is dominated by own-label with most of the symbol groups offering their own range. Nisa-Today’s is seeing 18% growth year on year in the sector and has just extended and refreshed its Heritage brand of ready meals. Its traditional British meals include four new lines ranging from £1.99 to £2.69, while its Indian and Chinese line-ups also have new additions (such as lamb rogan josh with rice and battered chicken with sweet & sour sauce). Finally, the Heritage Indian and Chinese ‘bagged meals for two’ have new-look labels and opaque plastic bags that are completely sealed for freshness.

Over at Londis, own-brand chilled ready meals are now taking six per cent of all chilled sales through many stores, according to Kenton Burchell, category controller. The eight ready meals, launched a year ago, include traditional dishes, such as sausage & mash as well as Indian, Chinese, Italian and international cuisine. The products offer 30 per cent profit margins and have a guaranteed 14-day shelf life.

“We launched the products in response to increased consumer demand for chilled ready meals,” says Burchell. “It is a huge growth area, showing 20 per cent growth in a market worth over one billion pounds.”

Budgens, meanwhile, believes this is such a growth area that it has just added Duchy Original’s new range of organic ready meals to its offer.

Budgens’ Steve Carter reckons forecourts not offering a ready meal line-up are missing out: “Most ready meal consumers buy them once or twice a week,” he says. “Forecourt shopping is all about convenience and consumers expect to find a good range of quality convenience food.”

Moving on, and the Sutherland ready meals from the Greencore Group offer the forecourt trader a branded option. Greencore initially launched the Sutherland range to provide entry-level pricing for the category, offering customers some smaller and lower-priced packs to minimise the perceived risk in purchasing. The range has recently been refreshed to reflect the growing demand for larger, high-quality meals and includes new, larger packs of favourites such as bangers & mash, chilli con carne & rice, and macaroni cheese.


Convenience remains key in the pasta and rice sector where manufacturers have been striving to cut cooking time and simplify preparation – all good news for the forecourt trader. Indeed, Masterfoods says it is seeing increased sales of its Uncle Ben’s and Dolmio brands through forecourts with core products including Uncle Ben’s Express pasta – a microwaveable pasta in 220g pouches that’s ready to eat in 75 seconds and Uncle Ben’s Express Rice, which is showing growth of 43% (AC Nielsen 12/06/04). To further drive sales, November sees sampling activity on Dolmio Express microwaveable pouches.

Consumers are responding to such product innovations it seems – Sharwood’s says the rice market has seen a 4.7% increase over the past year to £209m while the noodles market has seen an increase of 3% to £18m. Sharwood’s reckons there is “plenty of room for growth” in the noodles sector and has launched a new range of three noodle recipe kits (rrp £1.99) in Classic Chow Mein, Singapore Spicy and Pad Thai to cater for consumer demand.


The ambient Italian recipe sauce sector is worth £241m and is the most heavily shopped fixture within sauces, according to Unilever Bestfoods. “The recipe sauces category has been in growth for many years, though this is starting to plateau as it is a mature category,” says Mike Miller, category manager at Unilever Bestfoods UK. “The time is right for some major changes in order to bring it back to double-digit growth again.”

For this reason the company recently brought its Ragu brand under the Knorr banner, launched a £10m ad campaign and gave Knorr Ragu improved recipes and a new look – and the company says volume growth has increased 17% as a result. The company also has Bertolli pasta sauces catering for the authentic, premium end of the market.

Masterfoods, meanwhile, has created its Dolmio Express Italian sauces in six varieties to complement its Express pasta range. They come in both single-serve and large microwaveable pouches and are ready in 45 seconds. Its Stir In sauces have also been created as a convenient option for consumers and come in 10 varieties.

Non-Italian sauces are an important part of the category too. Some £2m worth of advertising will support Uncle Ben’s sauces in November, with its Just for One range concentrating on non-Italian products with Balti and Satay varieties the latest additions. The products come in 170g microwaveable pouches that are ready in 45 seconds.

Knorr’s non-Italian sauces line-up include its Sizzle & Stir range, Knorr Chinatown Sauces, Sizzle & Stir Indian and Knorr Oriental.

The entire Sharwood’s range, meanwhile, has just been relaunched, backed by a heavyweight ad campaign. Rob Devonport, Sharwood’s head of marketing, says: “Sharwood’s most popular sauces are the Korma Indian Cooking Sauce, the Tikka Masala Cooking Sauce, Sweet & Sour Chinese Cooking Sauce and our Hoi Sin and Plum Chinese Cooking Sauce.”