The first ever ‘TV dinner’ went on sale in the United States in 1953. Costing just 98 cents, it comprised turkey with a cornbread dressing and gravy, sweet potato and peas. It was the brainwave of travelling salesman Gerry Thomas who had to come up with an idea to use up 270 tons of uneaten Thanksgiving turkey. On his travels he’d seen metal trays being tested for in-flight hot dinners and decided to use the technology himself. However his metal trays were put in cartons that replicated TV sets complete with knobs. The dinners were an instant success – 10 million were sold in the first 10 months and so the TV dinner or ready meal was born.

Of course today’s ready meals are more sophisticated, varying from the traditional roast dinners and casseroles to the more exotic stir fries and spicy dishes.

Budgens own-label range, for example, currently comprises 38 ready meals, with pack sizes ranging from 350g to 500g, and prices from £1.99 to £3.49. Top sellers are lasagne, spaghetti bolognese, chicken korma and chicken tikka. Potato dishes such as buttery mash & colcannon also sell well, along with other prepared vegetables and packs of salad.

Budgens varies its range according to the season. So summer meals are lighter and include things like ham & mushroom tagliatelle, while heartier dishes such as liver & bacon, make an appearance in autumn.

The company reports that chilled pasta dishes are in massive growth. Its latest additions include Mediterranean vegetable medaglioni, cheese & sundried tomato ravioli and grilled aubergine & cheese sacchetini.

Jonathan James, who has a Budgens forecourt store in Ely, Cambridgeshire, says lasagne is his most popular ready meal but cauliflower cheese sells well too, either as a meal in itself or as an accompaniment. “Indian and Chinese take ready meals beyond the impulse or desperation purchase. We sell plenty in the week but on Fridays we’ve noticed a lot of younger people have planned to have a Chinese or Indian with friends and they buy not only the main meal here but also chilled wine and beer, crisps and snacks, their favourite Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and a DVD. So, we’re seeing the ready meal blossoming into the ‘big night in’.” Jonathan continues: “We have two types of customer – people who want ready meals and people who want meals to get ready. And the latter is where Budgens really comes into its own and really differentiates itself with a superb fresh food offer, delivered six days a week.

“The quick dinner occasion is a fantastic retail opportunity, and not just for the traditional chilled or frozen ready meal. A lot of people want to throw together simple, fresh ingredients to make a good, appetising dish. TV chefs like Jamie Oliver have really encouraged this approach to cooking and people know they don’t have to spend hours in the kitchen to create a good meal, provided they’ve got quality, fresh ingredients.

“In our store, customers can buy a roasted chicken, a bag of salad, dressings and a fresh baguette and go home and rustle up a classic chicken caesar salad in no time. Or they can buy a good steak or English lamb chop, with salad or vegetables. Useful as tinned carrots and frozen peas may be, customers expect a lot more these days.” He reckons pasta, salad, a good range of vegetables, fresh meat, pre-packed hams, eggs, bacon and cheese are the crucial ingredients to stock. “These will all give your customers the makings of a more than decent dinner. Good quality, ready-made sauces, such as pasta and cook-in sauces, are very popular and added-value vegetable dishes, like ready-to-roast vegetables and Dauphinoise potatoes, sell really well too.

“Fresh bread, especially flutes or baguettes, does well, as do dips and pitta bread. And, of course, chilled wine and beer. If customers are buying the wherewithal for a quick dinner, they won’t want to have to chill the Chardonnay.

“We always try and make things as easy as possible for our customers. Forecourt shoppers tend to spend even less time in a store than c-store customers, so we try and do the thinking for them. For instance, we like to block products that go together. We group together ingredients for a favourite meal and might put meat, sauce and pasta altogether in the chiller. Another good idea is to put the Kingfisher beer near the Indian ready meals or Tiger beer near the Thai food. It saves the customer time and boosts your sales.

“I can’t stress how important the dinner occasion is for forecourt stores, but you have to have the right range and guaranteed availability. If your customers can’t count on you having what they need, they’ll go elsewhere and you’ll never have ‘destination shop’ status. Our fresh food range is a major contributor to our success.”

Spar is another retailer that offers a comprehensive ready meals range. Its 30-strong chilled ready meal range was relaunched recently and divided into five popular cuisine types: classic, Indian, Oriental, Italian Cuisine and Good Sense (healthy).

Spar promises consumers improved quality across the range and has done this by benchmarking the meals against the multiple retailers. In addition, larger pack sizes have been introduced and all packs are clearly pricemarked.

There are nine classic dishes including cottage pie and sausage & mash. The Indian range has seven meals including chicken tikka & rice and lamb rogan josh. There are four Oriental meals; five Italian; and five Good Sense.

In addition Spar has launched a range of frozen ready meals, all pricemarked at either 99p or £1.99.

Spar’s group trading director, Peter Miller, says that in addition to ready meals Spar has concentrated on providing essential ingredients and accompaniments for customers wanting to create their own meals.

“This means more Spar stores are selling fresh meat, providing a superior fresh produce offer and combining these with meal accompaniments such as our new range of bagged salads.”

Fresh foodstuffs may be profitable and popular but there’s always going to be a call for frozen foods. According to IRI MAT September 2005 data, the top 10 best-selling frozen ready meals in forecourts (see table right) account for 64% of sales. Top sellers are Birds Eye roast chicken and roast beef platters.


Tara Benjamin, channel development executive at Unilever Ice Cream & Frozen Food, comments: “Our research shows that shoppers who walk to forecourts shop twice as often as those who drive and they spend 95% more per year. The main shopping mission of these people is to find something for dinner that night so this means ready meals have a key role to play in satisfying shopper needs and maximising frozen sales.

“We would suggest forecourt retailers stock key new products that offer convenience and quality, such as Birds Eye SteamFresh meals. They should allocate at least 45% of space in their freezer to ready meals, pizzas and snacks. And they should let shoppers know that frozen ready meals are sold in-store by using signage and POS.”

Pizza is, of course, hugely popular as an evening meal. The UK’s number one frozen pizza brand is Goodfella’s, with a 25% value share of the category, worth more than £332m. It’s not a brand that rests on its laurels though, and so has just launched a range of restaurant-quality individual pizzas that are ready to eat from the oven in just 10 minutes. New Solos are being marketed as “the little fellas from Goodfella’s”.

Goodfella’s marketing manager Adrian Mooney says Solos delivers three key consumer needs: choice, quality and convenience.

“Consumers can choose from a range of eight different flavours. There are four, including pepperoni and BBQ chicken, aimed at all the family and four with more refined flavours such as Cajun chicken and balsamic vegetable, for adults.

“When it comes to quality, a master baker was enlisted to make two individual bases: one traditional base for the younger audience and a second stonebaked, more sophisticated base for adults. Similarly, all eight topping recipes have been created by a renowned chef. The convenience comes from an oven bake time of 10 minutes from frozen.”

Mooney explains the need for individual pizzas: “Market research shows that there is a rise in single-person meal occasions, which now account for 46% of all eating occasions. This spans one-person households and multi-person households, where family members have different tastes or eat at different times. Current pizzas tend to be too large for just one person eating alone.”

Finally, RHM Frozen is hoping to boost the number of households buying into its Sharwood’s frozen range with the relaunch of its House Specials classic Asian meals and a new range of Far Eastern bowls, described as ‘classic favourites with a twist’.