It’s the question that keeps many people going throughout the working day - what to have for dinner tonight. When we were all kids our mums would often map out the meals for the week ahead but with most mums working nowadays, dinner can be a bit more of a hit and miss affair.

Many people just don’t have time to plan ahead and instead have to pick up a meal when and where they can.

Research shows that the ’meal for tonight’ shopper mission represents a massive opportunity for forecourt retailers. Earlier this year, 8,000 forecourt convenience customers were interviewed as part of Him’s Convenience Tracking Programme. Just 4% of those customers were on a ’meal for tonight’ mission. They each spent, on average, £6.14 and bought 3.6 items. That £6.14 spend was significantly more than ’food for now’ shoppers who spent just £4.04, so they are valuable shoppers, but the trick is to get more of them to buy their ’meals for tonight’ in the forecourt.

Food manufacturers are, however, trying to help.

Phil Balderamos, general marketing manager for meals at Birds Eye, says his company has realised that it needs to think differently about forecourts and develop a bespoke solution.

"People are on shopper missions, looking for ’dinner tonight’ so we have to make it easier for them to get the items they need. One solution does not fit all so we’ve been researching shopper missions to come up with the best range and the best point-of-sale material for forecourts. Retailers don’t need loads of different brands, they need key value lines from strong category partners."

He suggests that forecourt retailers stick to strong hero brands such as Birds Eye ready meals - traditional roasts, curries and Italian lines - as well as ’iconic’ Birds Eye products such as its 10-pack of fish fingers and its 454g pack of peas.

"Forecourts need to have their freezers clearly signposted with ’meals for tonight’ then those meals divided by cuisine. You also need space for promotions or new lines to add some excitement."

Balderamos says pricemarked packs are really effective in communicating a good deal. The credit crunch is obviously a concern for everyone but he says it has brought a resurgence in interest in frozen food as some consumers perceive it to be better value for money and resulting in less waste than fresh foods.

Latest lines from Birds Eye include the Eat Positive and Big Eat ranges. The latter are bigger size (500g) meals with a high meat content aimed at lads and dads. Meanwhile the Eat Positive meals are all nutritionally balanced and each has a natural health benefit highlighted on pack, such as ’a natural source of Omega 3’ or ’naturally rich in antioxidants’.

From frozen to ambient, and Wendy Wing, customer marketing manager at Mars Foods, says that in forecourts where space is at a premium, retailers should focus on the best sellers.

"According to IRI data, Uncle Ben’s rice fills the top five best-selling SKUs list in both the Total Convenience and Managed Petrol Forecourt sectors. Uncle Ben’s egg fried, long grain, basmati and pilau Express rice varieties are must-stock items with Uncle Ben’s Express egg fried rice worth over £2.3m to convenience retailers alone."

She adds that Uncle Ben’s sweet & sour 500g and medium chilli con carne 500g sauces take the top two spots in the non-Italian cooking sauce sector within Total Convenience and Managed Petrol Forecourts sectors.

And Dolmio leads the way in the Italian cooking sauces sector, with the original bolognese 500g, worth £4.4m within Total Convenience.

Uncle Ben’s has just revised its Indian cooking sauces range, adding balti and jalfrezi alongside improved korma, medium curry and tikka masala recipes. Available in store from this month, the products will be supported by a £2.7m press and TV advertising campaign.

Wing recommends stocking Uncle Ben’s Indian sauces alongside the Uncle Ben’s rice range to help drive incremental sales with consumers looking for a full meal solution. Uncle Ben’s is in fact the UK’s number one rice brand.

Its latest variant is Wok Rice, a new ’one stop wok’ mealtime solution to cash in on the trend for stir fry meals.

Three pre-steamed varieties are available: basmati, garlic & herbs and Oriental soy & five spice. They are being launched this month, backed by a £1.1m TV and press advertising campaign.

== pastry cases ==

Many forecourt retailers are used to stocking Ginsters sandwiches and pasties as lunchtime meal solutions, however the Cornish company has just launched a new-look boxed pie range aimed at consumers looking for a mid-week meal.

Two varieties are available - Ginsters’ best-selling steak variant and chicken & mushroom. Andy Valentine, head of brand marketing for Ginsters, describes the 180g pies as "the perfect one-person sized pie". Also available are 550g family-sized pies in steak & potato and chicken varieties. Recommended retail price is £1.79 for the small pies and £3.99 for the larger ones.

Finally, Premier Foods has relaunched its Fray Bentos canned pie brand with new packaging, improved recipes and a new variety.

The new packaging is described as "more sleek and modern" to create increased stand-out on shelf while the tins have new names, such as ’rich steak & mushroom’, which focus more on the flavour.

The new variant ’tender’ Just Steak contains nothing but steak and gravy, topped with puff pastry.

In addition, all recipes have been improved, with a 20% reduction in salt per pie and no artificial colours and flavourings.

Rob Stacey, marketing manager for Fray Bentos, says he expects the new recipes to attract sales from a wider consumer base without losing the brand’s original following of "Great British blokes".


=== Case study: Budgens Nailsea ===

Darren Hamilton, operations manager at Budgens Nailsea, near Bristol, says people visit his store every day for dinner items. "We’re really in commuter territory here so we have got a big dinner trade. We stock everything you’d need for dinner - from ready meals to fresh meat like steak or pork chops, plus fruit and veg.

"Chilled ready meals sell really well. The vast majority of our range is Budgens branded but we also do Weight Watchers. Chilled greatly outsells frozen although we have noticed a little bit of an uplift in frozen, with the Budgens Our Kitchen meals and desserts selling pretty well. The Budgens large frozen fish is popular too with the more unusual lines such as tuna steaks and swordfish selling best.

"Promotions are obviously very popular. We have a longterm one on ready meals (two for a fiver) and we’ve always got a cooking sauce on promotion. We have two standalone Budgens stores and have noticed that people are watching what they spend in those more than they do here."