One in three people look for quick and easy-to-prepare foods during the week, according to Mintel’s latest Evening Meal report. And for time-strapped commuters forecourts are often a convenient place to stop and pick up something for dinner.

But consumers are complicated creatures and no more so than when it comes to food. We’re now too busy to spend hours slaving in the kitchen, demanding instead instant-meal solutions. Yet on the other hand, growing health concerns and the efforts of TV chefs like Jamie Oliver are persuading us that we should be using more fresh ingredients and making more meals from scratch. With convenience and health now the major drivers in the food market what should the modern forecourt store be offering?

"The dinner occasion is really important for forecourt stores, but you have to have the right range and guaranteed availability," says Steve Carter, head of fresh food buying at Musgrave Budgens Londis. "It isn’t just about ready meals. Increasingly consumers want to throw together simple, fresh ingredients to make a quick, appetising dish. At a typical Budgens forecourt store, customers will be able to buy a roasted chicken, a bag of salad, dressings and a fresh baguette and rustle up a classic Caesar salad in no time. Or they can buy a good steak or British lamb chops, with salad or fresh vegetables."

A good fresh-food offer can dramatically boost a forecourt’s appeal as a place to shop for the evening meal. However, many consumers feel that current ranges are just too limited.

As part of its Convenience Tracking Programme, research company HIM recently asked forecourt shoppers to give ratings out of 10 for the range of choice in different fresh categories. While sandwiches scored a respectable average score of seven, chilled foods dropped to 6.2 and fresh fruit and vegetables scored just 4.5.

While some retailers get anxious about wastage, a stronger offer in these areas can really transform a traditional site, as Justin Taylor, general manager at the Winford Road Garage in the Chew Valley near Bristol, has found out over the past 18 months. Since converting to Spar in November 2004, the store has doubled in size and so have sales, with around 10% coming from chilled and fresh foods. "Before the conversion, our sales were very transient," explains Justin. "Now we have more regular customers, including more women, who will come in on their way home from work and spend a reasonable amount on a basket of food for their supper - and there are spin-off sales into other areas from that. Wastage is a concern but we try to reduce products a day or two before expiry, depending on what they are. It’s one of those areas where if you’re going to commit to it you’ve got to give it time to grow. It won’t be an overnight success, people gradually get to know that the offer’s there."

Since the forecourt is situated in an affluent rural area - dubbed Bristol’s stockbroker belt - Justin and his team have worked hard to create a range that appeals to the more discerning diner. "It’s fair to say it’s not an archetypal Spar offer," he says. "We have a strong delicatessen-style offer, including olives and a wide range of cheeses. Some of these we source from Spar’s regional distribution company, Appleby Westward, or from a number of local suppliers." Other goodies to be found in the chiller include local smoked salmon, cooked and smoked meats and outdoor-reared pork; while there is a comprehensive wine offer to wash it all down with.

Offering locally-sourced produce gives independent retailers a point of difference from the multiples and according to HIM it’s something that 56% of shoppers would like to see more of in their local c-store.


Ready meals are undoubtedly still a mainstay of the forecourt offer, particularly as one in four people say they use them when they are too tired to cook. While the frozen sector of the market is in decline, chilled has continued to show strong growth. The sector is dominated by own-label and the symbol groups have been working hard on their ranges.

At Budgens there are currently around 36 own-label lines and there are plans for new premium variants to be launched in 2007. The current best-sellers are traditional favourites like lasagne, spaghetti bolognese, chicken korma and chicken tikka, while pre-prepared vegetables and time-saving accompaniments like buttery mash are also popular.

Steve Carter adds that chilled pasta dishes are a massive growth area. "They are simple and quick to cook and, with a pack of salad and a chilled bottle of wine or beer, offer the ultimate convenient meal solution," he says. As such, some new premium chilled pasta and sauces are set to hit the shelves very soon and the Budgens’ standard range is also being revamped.

Over at Spar quick, easy options for the evening meal are being heavily promoted this autumn through a new range of point-of-sale material. These highlight ready meals and pre-prepared accompaniments, as well as fresh chicken.

Spar’s ongoing Brand of Choice programme has seen more than 300 new own-label products launched over the past year. The latest chilled ready meals have been benchmarked against the major supermarkets and include more modern recipes such as Thai green curry with sticky rice and vegetable lasagne. The range offers meals under five themes: Classic, Indian, Italian, Oriental and Goodsense (healthy).

Elsewhere, new lines have also been added to cater for changing consumer tastes plus there’s a new ’Treat Yourself’ premium range.

== SAUCES ==

One in four adults claims to always cook from scratch, but many believe that a meal made using cooking sauces still counts as home-made. Ambient sauces offer quick solutions and are big sellers. Indeed according to IRI data, the wet cooking sauce market is worth £547.8m. In the forecourt sector, brands are important as shoppers are likely to be in a hurry and looking for a name they can trust.

Italian varieties account for a huge chunk of the sauce market, worth £263.8m. Leading brand Dolmio, made by Masterfoods, has been extending its convenience formats, the latest of which is a range of single-serve pasta pouches and sauces called ’My Dolmio’. These are aimed at busy mums with children aged 8-12 and are an extension of the adult Express range. Express pasta comes in microwaveable pouches and can be combined with one of nine varieties of sauces to create a meal in just two minutes. Original bolognese remains the brand’s top-selling jar.

Also in Italian, Knorr Ragu sauces have just been relaunched with improved recipes and a new jar shape, which maker Unilever believes will stand out from its competitors on the sauces fixture. The brand is being backed by a £5.4m advertising campaign, which includes TV and cinema and highlights the health credentials of tomatoes.

Indian and oriental sauces are also very popular and Uncle Ben’s, another Masterfoods brand, has been positioning its ’Around the World’ range, which includes Mexican and traditional flavours, as alternatives to a takeaway meal. The brand says recent research revealed that more than 53% of consumers prefer a home-cooked meal, with increasing health concerns and costs given as the main reasons. The Express Rice range continues to be particularly successful, dominating the market with a 75% share. It includes take-away style flavours such as egg fried rice, special fried rice and basmati.

Meanwhile at Sharwood’s, marketing manager Helen Williams says retailers should make the most of the takeaway-style meal occasion by offering complete solutions. "As well as the sauces, offer mango chutney, naan breads and noodles to go with them and increase basket spend. These should all be merchandised together, along with things like rice," she says.

Forecourts should avoid confusing time-pressed consumers with too many different flavours, adds Williams. Must-stocks are korma and tikka for Indian meals and sweet & sour and black bean for Chinese. Sweet chilli & red pepper is also worth considering, as it’s a best-seller in supermarkets. And since forecourt shoppers tend to be slightly more up-market and a bit younger, Sharwoods recommends, adding a few more adventurous choices, such as spicy jalfrezi and Thai red and green curries.

== in the freezer ==

Frozen food has suffered over the past few years, mainly due to its image problem of being seen as second best to fresh food. But despite this, the market is still worth a massive £3bn in the UK. And the major manufacturers have been going to great lengths to try and tempt shoppers back to the freezer. For example Birds Eye - recently sold by Unilever to Permira - has spent £21m on marketing this year. The company has also put guideline daily amounts (GDA) on the front of packs. Janti Soeripto, business unit director, says: "People have wrongly labelled frozen food as poor quality and we want to set the record straight. We want retailers and consumers to reappraise the category by telling them the truth. Birds Eye uses only the best-quality ingredients, freezing them to lock in the goodness and keep them at their peak." The company has also launched a series of more upmarket product lines, such as Simply Chicken and the Pub Specials range of premium ready meals, which includes new puff pastry pies and chunky fishcakes.

While value sales of ready meals were down by 13% in 2005, they remain one of the largest categories in frozen, worth £436m. Schwann’s is hoping to reverse the decline with a new range of Chicago Town deep-filled ready meals. The three-strong range features two lasagnes in classic beef and pepperoni varieties, and chilli pasta wraps with tortilla chips. With improved recipes and high meat contents, the meals are aimed at consumers looking for convenient meal solutions for the family or sharing occasions.

Finally, frozen pizza remains a good seller, with the market worth £327m. Eating pizza is one of the most popular ways of indulging at the end of the week. According to research by the Pizza Pasta and Italian Food Association (PAPA) more pizzas are sold at the weekend than at any other time, making availability at this time crucial.


=== Chicken tonight ===

The take-home rotisserie chicken market is worth around £200m and it continues to grow as consumers look for quick and healthy meal solutions.

Derek Lodge, of Rusdene Services, says hot chicken has proved popular at the group’s Budgens site in Lee on Solent, particularly on Sunday mornings when people are looking for a speedy alternative to the traditional roast.

Derek paid around £5,000 for the machine. "The environmental procedures you need to follow and the cleaning schedule are a bit of a chore, but it’s worth the effort because it makes us a destination stop," he says.

For retailers who don’t want to splash out on a specialist unit, Country Choice now offers pre-cooked chickens that can be finished off in a bake-off oven and transferred to a heated display unit. This allows you to cook as many chickens as you want, whereas a rotisserie only really becomes economical to operate when used for six or more birds. With a unit price of £2.59 Country Choice says retailers can easily expect a £1 cash margin.


=== Merchandising tips ===

? Forecourts should stock the major brands and the basic flavours.

? Block wet cooking sauces first by ethnicity and then by brand.

? Pasta should be merchandised with Italian wet cooking sauces and rice should be with Oriental and Indian.

? Microwaveable pouches of rice and pasta may tempt impulse buyers and time-starved consumers looking to pick up a quick dinner solution.

? Due to the urgency of the evening meal shopping mission, there is an opportunity to sell in new products but these must be mainstream brands/flavours.

? Pricing is not a key lever but promotions should be used to highlight the dinner time category.

Source: Dolmio


=== In the can ===

They don’t contain the sexiest products, making them easy to overlook, but tins provide convenience staples. What’s more, some products are doing better than you might think. According to Mintel, baked beans have been successfully repositioned as a convenient but healthy food, and sales are expected to grow by 30% over the next five years. Meanwhile, the cold canned meats market has returned to growth, with Spam in particular recording a double-digit sales increase.

Tinned soup gets popular as the temperature drops, with 63% of sales between October and March.

Heinz has recently revamped its range and launched pricemarked packs specifically for the independent sector.


=== Top ten Ready meals by volume ===

1. Birds Eye chicken curry & rice

2. Goodfellas pepperoni pizza

3. Goodfellas cheese pizza

4. Birds Eye roast chicken dinner

5. Birds Eye roast beef dinner

6. Cooks sausage, chips & beans

7. Birds Eye shepherds pie, 400g

8. Birds Eye lasagne, 400g

9. Birds Eye beef stew & dumplings

10. Birds Eye lasagne, 375g

Source: Palmer & Harvey