Moving Food Bar
Work and Money
Toddlers, Shrinking Seniors
MOVING FOOD BAR
Food bars are on the move. They come in two basic
sizes and types. Type I bars are measured in feet and offer wide assortments
of ready-to-eat foods and flavors to go. Type II are measured in inches
and held in one hand. They too offer a wide assortment of ready to eat
foods and flavors to go. Type II (hand held) bars are growing faster
than Type I (take-out bars) right now, but both types are worth watching.
FOOD BARS - TYPE
Call them salad bars' step-children or saloon foods for the 21st Century.
We learned about (food service) Food Bar fans by listening to consumers
talk about today's (packaged) food bars. Even though we asked them to
compare today's food bars with granola bars, several answered questions
in reference to what we usually think of as prepared food or take-out
shops. If their responses hadn't been so enthusiastic, we would have
chalked the comments up to a poorly worded question. But careful listening
showed us that some consumers think take-out food bars are great. They
like the idea of salad bars, sandwich bars, and Chinese and Thai food
bars and think of them all as food bars. One respondent was excited
about an Indian food bar that was about to open in her neighborhood.
Three benefits were attributed to take-out bars:
We affectionately described them as saloon foods because their benefit
combination is a throwback to the long-standing reputation of traditional
(beer and booze) bars for serving good, fast, and cheap food.
FOOD BARS - TYPE
Old-fashioned consumers like to have all of their food on plates. These
plate-centered consumers are packaged food bar holdouts, but they are
a minority. More than two thirds of the shoppers we surveyed are using
packaged food bars at least occasionally, mostly because "They
are just so convenient!" and "They really save time!"
Convenience in the
form of individually wrapped bars has moved from candy bars to granola
bars to Power Bars, Balance Bars, Slim Fast bars, Ensure bars, Odwalla
Bars, Heart Bars and a seemingly endless flow of flavor-variety food
bars. They appease hunger and boost physical and/or psychological energy
between meals, or replace them altogether. They offer a wide variety
of health benefits as well as flavors. They save time and work in the
morning, when saving time and work are more important than saving money
to most consumers under age 50. They have a strong nutrition profile
that accents protein and soy and a minimum of sugar. They fit almost
every shelf, lunch box, car door or glove compartment, pocketbook, back
pack and food belief. . And in addition to being sold everywhere that
candy bars are sold, food bars are widely available at health and natural
food stores and at hospitals where they are positioned as healthy meal
supplements, or in the case of doctors' offices, as amenities like drug
samples that cost the doctors or their practice-owners nothing.
Some rejecters see
them as expensive cookies but users like them for a breakfast on the
go or a quick lunch. Many keep them on pantry shelves at home or at
the office to satisfy sudden or creeping hungers healthfully. Some parents
send bars to day care. Others keep bars at home in the hopes that their
kids will use them instead of candy, cookies, or microwavable snacks.
(These hopes are frequently unrealized but parents keep trying because
the food bars seem like such a good idea.) Some believe that better
day care centers use food bars instead of cookies and chips for snacks.
The most frequent
users told us they use them between and in place of breakfast and lunch,
when saving time is most important:
- Granola bars
were dry. The new bars are moist, more like pastry, and healthier
- We never liked
granola bars but really like the Slim Fast bars.
- The new ones
taste better and they are softer.
- My husband really
likes the new ones for their healthy convenience for lunch at work.
- Overall, I think
they are more nutritionally balanced, less fat, more vitamins and
fiber, more protein and less carbs than granola bars. And I like Balance
Food bars are almost everywhere while food bowls are on a roll in the
freezer case and making appearances on the grocery shelf as well. Bowl
foods taste good and eliminate prep steps and dishes. They began with
a Kings Hawaiian restaurant bowl entrée that was first packaged
for multi-pack distribution in club stores. When it appeared in supermarket
freezer cases it was packaged in single serving, super-convenient VersaTrayÔ
bowls that can be heated in traditional or microwave ovens. Consumers
liked the package and the authentic product. The bowl idea hit big time
when Mars Inc. rolled out Uncle Ben's® Rice Bowls. The Uncle Ben's®
website claims that their Rice Bowls are "convenient. delicious...98%
a new answer to the dilemmas of today's hectic
lifestyle. Just seven short minutes to heat up, no clean up and enough
choices to keep your taste buds entertained for days! Six feature quality
Tyson® chicken, two make perfectly nutritious, meatless meals and
two include hearty beef."
The consumers we heard from agreed with Uncle Ben's Rice Bowl claims
and added some benefit perceptions of their own. First, they believe
that Uncle Ben's really knew what they were doing with rice (just as
King Hawaiian knew what they were doing with their Hawaiian food bowls.).
Both of these companies were/are experts with rice, a product that many
American consumers have trouble getting just right. Second, several
consumers noted that the frozen rice bowl products actually taste fresh
- which is about the highest compliment consumers can give a frozen
According to Information Resources, both Nestlé's Stouffer's
Skillet Sensations and Mars, Inc.'s Uncle Ben's Rice Bowls made last
years' top ten products. "Uncle Ben's Rice Bowls, which offer meals
on the go in a convenient bowl that serves as both the cooking and serving
dish, had $98.4 million in sales for 1999-2000. Only three percent of
the 1,000 or so new CPG products introduced annually clear the $50 million
sales hurdle in their first year. These products clearly hit the right
buttons with consumers
We've heard good things about Stouffer's frozens for years, so positive
comments about their Skillet Sensations didn't surprise us. What Uncle
Ben's accomplished was to extend their rice reputation to a new food
experience, a new kind of meal preparation, and a new part of the store.
If they can maintain their current quality level and price points, the
rice bowls should be recognized as real innovations that should be around
for a long while. They have been joined in the freezer case by Noodle
Bowls from Uncle Ben's as well as bowl products from Weight Watchers
and Healthy Choice. Some consumers see them as much improved TV Dinners
for the 21st Century. We see them as an updated cross between Campbell's
now-defunct Le Menu and the Michelina line developed by Gino Pallucci
and now part of the growing frozen line at Heinz - altogether another
step up the ladder toward everyday prepared foods.
Since General Mill's
has had its finger on the pulse of consumer convenience, and made focusing
on extending convenience its corporate strategy, we were very surprised
to hear that they may have missed the mark with shelf-stable Betty Crocker
Bowl Appetite. Almost all of the consumers who responded enthusiastically
to our bowl questions had been introduced to bowls via Uncle Ben's.
Almost all the respondents who bad-mouthed the bowl idea were basing
their low opinion on Betty Crocker Bowl Appetite. Some had trouble following
the instructions (the etched fill line on the black plastic bowl is
very hard to see.) Some associated adding water with the very inexpensive
ramen soups - and while the Betty Crocker product is much cheaper than
Uncle Ben's, it's not cheap relative to ramen noodle soups. Maybe it's
the fact that Betty Crocker bowls sound like they are for mixing, not
for eating. Or maybe the Asians know something about the special relationship
between rice, noodles and bowls that make King's Hawaiian and Uncle
Ben's products taste fresh and Betty Crocker's taste soggy?
- The Bowls
are tasty and convenient.
- They are real
time saves for busy families.
- Uncle Ben's
is the best. Wonderful flavor combinations and nice-sized portions.
- I think Uncle
Ben's bowls are great. The food tastes fresh and they are very convenient.
- Bowl Appetit
- I tried Bon
Appetit Rice bowl and it was really dry! Too expensive for taste!!
I won't buy again.
- Haven't tired
them yet but I plan to.
- I tried the
Betty Crocker Bowl and didn't like it at all.
- Have used
food bowls. Their success is based on convenience.
- They are a
"complete" meal in one package, but smaller portion.
It isn't only the
taste that's keeping more consumers from climbing aboard this bandwagon.
Many are concerned about price and/or additives. The perception of prepared
foods being laced with additives is still widespread:
- I've tried
them and in a pinch they are okay but everything is becoming processed
- Prefer to
prepare foods without preservatives and additives.
- Ready to heat
prepared foods are too expensive for me and have too many additives.
Here is an observation
on the Tyson's ingredient branding on Uncle Ben's Rice Bowls: The use
of branded (Tyson) Chicken in Uncle Ben's Rice Bowls helps to position
the bowls as quality products because they claim to use expensive ingredients.
It's an especially interesting usage of ingredient branding because
a concurrent Consumer Network study of store brand versus national brand
quality perceptions for perishables showed that in spite of heavy brand
penetration in recent years, most consumers perceived little or no quality
difference between store brand and national brand chicken. This consumer's
assessment is typical of what we heard: "The big chicken brands
are better packaged and come in more cut varieties. And since one of
them is almost always on sale, they are usually cheaper than the store
brand. But the quality is no different. Store brand chicken is cheaper
and just as good but I only buy it when none of the big brands are on
Saying that someone had trouble boiling water used to be a description
of a really challenged cook. Today, we're approaching a time when boiling
water may be about as useful as long division. Microwavable pasta-sauce
combos eliminate boiling water and are expected to make huge inroads
on the billions of bags and boxes of spaghetti, linguine, capellini,
noodles, ziti, lasagna and macaroni that have come to a boil in American
kitchens during the last hundred years. Even the spaghetti dinner kits
introduced by Chef Boyardi in the 1940's or 50's required the consumer
to boil the pasta. The canned spaghettis and raviolis marketed by Franco
American and Chef Boyardi were mainstays for kids and soft-food seniors
but never challenged a real spaghetti dinner. The new combinations take
on that challenge and where we go from there is a real question. Many
food trend watchers believed that we would be further along the path
to Prêt a Manger (ready to eat) by the turn of 21st century -
just as we moved from sewing to Prêt a Porter (ready to wear)
clothes as we entered the 20th century. Prêt a Manger hasn't moved
as quickly as some thought because many people really enjoy cooking
and many still find cooking for their loved ones the best way to express
it's nice to prepare family meals from fresh ingredients and to savor
the aroma that fills your home and enjoy a meal from your hands to
The smell will almost
certainly be added to convenience foods during the next few years. The
big question is how often consumers will want to use their hands to
cook for themselves or their families.
WORK AND MONEY
It's a given these days that food has to taste good. And for some consumers,
it's got to be viewed as healthy and safe. Beyond those three major
concerns, most of the trade-offs that consumers make about convenience
related foods involve time, work, and money.
Because we were
looking at time-saving convenience items like bars and bowls, we asked
a group of our shoppers to tell us how important it was to save time,
work and money in a variety of categories. The differences between meal
occasion categories were substantial - but so was the difference between
age groups. Among our younger shoppers, saving time and work is the
driver in most categories. Saving money is a consideration for snack
and breakfast foods but is less important for lunch and dinner. Among
our 31-50 shoppers, saving time is critical at breakfast but less important
at lunch. Among our 50+ shoppers, saving money on food may not be a
priority but is always a consideration.
WORK, MONEY ON FOOD: WHAT'S IMPORTANT WHEN
(Numbers show mean importance ratings on a 5-point scale where 5=Extremely
Since we almost
never find perfect agreement among our changing cross sections of shoppers,
we sometimes wonder how Quaker meetings manage to reach full consensus
before taking action. That philosophical question is included here to
point up the wonder of the 5.0 mean responses on the importance of saving
time and work at lunch. No matter where they were from, no matter
whether or not they had kids, everyone under 31 agreed strongly that
lunch must be fast and effortless. No wonder the Lunchable type
combo kits and the Type II bars are so successful.
The meaning of "work"
changes right along with time expectations and perceptions. One of the
young respondents pointed out that microwave popcorn involved more time
and work than a bag of corn or chips but was a lot cheaper. Note
that she described microwave popcorn as involving time and work! For
those of us who still crave kernels popped in oil while being stirred,
realizing that the microwave quickies we resort to in a desperate pinch
are today's version of time consuming work is the kind of comeuppance
that keeps us on our trend toes!
TALL TODDLERS, SHRINKING SENIORS
"May you live in interesting times" is one of the supposedly
Chinese blessings (or curses) that appear to be overtly true for those
who are alive and well during these fast paced, fast changing, and fascinating
times. A huge and still growing size range is one of the dozens of phenomena
that characterizes our times. The widening range challenges store, car
and home designers as well as consumer households and the marketers
of things consumers use and wear and need to see. There are more and
more size twos just as there is more and more obesity. Growing numbers
of three and four generation families are dealing with giant size teenagers
(who one mom described as very tall toddlers) and shrinking seniors
(who seem to lose inch after inch as though they were looking toward
a second childhood in size as well as function.)
Being tall isn't
the coping, clothing or shoe-finding problem for girls that it used
to be, especially for girls who are tall and slender. Being short is
still a challenging problem for boys who sometimes equate tallness with
strength and manliness. But growing shorter is a growing problem for
shrinking seniors who are living longer and able to reach less and less
even as they lose their balancing ability to climb and stretch. Although
some supermarket operators are doing better at this than they did in
years past, most drug stores and mass-market marts are easier for height-challenged
shoppers than most supermarkets. "Being short, I'm always frustrated
at the supermarket, especially in the cereal aisle when the kids cereals
are at my eye level and the healthy cereals I want to buy are out of
The Shopper Report®,
copyright 2001, edited by Mona Doyle, is published eleven times a year
by The Consumer Network, Inc., 3624 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA
19104. Phone (215)235-2400. Fax (215)235-6967. Email: ShopperReport@CS.com.
Back issues are available at www.MonaDoyle.com.
The Consumer Network provides consulting, presentation, and research
services including focus groups, seminars, partnered shoppings, and
surveys of consumers, employees, and executives.