The supermarket freezer aisle is on fire.
US frozen food sales were already heating up in the years just prior to 2020 but really skyrocketed as the pandemic hit. Even as offices, schools, and restaurants have reopened and people have begun learning to live with covid, Americans keep filling their freezers: In January 2022, frozen food sales were up 26% compared to January 2020 (although that’s partly because inflation has pushed prices higher).
Shifts in buying habits as a result of covid-19, along with changing preferences and a dash of industry innovation, explain the continued popularity of frozen foods in the US.
A pre-pandemic sales surge
For much of their existence since gaining popularity in the 1950s, frozen foods weren’t particularly healthy and often contained a lot of sodium. That’s still the perception of many baby boomers who grew up eating salty TV dinners and bland frozen pizzas.
Millennials and Gen Z, on the other hand, see frozen foods as healthy and convenient. According to a 2021 Deloitte survey, for example, 57% of those aged 18-34 think frozen meat is just as good as fresh, compared to 39% of those 55 and over.
“Oftentimes in the industry, we think of fresh versus frozen,” said Anne-Marie Roerink, president of 210 Analytics, a market research company focused on the food industry. “Consumers very much think of frozen in collaboration with fresh. Often they are in the exact same meal. We start with a frozen pizza and add fresh ingredients like mushrooms or what have you to it.”
In the years leading up to the pandemic, millennials, in particular, saw their buying power increase, driving the shift in sales.
Frozen food companies had also stepped up their game, Roerink said. Products like spiralized vegetables and cauliflower rice, which cater to low carb and plant-based diet trends, originated in the freezer section before making their way into the fresh produce department.
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Frozen foods’ appeal during lockdown
In the early days of the pandemic, frozen food purchases really went into overdrive. Sales skyrocketed more than 50% in March 2020 compared to a year prior, according to IRI, a data company that tracks purchases at supermarkets and other stores.
First and foremost, people just needed convenience. With kids at home and many restaurants slow to figure out takeout and delivery, frozen entrees were an early lockdown winner, Roerink said.
Covid concerns also drove people to make fewer trips to the store, with those who had typically shopped once a week or more before the pandemic now buying groceries every 10 days to two weeks, according to Deloitte. Keeping the freezer full was a way to make sure there’d be a meal to put on the table between trips.
“Safety had never been a category or a factor in shopping and it came up in 2020 for the first time in all of our years of doing these different surveys,” said Barb Renner, Deloitte’s vice chair and US leader of consumer products.
Many started grocery shopping online, another boon for frozen foods. Consumers are much more confident about a stranger picking out their frozen peas than a fresh tomato, and it’s easier to stock up on frozen foods (or anything else, for that matter) when someone delivers it to your doorstep.
When certain fresh items were out of stock due to early pandemic panic-buying or supply chain woes, shoppers looked elsewhere in the supermarket.
“If you couldn’t find it in the fresh produce or fresh meat section, you would then go to the frozen section or other sections of the grocery store,” Renner said.
Consumers focus on lower prices
Another big perceived benefit of frozen foods is price: They tend to cost less than fresh products and don’t spoil as quickly, so shoppers don’t worry about losing money on food that gets tossed.
“From the consumer’s perspective, they’ve always seen frozen as being the more cost-effective solution compared to fresh,” Roerink said.
More recently, inflation has been a key factor in choosing what to buy. In 2021, the average price per unit increased 4.3% in the frozen department compared to 5.3% for all food and beverage categories, according to IRI data.
“For instance, when last year we saw big inflation in the fresh meat department due to supply chain challenges, we just saw people seamlessly switch over to frozen and start to buy a little bit more there,” Roerink said.
A global trend
It wasn’t just Americans who started stocking their freezers during the pandemic.
“The frozen food category has done tremendously well all over the place, frankly, for the same exact reasons [as it has in the US],” Roerink said. Forty percent of UK shoppers are more likely to buy frozen food than before the pandemic, according to a July 2021 survey by Birds Eye.
While frozen food sales in the UK increased about 4-5% in 2017 and 2018, 2020’s year-over-year sales growth was close to 16%.
Frozen foods’ pandemic staying power
After the unheard-of surge in March 2020, US frozen food sales growth started to calm down as the year went on, hovering around 30% year-over-year in April and May and slowing to 16.5% in December.
Overall, the average household spent $595 on frozen food in 2020, an increase of nearly 20%, according to research conducted by Roerink for the American Frozen Food Institute and FMI – The Food Industry Association.
“If you look at the 2020 sales results, I honestly thought we would never see those again,” Roerink said.
Nevertheless, 2021’s sales managed to go even higher, rising 1% to $66 billion, though that’s partly due to inflation. Unit sales—the number of items customers actually bought—dropped 3% year-over-year. In other words, people were buying slightly fewer items that cost a little bit more.
At the same time, dollar sales were up 23% and unit sales rose 10.5% compared to 2019 levels, meaning US shoppers are still buying a heck of a lot more frozen food than they were before the pandemic.
While schools and restaurants have reopened, one explanation for the continued popularity of frozen foods is that many white-collar workers are still working remotely. Instead of grabbing breakfast on the way to work or picking up lunch near the office, they continue to make meals at home, Renner said.
The future of frozen food
With so many people buying more frozen food, they needed a place to put it: 30% of shoppers increased their freezer capacity during the pandemic, according to Roerink’s research.
“I even did some focus groups with consumers in New York that talked about a small little reach-in freezer that now sits in their bedroom,” Roerink said. “In the olden days you would talk to Costco shoppers that lived in urban areas, and they would show how they had paper towels and toilet paper stashed under their bed. I think that has now expanded to small freezers that are stashed away to be able to buy in larger quantities and have food on hand in that space as well.”
A similar trend played out in the UK. And once you have the freezer space available, you’re likely to keep using it.
Supermarkets have responded enthusiastically to shoppers’ interest.
“I’m actually seeing retailers double down on frozen food where they’re adding an extra aisle with freezers,” Roerink said. “You see freezers popping up in different parts of the store. We see more and more meat departments adding a little freezer section as well.”
While frozen food sales did dip somewhat in the second quarter of 2021, when more people were venturing out amid optimism over vaccines’ ability to tame covid-19, they were still much higher than during the same period in 2019. As cases go down, customers will revert to some of their old buying habits, but industry experts believe frozen food sales will remain high.
“The perception will not have changed,” Roerink said. “So I’m actually very optimistic for continued strength for frozen food.”