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Conagra's bet on frozen food appears to be paying off

  • Conagra introduced a number of new products in its frozen food brands, such as Healthy Choice, Banquet and Marie Callender's to match today's trends.
  • CEO Sean Connolly thinks the category will grow for years, as millennials venture down the frozen aisle to try to save money and find food that accommodates their schedules.
  • Sales of frozen meals grew 2 percent in the year ended Oct. 28, according to Nielsen. That's up from a decline of 2.3 percent in the year ended Nov. 1, 2014.
Sean Connolly, chief executive officer of ConAgra Foods.
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Sean Connolly, chief executive officer of ConAgra Foods.

Conagra's bet on frozen food appears to be working.

The company introduced a number of new products this year around today's trends. Its Healthy Choice and Banquet brands now offer food bowls that adopt the concept fast-casual restaurants have popularized. Marie Callender's serves a line that's lighter than its traditional meals, offering lean proteins and more vegetables.

The company does not disclose how much it has spent on the renovations, but its investment appears to be paying off. All three brands have posted sharp growth since releasing their new lines, though Marie Callender's and Healthy Choice have fallen a bit recently, according to Nielsen data compiled by JPMorgan.

Conagra CEO Sean Connolly thinks the category will grow for years. Consumers are buying more fresh food, but he thinks millennials will venture down the frozen aisle as they try to save money and find food that accommodates their flexible schedules.

"They don't know if they're going out for beer and buffalo wings or if they're going to be eating a pre-planned dinner so it's a last-minute, spontaneous decision. And having a meal on-call in the freezer when you're ready, we believe, is a huge opportunity," Connolly said at the Morgan Stanley Consumer Staples & Retail Conference on Tuesday.

Appetite for frozen meals appears to be growing across the aisle. Dollar sales increased 2 percent in the year ended Oct. 28, according to Nielsen. That's an increase of 4.3 percentage points from the year ended Nov. 1, 2014, when frozen meal sales declined 2.3 percent.

But millennials aren't just looking for anything, Connolly said. They want food that tastes good and is modern. And they're willing to pay for both.

"When we think about millennials shopping in frozen, the notion of them wanting to buy a meal at 88 cents doesn't compute because their latte costs $4.37," Connolly said.

In addition to renovating its three main frozen entree brands, it has also introduced new products under its other brands, including Frontera and Alexia.

Conagra's next frontier is probably snacks, he said. He pointed to trends in seeds and meat snacks, two categories Conagra has bought into earlier this year with Thanasi Foods, maker of Duke's Meat Snacks, and BIGS Seeds.

Acquisitions will continue to play a role in Conagra's strategy, Connolly said, but so will rethinking its existing brands like it did in the freezer aisle. Conagra renovated Slim Jim to make it more premium and more closely aligned with millennial-favorite jerky.

Enhancers will also be candidates for upgrades. Conagra plans to release Reddi-Wip made from almond milk and coconut milk sometime in the future to cater to consumers' growing interest in non-dairy, plant-based foods.

The classic Reddi-Wip was already revamped this year to meet today's consumer standards. The new recipe uses natural flavors and cream from cows that aren't treated with artificial growth hormones.

At the same time, Conagra will try and balance innovation with high-margin, reliable contributors, Connolly said. It's a balancing act in the food and beverage world that has challenged companies like PepsiCo.

"It's a mix, but I would tell you that we are real excited about the innovation slate we've got out there now," Connolly said. "But our mantra back at the home office is, 'What's next?' Because we know next year's got to be even bigger, and the year after that's gotta be bigger than that. So our foot is squarely on the gas when it comes to innovation."

Conagra is making progress, but its sales are still negative. In the most recent quarter, they dipped nearly 5 percent, up from a 9 percent decline in the previous quarter.

Shares of Conagra have slid 9.3 percent this year.