Local Flavours Heat Up Meal Solutions In Developing Markets

Local Flavours Heat Up Meal Solutions In Developing Markets

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During the past decade developing markets have been an important source of growth in the global meal solutions marketplace. According to Euromonitor International data, the Eastern European market accounted for 31% of global sales growth (in US$ fixed exchange rate value terms) in the chilled processed food segment over 1998-2007. Meanwhile, the Asia-Pacific region accounted for 35% of growth in sales of dried processed food during the same period.

Much of this growth has been driven by indigenous firms which have exploited national and region variations in taste to build strong brands. Although the increasing westernisation of tastes and greater private label competition now pose significant threats to growth, these manufacturers are fighting back with value-added offerings and increasingly diversified product portfolios.

Pelmeni dominates frozen processed food segment in Russia
In Russia, for example, local players accounted for the largest share of total current value sales in frozen processed food, with no multinational company ranking in the top 10. This is partly because leading firms such as Kachestvennye Produkty and its rivals Ravioli and Darya have adapted their offerings to local culinary culture, producing products based on such traditional Russian dishes as pelmeni (dough or pasta 'pockets' filled with meat, vegetables and other ingredients). Trade sources estimate that pelmeni accounts for over half of frozen processed food sales in Russia's urban markets.

Numerous regional companies also play an important role in this market. For example, in Yekaterinburg (Russia's fifth largest city, with a population of 1.3 million), sales of pelmeni are dominated by a local producer, Yekaterinburgsky Myasokombinat, which offers 19 varieties positioned across the price spectrum, from economy to premium.

Congee is king in China
Similarly, in the Chinese market, mixed congee (a type of rice porridge that is eaten in many Asian countries at breakfast or supper) is the main product type in the canned/preserved ready meals segment. Unsurprisingly, sales of mixed congee in China are dominated by such indigenous firms as Hangzhou Wahaha Group, Xiamen Yinlu Food Co and Yangzhou Xinxin Food Co. All of these companies benefit from strong, extensive distribution networks stretching into China's vast rural hinterland, as well as strong brand familiarity.

Indigenous players fill local niches in Latin America
Elsewhere, many Latin American packaged food manufacturers have launched products to fill meal solution niches that have been overlooked by their larger multinational rivals. For example, Venezuelan firm Industrias Iberia has launched a new line of stock cubes in flavours that are associated with indigenous dishes and that are not offered by competing multinational brands like Maggi and Knorr.

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Launched during 2007, the Paella range of products is targeted at time-poor, lower-income consumers.

Also during 2007, Alimentos Kern de Guatemala launched DUCAL Frijoles Parados, the first processed version of a traditional Guatemalan dish. Targeted at time-poor housewives, as well as urban migrants who are separated from their families, this product fits in well with the changing lifestyles of consumers in a niche and is backed by the well-established DUCAL brand. Like its Venezuelan counterpart, this offering is well positioned in a niche that is largely under the radar of multinationals, which are more concerned with more high-margin and large-volume segments of the market.

Increased private label participation will put further downward pressure on margins
Despite all this activity, there are signs that the outlook for growth in indigenous meal solution products may be darkening. Firstly, private label competition is increasing. In China, French retail chains Carrefour and Auchan both offer private label mixed congee products. These are priced in the region of RMB2.60(US$0.37)/360g, while branded products are typically priced at around RMB3.60(US$0.51)/360g. In an environment where food price inflation has become an important political and socio-economic issue in China, this competition will inevitably further undermine margins in this segment.

Westernisation of tastes poses a long-term threat
Another, and perhaps more serious, threat, is that tastes in many developing markets are becoming more westernised, with such products as breakfast cereals and pizzas increasingly displacing indigenous products. The factors behind this change include increased urbanisation, greater affluence, strong growth in foodservice sales, and the fact that increasing integration of global economies has weakened the link between local production and food availability.

In India, for example, the rapidly expanding foodservice industry represents a significant threat to the nascent ready meals segment. With many foodservice outlets (including McDonald's and Pizza Hut) offering free home delivery, many Indian consumers, who tend to prefer freshly prepared food, may opt for a pizza rather than a meal solutions product.

Foreign competitors leverage M&A
Foreign manufacturers are also using mergers and acquisitions to improve their distribution networks and facilitate new product launches. The acquisition of Indian MTR Foods by the Norwegian-based Orkla Group in 2007, for example, is expected to pave the way for the introduction of various packaged food products such as frozen pizza, ketchup and frozen ready meals from Orkla's global portfolio into the Indian market.

The robust growth of chilled ready meals (and hence multinational penetration) is being aided by the rapid development of convenience stores, particularly in China. Convenience store chains naturally have more efficient cold chain logistics than the independent stores they are displacing, and thus can allow for the better development of chilled ready meals. In terms of the wider packaged food market, the proportion of retail value sales accounted for by convenience stores has doubled, to more than 13%, during the 2000-2007 period. Moreover, larger manufacturers, such as Fu Ji and Hi Food, have begun to deliver products directly to convenience stores.

Value-added products may bolster demand
Indigenous manufacturers are attempting to counter these threats by launching a variety of health and wellness congee products. Market leader Hangzhou Wahaha Group has launched Wahaha Roughage Life, a high-end mixed congee product that is rich in dietary fibre, beta carotene and vitamins, while Fujian Quanzhou Xiduoduo Foods is continuously launching new flavours of “fibre congees” that are targeted at young female consumers. A number of manufacturers have also launched low-calorie Xylitol mixed offerings. Even without the addition of fortifying or functional ingredients, mixed congee is a highly nutritious food, and, as obesity inexorably becomes a bigger problem in China, an emphasis on health and wellness may well pay dividends for manufacturers.

Diversification strategies can exploit existing brand equity
Other manufacturers of indigenous products are attempting to diversify. In the expectation that revenues from traditional pelmeni-based ready meal variants will stagnate or decline during the next five years, Russian company Merital has began producing frozen and chilled ready meal products at its facility in Reutov, near Moscow.

Similarly, Jamie Doo, which makes ready meals based on traditional recipes in Bosnia-Herzegovina, has begun to market frozen pizzas. Enjoying the advantage of good distribution channels, established relationships with retailers and a high level of brand equity, it is well positioned to leverage its strength in traditional products into higher growth segments.

Increased foreign travel could boost sales
One source of growth (albeit of the niche variety) for indigenous meal solution products may be the rapid growth in foreign travel (for both business and leisure purposes) by people from developing economies. For example, the lack of economically-priced Indian food overseas drives many Indian travellers to take canned/preserved ready meals with them. With this in mind, manufacturers could gain an edge in the market by adapting their packaging to this purpose by replacing glass with plastic or launching resealable or single-serve packages.

Demand for ethnic food may create export opportunities
With demand for ethnic food growing strongly in the West, exporting may also be a viable option. With the proper marketing, such healthy products as mixed congee could find a ready market in the West, while products such as pelmeni could be targeted at consumers interested in gourmet products. With most manufacturers of traditional meal solution products lacking international marketing experience, joint ventures and licensing agreements could represent useful strategies. However, one obstacle that would have to be overcome in this regard would be Western misgivings regarding quality standards in the food processing industries of developing economies, particularly China.

While the growth of traditional meal solution products in developing markets is set to slow during the coming years, manufacturers that add value to their offerings and diversify their product portfolios to take account of changing tastes are still likely to perform well. Moreover, new opportunities may arise in export markets that could provide a lucrative new revenue stream.
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