KANSAS CITY, MO. — During a market research project conducted by Sealed Air Corp.’s Cryovac brand before the current recession, consumers were asked to state their opinions on what the word “freshness” means to them. They provided a variety of answers, but to many fresh means not frozen, said Jerry Kelly, national retail account manager, Cryovac Retail Task Force, during last week’s freshness webinar titled “Fresh Year, Fresh Start” co-sponsored by Sealed Air Corp.’s Cryovac brand and Meat&Poultry magazine.

Consumers also said freshness means healthier products, organic, no preservatives, the meat looks good and doesn’t sit in its own juices, and the meat also smells and tastes good.

Those surveyed did at least 50% of the grocery shopping for their households and at least 50% of the meal preparations. The survey included households with incomes above $25,000, the minimum age of those surveyed was 25, and those surveyed throughout the country were balanced based on ethnicity and age. The survey included input from 1,852 respondents.

“No matter how we asked the question, fresh meat, poultry and produce were considered best by the consumer,” Mr. Kelly said. “’Healthier’ was the number-one attribute associated with freshness.”

Although respondents had many definitions of "freshness", all are associated with positive food attributes. In descending order of importance, they associated freshness with healthier, 68%; has not been previously frozen, 64%; has the best taste, 61%; smells fresh, 60%; offers the most vitamins and minerals, 59%; has the use by/freshness date on package, 53%; and is the best for me, 50%.

“The bottom line is all consumer responses were very positive of food attributes that we looked for and they all tie in very heavily to fresh,” Mr. Kelly said.

After results were analyzed, consumers were placed into several groups. During the webinar, Mr. Kelly focused on two groups: Green Gourmets and Wannabe Model Moms. Green Gourmets made up 15% of the sample size. They focus on green, fresh, organic and healthy. “When it comes to their food purchases, they won’t sacrifice health benefits for convenience,” Mr. Kelly said.

This group primarily consists of couples without kids at home; 66% aged 45 or more; 30% have a graduate/professional degree; 73% of the households earn $50,000 or more a year — 10% earn $150,000 or more; 24% cook from scratch daily; and 93% purchase organics.

Researchers found this group values fresh and healthy attributes above everything else. “Freshness is a driver; a quality attribute,” Mr. Kelly said. “When we looked at the eco-friendly, sustainable thought process they go through, the organic products are worth the extra costs, as was sustainable packaging. They want that and are willing to pay more for (these attributes).”

Green Gourmets are very passionate about scratch cooking. “They make dinner from scratch three or more nights a week,” Mr. Kelly said. “They use leftovers because they started out with something very good so their leftovers are good, as well. They focus in on fresh meat, poultry, vegetables, fruit, etc.”

Green Gourmets consider fresh foods healthier — 85% of this group said fresh food tastes better. And they prefer prepared fresh vegetables over frozen by a wide margin. “They believe organic foods are healthier and safer for them,” Mr. Kelly said.

Eighty-six percent of Green Gourmets shop at a traditional grocery store, 42% shop at organic or all-natural stores, 33% shop at wholesale clubs and 30% shop at mass-merchants or supercenter stores.

The next group — Wannabe Model Moms — are time-starved. “They have a hectic life schedule, both with work and family, and they’re trying to balance it,” Mr. Kelly said. “They run out of time and feel guilty about not being able to do more at dinner in preparing meals.”

Wannabe Model Moms are married with two or more kids; 57% are aged 35-54; 59% have associate degrees or less; 60% have a household income less than $75,000; 60% are employed full-time; and 74% cook regularly or occasionally.

This group understands the value of fresh and home cooked and they believe people can taste the difference with fresh products. They think fresh foods are healthier than frozen.

“They cook from scratch three or more times a week; they use fresh ingredients two to three times a week; and they rely on frozen meat or poultry about three times a week for backup because of their hectic schedule,” Mr. Kelly said.

This group perceives fresh tastes best and it offers the most vitamins and minerals. “But in terms of cooking fresh....they’re more likely to cook fresh 37% of the time and frozen 24% of the time, but they want to incorporate fresh ingredients and food more often.

Green Gourmets prefer products as natural as possible. “So, packaging that preserves freshness without additives, like a Freshness Plus line of products, will drive sales to that particular group,” Mr. Kelly said. “It’s all about finding the right freshness motivator for each group and to sell accordingly.”

Eighty-six percent of Wannabe Model Moms shop at traditional grocery stores; 48% shop at mass merchants or supercenters compared to 30% for the Green Gourmets; 36% shop at wholesale clubs compared to 33% for Green Gourmets; and only 6% shop at organic stores or all-natural stores compared to 42% for the Green Gourmets.

“(Regarding Wannabe Model Moms), you are selling to busy moms, people who have a lot on their plates,” Mr. Kelly said. “They still gravitate towards shelf-life extensions through case-ready applications and vacuum-packaged products. That type of packaging keeps product fresher longer and fits into their lifestyle.” 

One Roper research study indicates adults spend about 3.1 hours per week cooking for fun. “That’s a lot of scratch cooking, focusing on fresh,” Mr. Kelly says. “Mintel reports about half of all adults are casual cooking enthusiasts (53%) who watch the Food Network and cooking shows, which also focus heavily on preparing fresh products.”

According to a recent Consumer Reports study, eight in 10 (81% women) do most of the cooking with a little more than half (54%) of the men pitching in and cleaning up afterwards.

Information Resources Inc. data shows more than half of consumers say they are cooking from scratch more often now as compared to the last recession, Mr. Kelly said. “People are now eating at foodservice a little less,” he added. “In the last recession, people turned to more prepared meals and frozen entrées. This is a nice opportunity we’re facing.”

Sales of fresh meat and seafood rose 4% for the year ending 2009, according to Nielsen data. And the 2009 Power of Meat study shows 41% of respondents said they would increase their overall meat purchases if better quality of meat products and cuts were offered.

“Looking at everything in this tough economy, it’s important to find every competitive advantage you can,” Mr. Kelly said. “Knowing the clear consumer preference for fresh meat and poultry can make a very big difference between just making your numbers and growing your business.”

Click here to listen to the entire Webinar.