CHICAGO – Retailers' prepared-food offerings are becoming a viable alternative to restaurant fare, according to a new study from market research firm Technomic.

In a survey of consumers living in Southern California, 40 percent agreed that "prepared foods from retailers are restaurant-quality foods at better prices." Also, nearly two-thirds reported seeing significant improvements in the quality and variety of retailer prepared foods over the past five years.

"Retailers' prepared foods programs have evolved to the point that they are considered viable alternatives to restaurants of all types and service styles, from full- and quick-service to upscale and more affordable concepts," said Jenny Anderson, who directs Technomic's RMS Monitor service. "The appeal goes well beyond convenience and value. Consumers clearly recognize enhancements that are based on restaurant influences."

When asked if retailers are better or worse than restaurants on 14 different product attributes, retailers consistently fared better than restaurants in attributes that included food/ingredient quality, freshness, number of better-for-you choices and availability of premium items, according to Technomic. The research firm found that all restaurant segments are losing visits to retailers, but even lower-priced restaurants have been impacted by this trend. Further, among surveyed consumers who say they are visiting restaurants less often, family-style, upscale fast-food and traditional fast-food establishments are hit hardest, with more than two-thirds of these consumers saying they cut back on visits to these restaurants.

The study focused on retailer meal solutions (RMS), which Technomic defines as prepared (or partially prepared) foods that are found where consumers can pick up ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat items from service counters or self-service/grab-and-go areas (e.g., an expanded deli section). These products do not require extensive preparation beyond reheating (if applicable). They might be refrigerated, but they are not frozen. Examples include rotisserie chicken, sushi, sandwiches, pizza, salads, soups and side dishes.