DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Call this the freezing out of frozen food - you know, TV dinners, which were a novelty when they first showed up in national supermarkets back in the 1950s.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR: It's the first and only three-course frozen dinner.
GREENE: The first and only. But as NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, sales of frozen dinners have flattened or dropped over the past few years.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Grandmother Lynn Smith is picking up frozen vegetables in a Los Angeles grocery store to add to her evening stew.
Do you buy a lot of your food in the frozen food aisle?
LYNN SMITH: No I don't, as a matter of fact.
ULABY: Neither do many other people shopping here today.
SMITH: As you can see, it's kind of an empty aisle.
ULABY: Frozen food is a $53 billion a year business. That might sound like a lot, but frozen accounts for only about 6 percent of total grocery store sales. It's hard to compete with the warmth and good smells of the deli section that's gotten so big in so many stores, says Warren Thayer. He edits of frozen food trade magazine.
WARREN THAYER: Forty-six percent of shoppers on the typical trip, when they spend over $100, don't even set foot in the frozen food department.
ULABY: Here's one reason why.
PHIL LEMPERT: You're physically cold.
ULABY: Food industry analyst Phil Lempert lays out why lots of frozen food is flailing. Ice cream is doing fine. So is organic stuff. But sales of frozen entrees have dropped by as much as 3 percent over the past few years when measured by volume. Lempert partly blames the predictable packaging.
LEMPERT: The red Lean Cuisine, the green Healthy Choice. It's sort of, like, boring.
ULABY: And frozen faces another design challenge.
LEMPERT: That glass door - it really creates a fence.
ULABY: You don't see those glass doors at Trader Joe's. The company does not release sales figures, but a spokesperson told NPR that frozen there is doing fine. Trader Joe's frozen food is not even that much different from what you can find in regular stores, says analyst Phil Lempert. But Trader Joe's has open cases.
LEMPERT: It's fun to go through that case to see what you're going to find.
ULABY: So why don't more grocery stores switch to the Trader Joe's model? I asked the head of the American Frozen Food Institute.
ALISON BODER: Probably because freezer cases are a high-cost item.
ULABY: Alison Boder says it'll take real innovation by manufacturers and grocery stores alike to give frozen entree sales more heat.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
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