Ready-to-eat (RTE) foods and drinks are a growing sector. According to Future Market Insights (FMI), the global RTE food products market is expected to expand at a CAGR of 7.2% through 2026. By the end of 2026, according to FMI, the sector could be valued at $195.3 billion (1). As more families have two working parents, and lifestyles get busier and more chaotic, these types of foods become necessary. There may be misconceptions that RTE foods are unhealthy, but many natural and healthy options exist for consumers. Actively merchandising and selling these foods, whether frozen, pre-made or fresh, is important for retailers.

The Basics It might be easiest to go with the basics, if you don’t have much space or manpower. Depending on the available space and layout of your freezer section, it might be worth devoting the freezer at the beginning of the aisle, or an end cap freezer, to different items on which you want to shine a spotlight.

According to data from Spins, frozen entrée sales rose 5.7% over the past year, so you might not have to do much work to get people into the freezer aisle, just to sell the food that’s in it (2). If you have a hot bar, switch out the food on a regular basis, so there’s always something new for customers to smell and see. Food that’s clearly freshly made on premises appeals to people who take pride in their cooking; keeping the basics in stock appeals to picky kids; switching up main dishes appeals to those who get bored and want something new.

Adam Stark, chief miscellaneous officer of Debra’s Natural Gourmet in Concord, MA, says his store doesn’t let customers forget they have a bakery: “Holidays, we may put a little display of pies or cakes in front of the registers, where people almost trip over it. That gets their attention.” And of course, if you can spare the product, free samples always appeal to customers.

Frozen foods are getting better and healthier, and it’s best to advertise that. Brands like Cucina & Amore, Richmond, CA, offer different variations of quick meals including farro meals which are a blend of farro and quinoa, cauliflower meals and quinoa meals. These come in microwavable packaging requiring little preparation and are an option for consumers who are not only looking for something quick, but also healthy. Put healthier foods front and center, where ingredients can catch a customer’s eye before they leave the aisle.

RTE is accessible for those on different diets and are friendly to vegans/vegetarians. Many brands of meatless meats (veggie hot dogs, chicken strips, burgers, etc.) require little preparation and can be added to meals. Quorn, Chicago, IL, offers quick, microwavable products like meatless sausage, chicken nuggets, beef strips, burgers, fish sticks, deli slices and more.

Products can also be grilled or tossed in the oven for a quick RTE meal. Amy’s Kitchen, Petaluma, CA, offers breakfasts, lunch/dinners, snacks and sweets, and it accommodates many special diets. It might be useful to sort foods based on diet, and to label your freezer space as such. Let people know that frozen food can fit their diets.

Merchandising Help customers personalize these foods. Justin’s sells single-serve nut butter packets, which would be perfect hung up next to frozen waffles. Stack glazes or sauces next to meat or meat substitutes. Hang a spice rack on a freezer door next to frozen mashed potatoes or rice. Don’t let customers walk out thinking that what they see with frozen food is what they get.

If you have a hot bar, it might be worth it to work with a company like Monsoon Kitchens. They sell single-serving frozen versions of the foods they sell for use in hot bars. A customer who already has dinner planned out might smell the hot bar and grab the frozen version for next week, and a customer who’s tried the frozen version might find the hot bar more appealing next time they come through. This is the perfect opportunity to showcase the brands and products you sell, as well as give your employees the experience necessary to sell or recommend a product confidently.

A bakery can be a great use of space, too. EatingEvolved, which sells trail mix, chocolate, and coconut butter, has a long list of bakery-friendly recipes, including paleo mint matcha brownies, keto oreo cookies, keto donuts, gluten-free rainbow cookies, paleo chocolate hazelnut stuffed cookies, and on and on. It’s enough to make you want to live on chocolate, and will appeal to your customers and their children. It’s a great way to show customers diets don’t have to be boring, and the healthy products you sell do in fact taste great in desserts.

Having food that could be—to an extent—made on demand could also make it more appealing. A deli counter with soup and sandwich material allows for customized pre-made meals, while still being fast enough to qualify as RTE. It also requires human interaction, which can help get that personal touch. You can use it to bump up your pre-made sandwich sales, too: make them on-premise, so meat and produce customers can see behind your counter, and they’ll be much more appealing than sandwiches shipped in.

Debra’s Natural Gourmet takes the concept of “using what you sell” to another level. Stark calls the store “tiny but mighty.” They have limited space but crank out a tremendous volume of food. Debra’s has four or five soups available daily, which are easy to dish and serve. They also have fresh pizza and a hot meal once a week. Having a kitchen, even if that means limited options, provides customers with a personal touch that is worth exploring.

Most days customers can barely reach the counter because of the crowd, Stark says, so about 95% of sales are pre-pack grab-and-go, with a case for savory and a case for sweet. He finds that the pre-made and hot-bar foods can help boost other sales, as long as you’re willing to go strange.

“It’s when we use an ingredient that’s entirely novel to our customers, or in a way that’s novel to them, that we build a little awareness and excitement—and sales.” He uses as examples their Styrian pumpkinseed oil salad dressing, a specific North African spice blend, and psyllium husk crackers. All of these might strike customers as odd, and most of them might not be willing to invest in the ingredient itself if they don’t know how it tastes or how to use it. A couple crackers, though, or a bowl of stew—these are foods for which a customer can be convinced to sacrifice a few dollars in pursuit of a new flavor. And if they like it? “That reinforces both the grocery sales, and the kitchen,” Stark says. This also increases trust in a store. “I do believe it sends a positive message, when we can say we use what we sell.”

We can’t forget the small-but-growing ready-to-drink (RTD) category. Different than powders to mix into drinks, RTD beverages can be consumed from the second they are opened. Teas and coffees are lead contenders in this category, especially in the natural products industry. RTD coffee will generate $3.1 billion by 2022 with a CAGR of 7.5% (3). More expensive than brewing these drinks at home or even, sometimes, ordering them from a coffee shop, they lend themselves to the ready-to-eat market on the basis of their preservability. Everyone runs late sometimes; everyone will hit that post-lunch crash sooner or later. Ready-to-drink beverages are perfect for the off days.

Ready-to-Cook One way to make ready-to-eat meals more appealing is, counterintuitively, to add some cooking to them. Making wontons is time-consuming and difficult and requires many ingredients. Buying frozen wontons and adding them to broth on the stove for a few minutes, on the other hand, gives a customer the same feeling of accomplishment as actually cooking, while still offering the quick and easy preparation with minimal cleanup that customers want from pre-made meals.

This can be done on any level. Tossing an extra spice or sauce takes no cooking and nearly no time; adding some microwavable chicken strips to pre-chopped lettuce might take extra time, but is still simple. Cooking rice to go with some microwavable teriyaki chicken takes some time but minimal effort—and so on, all the way up to making an entire meal and adding in ready-to-eat foods to cut down on prep time.

To these ends, consider adding shelf-talkers or signs next to frozen meals with suggestions for additions, or next to products that could spruce up a meal with suggestions as to which meals they could add to. This will appeal to anyone who enjoys the creativity or the productivity of cooking, and to anyone who doesn’t want to move a meal directly from the microwave into their child’s mouth.

You can use companies like Daily Harvest as a model. It delivers ready-to-cook foods to people’s doorsteps. Those foods include ready-to-blend smoothies, ready-to-heat soups, and ready-to-soak overnight oats. Here’s the fun part: the website allows customers to give other customers tips revolving around personalization. People suggest using almond milk for smoothies, using broth in soup instead of water, adding shrimp to harvest bowls, and adding bananas to oatmeal.

Put some ready-to-cook foods next to your ready-to-eat foods in the form of enough smoothie ingredients for a single serving, or pre-cut and combined vegetables for a hearty soup. Make suggestions for customization in the form of signs or directly on the packaging, and consider allowing customers to make their own suggestions, too: get your customers involved, and they’ll become invested, and they’ll keep coming back. WF
References: 1. “Frozen Dinners Make a Comeback,” 2. Future Market Insights, “Ready-to-Eat Food Market: Meat/Poultry Segment Expected to Dominate Market from 2016 to 2026: Global Industry Analysis and Opportunity Assessment, 2016-2026,” 3. Shoup, Mary Ellen, “RTD coffee: The next interpretation of clean, functional beverages, says Euromonitor,”