I am not a fan of frozen food. But in this case, I am a fan of how a French frozen food company manages to service and anticipate today's customer needs in a thoughtful way.
In the 1940s and 50s, households in America were filling their supermarket baskets with Swanson's TV Dinners - the pre-cooked, frozen meal in a box inspired by airplane food from a decade earlier. It was a hit. Advertising in the 50s and 60s mixed the industrially-manufactured meals with family life around around the television set. Today, there remains a mixed feeling of nostalgia about frozen dinners.
Across the Atlantic in France, a family business in delivering ice blocks to restaurants, cafes and some private homes in the early 1900s in Fontainebleau evolved into what would become an empire, and homage, to flash-frozen foods. Today, Picard has 825 stores in France alone and has expanded into Italy and Belgium.
Pricard doesn't just produce and distribute pre-cooked meals. They sell a variety of items from starters to desserts, raw ingredients to prepared meals. In circling around their store in the Marais neighborhood, I was impressed by the colorful, modern packaging for the products and found no trace of freezer burn, neither frost nor wet boxes, in the freezer cases. There was no wrestling with ice sticking to the boxes. Although the store felt more like a laboratory with colorless, flat lighting and no music, it was CLEAN.
The only time one sees the frozen food product in its packaging are at the stores and on its extremely successful e-commerce website. All catalogs, recipe books and signage above the freezer cases are images of finished dishes showing what we can make ourselves at home. Picard recipe developers don't just dream up dishes with their alloted ingredients, but they also track trends in Parisian restaurants. And if you ever thought "satisfaction guaranteed" doesn't exist in France, it does at Picard. One can even call Picard for health questions about their products and speak with a dietician. Interestingly, Picard doesn't encourage snacking, so all of their items are targeted for making meals. There are no frozen snacks, unless you like to snack on spinach or scallops.
By the 1970s, Picard was selling over 300 varieties of frozen items through their catalog while offering home delivery. That's right, Fresh Direct. In 1974, Picard opened its first store in Paris and initiated full scale brand recognition as well as a system to test new products on a 4-month trial rotation - in lieu of paying for consumer research. Each year, items are cut if the sales don't measure up. Sort of like what G.E. does with its employees.
When supermarkets started encroaching on their market with their frozen food offerings in the 1980s, Picard quickly decided to differentiate itself by: 1) manufacturing and branding its own products and 2) positioning itself as high-end quality and innovative. In order to further compete with supermarket discounts, Picard put a selection of standard stock items on promotional sales - this was not because they were about to go stale, but rather to encourage customers to try new items. In the end, the average total customer sale was in fact equal to that of supermarkets.
Locations of Picard stores are also a key to their success. They are in neighborhoods where people work and live, and therefore where customers can get to on foot or by mass transit. It's no wonder that in 2005, 95% of frozen food in France was either produced by, or produced exclusively for, Picard. Not only has Picard kept up with flash-freezing technology with their suppliers, they have also kept up with the customers' tastes. Who has time to watch TV when making coq au vin with Picard's ingredients? Today's Parisians.
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