Meal kits have failed to follow the evolving trends in the marketplace over the past five years, resulting in "lackluster" products and declining sales, says Mintel.
But despite the disappointing performance of the category, there remains potential to "break new ground" in the industry, and manufacturers need to start adapting to the trends that they have so far ignored.
First and foremost is the massive health surge that has taken the market by storm, yet has passed by the meal kit category practically unnoticed. Other areas that hold untapped potential include organic, fresh, artisanal, allergen-free and diet products.
According to Mintel's updated report, Meal Kits - US - October 2007, the market for meal kits (as measured through sales as food, drug and mass merchandiser outlets, excluding Wal-Mart) peaked at $778m in 2002, but between 2002 and 2007 sales plummeted 21 percent.
According to the report, well-documented time constraints "would seem to point to meal kits as a solution, but lucklustre products relegate meal kits to 'last resort' status".
This has meant that consumers turn elsewhere to meet their needs and expectations.
A major challenge to the category is the preference for competing products that have been quicker to adapt to the health and wellness trend where meal kits have lagged behind.
For example, refrigerated meals and frozen meals have been snapped up by dieting consumers, but meal kits have not followed with the necessary health and diet positioning that could make dieters consider them, according to Mintel.
In addition: "The low-carb phenomenon was the rage between 2003 and 2005 and it appears that this was part of the reason for meal kits' problems. Meal kits were simply too slow to react to the low-carb frenzy, but then also ignored the new trends that followed low-carb, including whole grains."
Despite the sales blow resulting from meal kits being slow on the trend uptake, Mintel identifies potential in the industry, and forecasts an improving market over the next five years.
Between 2007 and 2012, the group forecasts category sales will rise four percent from $616m to $643m.
In order to capitalize on untapped potential, Mintel suggests manufacturers in this category revamp their R&D efforts to better respond to consumers' current needs.
This means tapping all the categories that are currently attracting consumers, including specific ingredient trends, organic products, or products positioned as 'fresh' and healthy.
Manufacturers also need to flag up the benefits of their products using product claims, said Mintel.
Currently, the number of claims made by each new meal kit averages just over two claims per product. This, said the report, means that meal kits are too "one-dimensional".
"Mintel believes that claim numbers should increase for meal kits to have a chance at gaining the power that substantiated claims have in marketing to consumers. Products need to be recreated to gain consumers' attention, using more organic, gluten-free, all-natural, and free of additives claims."
However, with convenience and price being what has traditionally attracted consumers to this segment, Mintel cautions that manufacturers need to maintain these attributes in their product development efforts.
Results from a Mintel survey reveal that most meal kit consumers are low income families with children, which suggests a continued need for new products targeting this segment. Nevertheless, this does not exclude other consumer segments, and there remains potential for 'indulgent' or 'upscale' products targeting the higher income bracket.
According to Mintel, the survey findings confirm the need for "increased product development, including exploration of premium products, health positioning, and flavor profiling".
"The equally large hurdles to get over are the marketing that it would take to free people's minds from current expectations and experiences with meal kits, as well as the many strong competing convenience meal options."