Sat, Jan 28, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Lunar New Year meals cook up a retail revolution

By Jackie Lin  /  STAFF REPORTER

Celebrity chef Chen Horng introduces some of his special Lunar New Year dishes during a press conference on Jan. 13.

PHOTO: TAI TA-HSIANG, TAIPEI TIMES

On Lunar New Year's Eve, sitting around a big table feasting on homemade dishes has been a long-held tradition in Chinese societies. But with career women appearing to outnumber housewives, this custom has lately undergone a modern twist, giving rise to diverse new ways of celebrating the holidays.

One of the marked changes is that a growing number of families are choosing to keep away from the dreaded chore of preparing New Year feasts, and retailers and restaurants are scrambling to share their burdens by offering family reunion dinners -- which you can have either at the restaurant or at home.

Frozen Style

Five years ago, major retailers like convenience-store chains and hypermarkets started developing frozen set meals, marketed with colorful flysheets giving consumers the opportunity to make pre-paid purchases at least a month ahead. Claimed to be good for 12 months if frozen properly, the dishes can be served after being microwaved or steamed.

This new market segment soon gained popularity with a growing number of non-retail competitors, such as gas stations and bus companies, which jumped in to grab a share last year.

"The burgeoning frozen-meal market was hyped into such a big issue last year, and the segment felt some slight disorder. Consolidation is being experienced this year because non-retailers decided to drop out of competition," said Vivien Hsu (徐崇嵐), a public relations official with President Chain Store Corp (統一超商), operator of the world's third-largest 7-Eleven franchise.

Over the past five years, the overall Lunar New Year frozen dish market has expanded into an industry Hsu estimates to be worth NT$600 million (US$19 million) per year.

Convenience stores, hypermarkets and supermarkets are the main contenders, with the nation's 8,000 convenience stores occupying about half of the market, Hsu said.

President Chain offers five set meals this year, priced between NT$2,888 and NT$3,788, and a non-set menu of 22 dishes, up from last year's eight.

"The proportion of non-set food has been raised. We found from last year's experience that consumers like to make their own combinations. Dishes that require time-consuming cooking procedures are especially popular, such as `Buddha Jumps the Wall' (佛跳牆), a rich dish with abalones, shark's fin and vegetables, and the Tonpo-style stewed pork (東坡肉)," Hsu said.

Although most of the non-set meals offered are reasonably economical at around NT$500 apiece, at NT$2,888 the "Buddha Jumps the Wall" still has its fans.

Hsu is confident that the frozen meal market will continue to grow, albeit at a slower pace.

The non-set menu should develop toward a more sophisticated style next year to drive growth, Hsu added.

Fresh and Hot

While popular retailers are churning out lower-priced food and providing convenient home-delivery services, some gourmets choose to side with delicacies rather than their purses.

Margaret Chung (鍾斐琪), a 39-year-old career woman who has tried frozen meals from the convenience store around the corner from her house for the last two years, decided to spend a bit more this year at another venue.

"Doing the shopping at convenience stores is really easy, but my husband thinks the food loses some taste during the freezing and heating process. We'd like to order some dishes from hotel restaurants this year," she said.

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