China’s self-heating trend heats up ready meal category

21 Sep 2020

Self-heating ready meals are experiencing a boom in China, catering to the country’s ‘lazy economy’, and Mintel estimates its market value will double in coming years.

Self-heating ready meals are sold in a specially designed packaging that allows the consumer to heat and eat the dish without the need for an external source of heat.

China’s self-heating trend heats up ready meal category

When the consumer adds room-temperature water to powdered minerals, such as magnesium, iron and salt, that sit in a tray below the food, the combination generates an exothermic reaction that produces heat. The water then heats up and produces steam, which cooks the food.

COVID-19 sees sales surge

The COVID-19 pandemic, which originated in China at the start of the year before spreading globally, is responsible for a recent spike in sales of self-heating foods, according to market research company Mintel.

“The success of self-heating hotpot is mostly because it enables a typical dish that can only be served in restaurant to enter in-home or even on-the-go occasions,” said Daisy Li, associate director of food and drink at Mintel. “In the context of increasing in-home consumption caused by the pandemic, this type of products has a significant meaning to the overall food and drink industry.

“People were not able to or less willing to visit restaurant during the pandemic. According to our Mintel COVID-19 Tracker, hotpot is missed the most among all the cuisines. Self-heating hotpot therefore became a compromised solution for people to desire for the taste of hotpot.”

Data from Alibaba Group-owned Taobao, a major Chinese online retailer, show that sales of self-heating meals experienced the second-highest year-on-year growth of all categories between late January and early February 2020. During the period when the Chinese government imposed a lockdown, sales of self-heating rice alone soared by 257%.

A ‘perfect fit’ for the lazy generation

But if the jump in demand has been a result of the COVID-19 pandemic – a temporary albeit ongoing event – does this mean growth will also be short-lived?

Not according to a consumer trends report published last year by TaoBao. It found that Chinese consumers spent RMB16 billion (US$2.31 billion) in 2018 on products catering to laziness, ranging from hands-free automatic toothbrushes to multifunctional snack bowls, representing a 70% increase on the previous year.

The biggest portion of that growth was fuelled by young shoppers born after 1995, a demographic that is a key source of growth for China’s consumption-driven economy today, it said.

According to Boston-headquartered consultancy Bain & Co, this generation of “digital little emperors” wants to consume at a higher rate than their predecessors, seeks instant gratification and is looking for convenience, quality, and variety. They are also willing to pay a price premium, which means the cost of self-heating meals (“many multiples” higher than standard pot noodles, according to Li) is not prohibitive.

Self-heating meals are “a perfect fit” for China’s lazy economy, Li added. “Self-heating hotpot offers convenience and save time. If people want to eat hotpot from scratch, they have to purchase a mix of different fresh materials, wash clean, cook the soup base and eat, and also wash all the dishes and pots after eating. While for self-heating hotpot is a hassle-free choice,” she told The Ingredients Network.

“[They] also cater to the needs of people who live alone. The growing population of single people in China has driven the rise of certain products designed for single or small families,” Li added.

Opportunities for self-heating snacks and drinks

Currently, most self-heating products are in the ready meal category, with launches including hotpot, rice, noodles or BBQ-based dishes. However, Mintel believes snack and beverage brands could also find success with self-heating products in China, as many believe that warm or room-temperature food and drink is beneficial to the digestive system and overall health.

“Self-heating hotpot is the first and the biggest amongst the self-heating instant food. Hotpot is a bit of regional food. Although it now becomes popular across the whole country, it is more preferred in the western part of China. However, as the self-heating technique applies to more types of food, it does not have regional limitations.”

TaoBao sales data noted an 81% increase in lazy kitchen appliances, such as automatic cookers, and a 150% increase in lazy food items, with demand particularly strong in the provinces of Guangdong, Sichuan, and Shaanxi.

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