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The rise of ready-to-eat retail

More and more, Australian consumers are reaching for ready-to-eat convenience food. In retail, these food options fall into the place where ‘grocery’ meets ‘quick service restaurants’. The category grew 11.5% in Australia in 2019, sitting pretty at a value of $659 million, and the pandemic certainly didn’t crush the cravings for convenience meals. In fact, foodservice in the convenience industry has seen continuous growth for the past 6 years.

The UK retail sector has been ahead of Australia in terms of broad ready-to-eat popularity and supermarket heat-and-eat meals – especially in the premium market via Marks & Spencer and Waitrose.

It’s revolutionised that old time-poor, pick-me-up-on-the-go niche that used to be occupied by fast food chains or TV dinners at home. Now it’s all about healthy and fresh. Home-cooked meals that, well, weren’t necessarily cooked at home. For the grocery sector, offering food-to-go is another way of strengthening fresh food credentials, calling out quality with design cues and offering customers a little value-add.

But there’s more to it than just throwing a few wraps near the register and hoping customers bite. It’s marketing, design, and even a bit of innovation. And it’s an area that retailers should be focusing on for future growth.

We tuck into some of the different ways ready-to-eat is being served up.

Let’s eat.

Coles Express

Grab & Go

Think, packaged sandwiches and wraps, containers of salads and sliced fruit, or DIY barista coffee. Easy lunches and meal deals you can pick up on the fly. It’s already made, it doesn’t need an oven, and it might even come with its own cutlery.

What it lacks in customisation it makes up for in convenience. But customers still expect freshness and quality.

When Coles Express asked for our help to improve value perceptions, we had to get customers excited by changing the way they looked at the food-to-go offering, positioning it as a viable (and better) alternative to fast food drive-thru.

We delivered a strategic POS uplift to elevate the Coles Express food visuals, marketing the new product range using quality cues positioning it as a genuinely better meal option for customers.


The new messaging hierarchy pulls back on the price point, and instead pushes the quality and value, using stylish food photography to make everything from a salad wrap to a slice of banana bread look its ‘delicious best’.

Premium benefits are key, even down to highlighting ethical ingredients and ‘oven baked’ freshness in hot pies and sausage rolls. From brighter canvases and handwritten fonts to messaging that calls out sustainability and an all-natural ‘no nasties’ promise, we differentiated the food-to-go from the usual range you’d expect at a petrol station.

Ultimately, this uplift conveys to customers that Coles Express food and drink options are as good as the cafe down the road – right down to the barista-style coffee. 

Keells supermarkets


This includes meals prepped and assembled while the customer waits, a DIY serve-yourself option a la salad bars, or even a ‘food hall’ with different vendors and a sit-in area.

What does this do for a supermarket? It gives cafe cred, the proof of freshly made, quality meals that change in line with the seasons.

These options might be more time and resource consuming compared to ready-to-go, but it adds extra freshness credentials and has a broader ‘halo’ effect on quality.

For the Keells Iconic project, part of setting these new stores apart as a premium destination was pushing a new Keells Kafe and food to go offering in the store design. We created a grocery retail space where food is prepared while customers wait, either dining in or grabbing on their way through. Customers at Keells Kafe or the ‘Chef’s Kitchen’ can see their meals prepared, and trust that it’s more likely to be fresh and high quality as a result


Australian consumers have had to be won over to the mindset of high quality ready-meals that have taken off in the UK, overcoming the old associations of American-style ‘frozen TV dinners’. Retailers have had to position ready-to-eat dinners as a premium product rather than a vacuum-packed kitchen nightmare or bag of frozen nuggets.

M&S Food have been at the forefront of this in the UK, offering a glimpse of the future for Australian grocery retailers. Meals are heavily advertised with aspirational food photography showing the pre-packed dishes being indistinguishable from the quality of a fresh home-cooked meal (or, depending on the skill of the home cook, maybe even better).

Using design cues to differentiate their everyday value offers from their premium products and ‘dine in’ series, M&S’s broad range caters for dietary needs, from slimmers to coeliacs, and covers different cultural cuisines. 

M&S Food

Food for thought…

How else can ready-to-eat retail add value to consumers? Getting chefs into the mix.

Waitrose launched the ready meals by Heston Blumenthal in 2012, a trend also seen in European retailers. But the newest move in the retail space seems to springboard off the meal kit approach. Whippet has helped launch celebrity chef Tom Kerridge’s meal plan series at M&S Food. Michelin-star chef meals on an everyday budget, with a shopping list and cook-along guidance.


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