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Introduction

Ready meals, also referred to as convenience foods, have gained wide popularity all over the world, and especially in western countries. Companies producing ready meals are increasingly venturing into this prospective market in the UK, mainly because of the changing trend in the socio-economic aspect of the country (Warde, 1997). Most UK students prefer ready meals because they save time and spare them the drudgery of cooking. The driving force of product development and innovation of ready meals, therefore, relies on the key factor of convenience, and this applies to all the food markets (Kuznesof, Tregear & Moxey, 1997). Ready meals account for the major portion of sales, and they also face competition from various internal and international brands. It is quite evident that consumers are opting for healthy but are less willing to sacrifice the little time they have on preparing their own meals from scratch. This is particularly true of students who prefer to spend the little time they have on books and social life (Shiu, Dawson, & Marshall, 2004).

Ready meals are fully prepared or cooked and are always ready to be eaten. Ready meals usually have a shelf life that varies from a few months to approximately three years. The ready meals industry is one of the fastest growing sectors in the food market. In the UK, demand for ready meals is growing in every part of the country. The bulk of the retail market of ready meals mainly comprises popular Indian dishes, masala, chicken tikka, as well as cooking sauces, among other ready meals (Benkouider, 2003).

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Despite an increasing demand for ready meals in the global market, the supply of such products, particularly low value and medium quality, ranges. The supply of ready meals, especially those targeting consumers with limited resources, such as the student population, is also limited (Yee & Young, 2001). The ready meals industry thus needs to be challenged by other food products with a potential for increased growth, supply and pocket-friendly prices. There is a need for new companies capable of meeting the rising consumer demand by providing new and exciting dishes (Ramasamy, Kalaivanan & Sukumar, 2005).

The ethnic food market is also on the rise in the UK, as consumers continue to demand diverse dishes, especially in institutions of learning, which have diverse cultures, and abundance of ethic restaurants. This aspect serves to increase the potential for a growing market of ready meals (Elaine, 1999; Wright & Crimp, 2000).

The study aims to test a new product range, which targets low- to medium-quality food products, rather than premium brands. The company has vested interests in the consumer market characterized by low incomes, especially the student population of the UK. The company is planning to launch a range of nutritious ready meals at reasonable prices, and is targeting the student population of the UK (Sarwade, 2002)..

The main goal of the research is to evaluate the consumer behavior and attitude of the UK student population towards ready meals, as well as evaluate the opportunities of growth by examining factors leading to consumer market growth. This research will aid in understanding the perceptions and preferences of consumers in relation to ready meals as compared to home meals replacement. The results of the research provide information on the needs of consumers and changes suggested by them (Kamenidou, et al, 2012).

Ready meals are very popular with students. Most places offering ready meals or take-away meals are open round the clock, and also provide home delivery services at affordable prices. The hectic lifestyle and tight study schedule of UK students leave little room for home-cooked meals. In such instances, ready meals come in handy as the best option which is easily obtainable (Srinivasan & Elangovan, 2000). Ready meals are also suitable for low-income earners because they do not spend a lot on ordering in restaurants. Ready meals also save time compared to the time spent on going to a restaurant, ordering meals and waiting to be served (White & Katerini, 2004). Despite being tasty, fresh and inexpensive, ready meals are also healthy, even though one may not be sure if the food is made from fresh and quality ingredients that are in line with the relevant food laws. There has also been an increase in and the number of restaurants that serve healthy and nutritious food stuffs (Singh, Srivastava & Kapoor, 1995).

Ready meals are a significant part of the students’ life in that they suit their busy lifestyles and limited income. Ready meals come in handy when students are busy preparing for exams or late for class. They, therefore, do not have much time on their hands to think about cooking their own meals, and prefer grabbing something to eat, such as ready meals (Len, Clive & Pamela, 2001). UK students also prefer ready meals in instances when they have small surprise parties or when they run out of food during a party. In such cases, the most ideal solution would be to opt for good tasting and inexpensive ready meals that are cooked at a short notice (Kamalaveni & Nirmala, 2000).

Research Objectives

Attitude and perceptions involve an individual’s overall evaluation of a product (Dubois, 2000). Consumer attitude is regarded as a key concept in the practice of business, because studies on consumer behaviors play a significant role in determining buying behaviors of consumers. The main objective is to understand why the UK student population purchases ready meals, as well as the perception of the new product range launched by the company. This will also provide a conceptual background on UK students’ preferences in ready meals.

The second objective consists in evaluating the effect of culture, changing patterns and student’s lifestyle in purchasing ready meals. This objective will include the study of the changing culture of the UK in terms of purchasing food due to the cultural diversity existing in institutions of learning. This will enable to obtain a detailed analysis on the role of culture in purchasing ready meals.

The third objective lies in looking at factors that influence the increase in demand for ready meals. There factors include the effect of reference groups, significance of marketing, international brands and quality of ready meals. These factors assist the consumer in deciding which ready meal to purchase (Michel, Chankon & Tomiuk, 1998). This will also help the company know the right strategies for marketing its products, as well as areas of improvement. The company will be able to understand buying behaviors of consumers and, therefore, know how to attract consumers of ready meals among the UK student population.

Research Approach

The research approach to be employed will rely on quantitative analysis coupled with descriptive statistics and analysis of the collected data. The use of quantitative analysis is justified by the fact that the effects of various factors, such as changing lifestyles and culture, were previously  assessed with the help of this method (Low & Lamb, 2000). It allows for accurate assessment of the influence of consumer behavior on purchasing the company’s products. Most researchers have attempted to measure the growth patterns of ready meals through quantitative analysis of research findings (Alreck & Settle, 1999). The concept  will be emulated in this research proposal by measuring purchase patterns of ready meals produced by the company, and giving measurements of the impacts of consumer behaviors (Bryman & Cramer, 1999).

Quantitative analysis also enables to compare the research data with the available data on what has been done in the area of ready meals. Easy comparison is accomplished by using trends and figures of the same measurement unit that corresponds to the same elements of quantification. The use of quantitative analysis is, therefore, an accurate process of obtaining accurate results, which is also highly reliable (Mitchell, 1999).

However, since the proposal focuses on the change in consumer behavior towards ready meals caused by changes in lifestyles and culture, it will be ideal to focus on large samples that will aid in the testing of the objectives and explanation of the findings. Therefore, the key purpose of this marketing research is to evaluate and predict future and current consumer behaviors towards the new range of ready meals that targets the UK student population. The study will help marketing managers or agents in making decisions in their respective areas of responsibility (Kotler, 2000).

Issues for Consideration

Purchasing of ready meals in the UK is an impulse experience, which is influenced by the right side of the brain responsible for the decision (Dubois 2000). Impulse buying takes place when an individual has a certain irresistible urge. After making the purchase decision, the consumer gets either a feeling of satisfaction or expresses dissonance for the product. Therefore, the level of dissonance can be eliminated or minimized by taking into account certain considerations in order to make the right decision (Brown, Mcllveen & Strugnell, 2000). Some of these steps include assurance of product exchange to consumers in case the ready meal is of low quality or poorly packaged. There should be regular follow-ups by the seller in order to gain consumer confidence. A product being sold can be accompanied by a note, which provides information on the customer opinion regarding the ready meal. An online help line can also be useful in providing information on the product or dealing with queries raised by consumers (Apporva, 2004).

Methodology

Data Collection

Data will be collected through face-to-face interviews, questionnaires, postal questionnaires, and emails. Face-to-face interviews can not target a large sample size but can achieve a high rate of response (Narang, 2006). Another advantage of face-to-face interviews is that they enable to correct arising misunderstandings on the response of interviewees, as well as correct missing information. On the other and, postal questionnaires can target a large sample size but fail to achieve a high response rate characteristic of face–to-face interviews (Churchill, 1999).

Sampling

The research will focus on the shift in consumer preferences from home-made to ready meals.  The target population will include individuals who regularly purchase ready meals, e.g. university students. The sample size will be taken from the students in LondonUniversity. The student population is easy to access, thus ensuring efficient data collection within allocated time. The method of sampling to be applied will be Quota sampling, which is a non-probability technique of sampling that follows a two-stage restricted judgmental sampling. The first stage is comprised of development of quotas or control categories of population elements. The second stage involves selection of sample elements on the basis of judgment or convenience (Malhotra 2004). The sample size will be taken from 200 university students who consume ready meals. In order to obtain an accurate picture of ready meals preferences in terms of gender, the sample size will be divided into 100 males and 100 females, irrespective of their nationality.

Questionnaires

In order to establish the impact of various factors on purchasing of ready meals, a structured questionnaire will be administered to respondents. The questionnaires will include closed questions and a single open question, which will seek to encourage improvement suggestions for the ready meals being tested in the study. Closed questions will include two possible answers, with the answers being given by ticking or ringing the yes or no boxes or code numbers (Wright & Crimp, 2000). Closed questions will enable easy interpretation of the data collected following efficient statistical analysis. Various variables will be assigned to each question. The first part of the questionnaire will comprise the behavioral aspect of consumers, as well as information on food preferences of consumers, favorite ready meals, and frequency of purchasing ready meals. The second part will seek to find out the attitudes and opinions of consumers towards different brands of ready meals. The third part will seek to get information on the respondent’s feelings, perception and attitude towards the new range of ready meals of the company, as well as the aspect of cost-effectiveness. It will also establish how consumer traditions and culture  influence purchasing of the ready meals in question. The last part of the questionnaire will pertain to the respondent’s personal information, such as age group, gender, nationality and income level. These variables will be measured by using ordinal and nominal measurement scales.

Pilot Interview

Pre-test questionnaires will be administered in order to observe how the questions and statements contained in questionnaires are understood. This will be accomplished by interviewing ten local citizens and ten university students, in order to obtain their opinions on the applicability of answering the questions. These participants will be chosen on the basis of several assumptions, such as knowledge of other international and national brands, regular consumption of ready meals or ease of access (Dubois, 2000).

Data Analysis

Descriptive statistics is used as a research method in the study. Once data collection via questionnaires is completed, data analysis will be carried out by using statistical software packages, such as SPSS and Microsoft Excel. Other statistical tools will include chi-square tests, frequencies analysis, tables and charts. These methods of analysis will enable the findings to be adequate, as well as easy to analyze and interpret in relation to the topic of investigation of the research program (Kotler, 2000). Data collected will be tabulated based on the most significant demographic variables. Demographic characteristics of UK students will be summarized on the basis of monthly income, age and nationality. Summarizing the sample size in different categories on the basis of different demographic variables will aid in understanding changing behaviors and attitudes of ready meals consumers. It will also assist in putting together an extensive overview of the target market’s responses, and illustrate changes in the opinion on ready meals with reference to a change in the demographic variable. The company’s marketers will also benefit from such information when employing their strategies of attracting the target market. This is achievable by taking into consideration factors of utmost significance in the purchase of ready meals (Levine, Krehbiel, & Berenson, 2004).

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