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    GROCERY: Pasta: Al dente

    Pasta's rebound from its Atkins-era slump makes the category just right for full-meal merchandising.

    There's no doubt about it -- pasta's here to stay. The starchy mainstay went limp during the short-lived low-carb diet craze, but now the category is all aboil: According to ACNielsen, total dry pasta sales dollars rose 4.1 percent in 2005 (at food stores with $2 million or more in sales, except supercenters) with all segments showing gains, and dry noodles and dumplings skyrocketing by an impressive 11.5 percent.

    Some retailers credit pasta's enduring value. "Based on what we see, same-store pasta sales are up 3.5 percent, probably due to a tightened economy and consumers looking for a reasonable meal at a lower price," says Kevin Snyder Jr., a category manager at Reading, Pa.-based Redner's Warehouse Markets, a regional chain of 38 warehouse club-style stores.

    Pasta's resilience comes as no surprise to observers who have long known that the food is entrenched firmly enough in the American diet to influence the sale of related products -- in other words, pasta's real value to retailers is its power as an anchor category.

    "When you think about [it,] no one ever eats 'just pasta,'" observes Sara Baer-Sinnott, e.v.p. of Oldways Preservation Trust, a Boston-based food issues think tank that held a scientific consensus conference in Rome in February 2004, at the height of low-carbmania, to deliver scientifically accurate information about pasta.

    "Pasta is accompanied by many other healthy foods -- vegetables, tomatoes, olive oil, cheese, and meat and fish in smaller amounts -- to make a meal," says Baer-Sinnott. "A healthy pasta meal truly is a perfect meal on one plate -- a mixture of carbohydrates, healthy protein, and healthy fat. [Add] a glass of wine, and what you have is the Mediterranean diet."

    But what actually caused shoppers to flock back to pasta after that Atkins-inspired timeout?

    "Consumers regained their common sense about the folly of low-carb diets and went back to semolina pastas," explains Baer-Sinnott. "Also, more consumers are interested in good health and are choosing multigrain/whole grain pastas more often. This is a growing market, and industry is responding to consumers' demands."

    Whole grain growth

    According Baer-Sinnott, multi- and whole grain pasta's percentage of the entire category is climbing steadily, from 2 percent in 2003 to 3 percent in 2004 to 5 percent in 2005.

    Another measure of this growth is that the Whole Grains Council, an Oldways-organized consortium of manufacturers, scientists, and chefs dedicated to increasing consumption of whole grains for better health, has grown from just nine members in 2003 to a current count of more than 100.

    One of those members, American Italian Pasta Co. (AIPC) of Kansas City, Mo., whose popular brands include Mueller's, Golden Grain, and Heartland, has been working on meeting just such consumer needs for perceived healthier pastas. According to Dan Trott, e.v.p., sales and marketing, the company last month launched a national rollout of its new multigrain pasta, which was successfully test-marketed in the Southeast during the summer of 2005.

    Such product innovation is certainly worth the effort, since whole grain and multigrain pastas are driving over 80 percent of category growth, according to Trott. For the category in general, however, "pasta plays a critical role for retail in driving overall basket size," he notes, citing ACNielsen data indicating that average basket size including pasta is a whopping 112 percent larger than without it. Plus the category offers affordability for the consumer, he says.

    A successful promotion AIPC has rolled out at the retail level is the "Italian Night," which cross-merchandises Mueller's pasta, Hunt's Tomato Sauce, and olive oil spray via a pallet display featuring recipe cards for the creation of a traditional pasta meal.

    "[Pasta] is one of the few center store categories that is also 'center of plate,'[since] it behaves more like meat," says Doug Ehrenkranz, s.v.p. sales and marketing for Harrisburg, Pa.-based New World Pasta, maker of, among other products, Ronzoni Healthy Harvest, a whole wheat blend pasta that's seen its business almost double in the past year. Currently on the Healthy Harvest horizon is a multigrain pasta with fiber, whole grain, and omega-3.

    "Pasta gets an incredible bump when it's promoted, and baseline sales return the week after," notes Ehrenkranz, who adds that the shopping basket as a whole also benefits, particularly such associated meal components as bread, salad dressing, and wine.

    2005 was also a banner year for Barilla, which last year introduced Barilla Plus, a multigrain product offering extra protein and fiber, as well as ALA omega-3 and less fat.

    Notes Ed Schrass, v.p. customer marketing at Bannockburn, Ill.-based Barilla America, the U.S. division of Parma, Italy-based Barilla: "The key is to provide the consumer in-store all the essential elements they need to complete the meal, starting with the recipe, and merchandising all of the other categories with or near the pasta display, in effect creating a meal solution that a consumer doesn't have to visit the whole store to complete."

    To that end, the company has worked with a number of supermarket companies with the goal of making pasta meal preparation simpler for shoppers.

    "We have had many retailers join us in these types of programs, among them Publix, Albertsons, Wegmans, Giant Eagle, and HEB, to name a few," recounts Schrass. "While execution elements differed among them, the overall strategy was still the same: Make it easy for the consumer to put together a delicious Italian dinner. All of these started with giving the consumer a recipe, either delivered in-ad or in-store. The recipe was something beyond what most consumers would routinely prepare; however, the preparation only required them to follow simple directions. All of the ingredients were either pantry staples or available right in the supermarket."

    'The right mix'

    Continues Schrass: "The execution with Albertsons was a good example. On one end cap they displayed all the elements needed to complete the meal -- pasta, sauce, olive oil, and parmesan cheese. In addition the display directed consumers to a wine choice in the liquor department and to the bakery for fresh bread. The bread was offered free to the consumer if they purchased pasta and sauce."

    The outcome of such programs has been a regular supermarket sweep, according to Barilla. "Overall results from these programs have been very favorable, with retailers satisfied not only with the increases in sales from the pasta category, but also the other departments tied in," says Schrass.

    Smaller retailers have instituted similar programs on their own. "We have made a concerted effort to incorporate cross-merchandising with our pasta category," observes Redner's Snyder. "Generally we will cross the pasta with sauces and grated cheese."

    That strategy is nothing new to Wild Oats, according to Jamie Brent, national category manager, grocery for the Boulder, Colo.-based natural/organic food retailer, which has over 110 stores in 25 states and Canada. The grocer's current challenge, though, he says, is "trying to find the right mix of representative items" from the plethora of available specialty products, including soy products, sprouted pastas, and gluten-free items made from potato, rice, and other flours.

    Gluten-free pastas in particular have seen impressive growth at the retailer, which is leveraging that popularity through its partnership with Danna Korn, founder of the support group R.O.C.K. (Raising Our Celiac Kids). Korn serves as a nutritional consultant to the retailer, in which capacity she engages in online chats with consumers and makes appearances at stores. Additionally, the Wild Oats Web site offers an electronic guide to gluten-free living developed by Korn, and store shelves feature enhanced signage. Besides the gluten-free segment, the best-growing and most sought-after pastas at Wild Oats are organic and whole grain items, according to Brent.

    Brent notes that 2006 is "a pivotal year for us," as the grocer begins to recover from the past two years, which he describes as the "worst ever" for pasta sales. "We're hoping that people will [continue] to return to the category and re-energize it," he adds.

    Natural and organic food manufacturers are increasingly getting into the pasta act, among them Vancouver, B.C.-based Nature's Path Foods, which in November 2005 introduced LifeStream 100% Organic Whole Grain & Flax+ pasta. "The target market is the natural/health market, but with an equal if not greater emphasis on the mainstream consumer," says Nicola Shaw, Nature's Path's product manager.

    Although pasta is a new category for Nature's Path and the company is still gaining placement for LifeStream, early indications are positive. "Kroger was the first major retailer to pick up our pasta in 600 of their stores with segregated store-within-a-store natural food sets," notes v.p. sales and marketing David Neuman. "Our strategy for pasta is to cross-market with our Optimum functional cereals and energy bars."

    The big loser in the pasta race seems to be low-carb. "Sales for low-carb lines are down from last year," says Redner's Snyder. "Low-carb started strong but has faded." Oldways' Baer-Sinnott lays this failure squarely on the poor taste of most reduced-carb brands.

    Despite such setbacks, however, pasta has proved that it's in supermarkets for the long haul. Says Barilla's Schrass: "Consumers can only serve spaghetti and meatballs so many times a month, but they could serve pasta every day. By working with retailers on programs that bring this thought in-store, we can increase not only sales in the pasta category, but also across the whole store."

    "As consumer spending fluctuates, we don't see pasta dropping as an anchor category," notes Redner's Snyder. "It will continue to be strong due to its versatility in meal preparation."

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