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Mama mia! The list of things consumers add to a jar of pasta sauce to make it their "own" is almost endless. There are peppers, onions, cheese, sausage, frozen meatballs, fresh basil, olive oil, shrimp, and perhaps a dash of hot sauce (see box), to name just a few. Plus, the popularity of pasta sauce cuts across all ethnic, racial, class, and economic lines, and that can be music to the ears of the beleaguered supermarket industry.
According to Chicago-based Information Resources, Inc., while unit sales of pasta sauce in supermarkets for the 52 weeks ended July 14 were flat at 734,096,832 jars, an increase of just 0.2 percent, dollar sales rose 2.5 percent to more than $1.4 billion, showing that manufacturers are doing less discounting. Sales should tick up this year as market leaders Unilever Bestfoods, Campbell's, and Heinz step up their advertising.
But the really good news is that most shoppers buy a jar of pasta sauce to use as a base for a meal. In addition to dropping the box of pasta, a loaf of garlic bread, and some grated Parmesan cheese into the cart, they're also buying fresh produce, meat, spices, and condiments to add to the sauce.
"We find that a customer will buy a jar of Ragu or Prego, use it for a base, and mix it with their own ingredients," says Mark Polsky, s.v.p. at Magruder, an operator of 10 stores in the metro Washington, D.C. area. "Many of our customers still make their sauce from scratch and then they'll throw in a jar at the end to doctor it a little bit."
It seems there is considerable doctoring going on in the kitchens of America on pasta night. "A lot of people start with our Prego sauce and they doctor it," says John Faulkner, director, brand communications, at Campbell Soup Co. in Camden, N.J. "They'll add the beef and do a lot of other things with it. They start with Prego as the base and then make their 'own' pasta sauce. Pasta and sauce is a pretty easy meal to prepare, so it is continually in the consumer's recipe mix."
"We don't have recipes on the jars of sauce because we learned that consumer doctoring of sauce is a pretty widespread practice," says Sergio Pereira, v.p., marketing, at Barilla America in Lincolnshire, Ill. "Consumers tend to have their own signatures on sauces, so it is very hard to have a recipe because consumers already put their own spin on it."
For that reason, retailers might want to consider putting a side stack of pasta sauce in produce, at the meat counter, or across the top of the seafood case to further drive impulse sales.
"Our Francesco Rinaldi brand is always trying to cross-merchandise as much as we can," says Edward Salzano, e.v.p. in the Ft. Lee, N.J. office of Fairport, N.Y.-based Cantisano Foods, which also manufactures scores of private labels. "We try to cross-merchandise with fresh and frozen pasta. We also try to get involved with those supermarkets who have become very creative in putting together meal solutions where they will set up a display or even have a demo showing their customers how they can prepare a quick meal. They'll have all the ingredients there, and everything is ready to buy with a secondary display. That has really worked well."
To further capitalize on the trend, Cantisano Foods has produced a cookbook called Gourmet Family Meals Under $10 Under 10 Minutes that is being offered as a premium to its customers. "We have a series of recipes in there using spaghetti sauce as an ingredient in chicken dishes, seafood dishes, and appetizers," says Salzano. "We even have a children's section with very clever children's recipes."
Francesco Rinaldi is often featured at a hot price of around 99 cents a jar. "The supermarkets like to use our brand to make a shopping basket. They like to work with us because we are not as cumbersome as some of the bigger companies," says Salzano. "The supermarkets are becoming more interested in putting together the shopping basket, and they look for a sauce that can help them do that."
Cantisano also co-packs the Barilla line of sauces, making Barilla the only national brand of pasta to have its own sauce. "Strategically, it absolutely makes sense for us to have both a pasta and a sauce," says Paul Davis, president of Barilla America. "From the interaction of the pasta and the sauce, what we learn about consumer behavior guides a lot of our thinking about potential synergies between the categories."
Barilla's recipes are based on traditional Italian recipes that were reformulated for the United States. "In Italy people will use 14 ounces of sauce for a pound of spaghetti, while in the U.S. it is 26 ounces for a pound of pasta," says Pereira. "In Italy sauce is seen as something that adds flavor, while in the U.S. we see the sauce as something that primarily adds texture." He adds that Barilla is available in traditional 26-ounce jars.
Barilla currently offers eight SKUs of sauce, and will be adding two more red varieties in the first quarter of 2003. Barilla is not alone. Ragu, a product of Unilever Bestfoods, as well as Prego, Classico, and all of the major brands regularly add flavors. "The manufacturers know that when they come in here with a new product they have to take one out. There is only so much room," says Magruder's Polsky.
But in pasta sauce, variety is literally the spice of life. "In a varietal category, like pasta sauce or salad dressing, you're always going to have your core flavors that the consumer favors," says Pereira. "You'll also have flavors that are rotational. You need to have variety, because consumers are looking for new tastes."
That is one reason why H.J. Heinz began shipping its new Classico Garden Vegetable Primavera sauce in July. "We heard from consumer testing that the primavera sauces on the market don't have a lot of taste, so we wanted to bring something to market with the good Classico taste," says Robin Teets, senior communications manager for Pittsburgh-based Heinz North America. "We think that could be a growing subset of our business as well."
Heinz purchased the Classico and Aunt Millie's brands about two years ago when it acquired Borden's pasta sauce business. "It ties in well with our tomato-based products and we think Classico is one of the leaders in the premium pasta sauce segment. We think there is room for growth. In fact, we just launched the first advertising campaign to support it in a few years."
Heinz extended Classico earlier this year when it introduced Classico Creations, a traditional pesto and sun-dried tomato pesto, creating a mainstream oil-based pasta sauce category, in addition to the traditional red and cream-based segments. "Traditionally, people made pesto themselves, then some of the specialty retailers came out with high-end versions," Teets says. "Classico has moved in because we think pesto is a growth opportunity. Our two varieties are meeting expectations."
Likewise, the folks at Laguna Tuna created a new segment when they introduced a line of seafood-based red sauces. Packed in 16-ounce jars in original and spicy varieties, the sauces are made with shrimp, clam, or tuna. Scallop and crab versions will be introduced shortly. "Our sauces are mostly sold in the pasta sauce aisle, but some retailers feature them in the seafood department on top of the counters," says Jean Maurice Deneve, president of San Francisco-based Laguna Tuna.
The sauces are sold in Stop & Shop on the East Coast, in Mollie Stone's and Draeger's on the West Coast, and in the Marketplace at Marshall Field's department stores in the Midwest. "They're ready to serve, so you just heat them up, put it on pasta or rice, put a little cheese on top, and maybe some extra shrimp, and it is a very healthy meal," Deneve says.
A co-packer produces Laguna, but the line has been so successful that the company is building its own factory in Northern California. "We're looking to expand further. We'll add another line made with lobster, and once we finish our red line, we'll be coming out with our white line of cream sauces," he says.