Category management in the pasta sauce aisle is helping retailers "pour" through the thickening assortment of new varieties.
Many retailers have teamed with one of the three leading vendors -- Lipton Co., Borden Foods and Campbell Soup Co. -- to help choose a category management program, while others have chosen to go it alone. Further, some retailers remain on the sidelines, either studying category management for implementation, or already deciding not to use the concept at all.
Category management programs generally seek not only to boost sales and profits of pasta sauces, but also to turn the category into a "meal solution" center, spurring sales of related products, including pasta, produce items, cheese, bread, garlic and meat items, such as sausage.
"We have instituted category management in the pasta sauce aisle and as a result, we started expanding the whole section. That section is on fire, especially the premium," exclaimed Pat Redmond, buyer for Rosauers Supermarkets, Spokane, Wash.
In recent years, Rosauers has expanded its pasta sauce section twice, Redmond said. The department is now at the point where it encompasses 24 feet in some of Rosauers larger stores.
"To fit in an increased offering of pasta sauces, we have cut down on some of the Mexican foods, along with some of the specialty foods," he said.
Redmond said Rosauers has had success with the higher-end, gourmet-type products, including the Classico, Five Brothers, Western Family premium private label and Sutter Home, which has been promoted with in-store tastings. The growth of the gourmet products has turned the category into a money maker, he said.
"While we are still selling the [lower-end] Ragu and Prego, they have also introduced premium-priced and high-quality pasta sauces as a result of the others brands, adding to the profitability of the department," he said.
Unlike many retailers, which have teamed with one of the leading manufacturers to implement a category management program, Rosauers has decided to develop its own program.
However, Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass., has had success using a manufacturer-developed category management program, according to Tom Yarrows, category manager.
Yarrows said that since the category management program has been implemented, Big Y has placed a greater emphasis on the highly profitable premium sauce subcategory.
"We have gone to a vertical grated-cheese section set, and we have delisted many of the [lower-price] canned sauces from the category. We have moved the larger 48-ounce jars of sauce to eye-level and this has positively impacted sales and profits," he said.
While the mainstream "traditional" sauces are still the lion's share of the category, Yarrows said they are less profitable than their premium brethren.
"The budget, or price-set category, is mature and declining, probably due to the extremely high/low promotional activity in the mainstream pasta sauces arena," he said.
"Half of the category is sold 'on sale' and there is quite a bit of profitable return business," he added.
Butch Smathers, vice president of merchandising at Western Supermarkets, Birmingham, Ala., said that Supervalu, Minneapolis, the wholesaler that services his chain, is in the process of developing a category management program that should be implemented before the end of the year.
Art Regineli, a buyer at Heinen's, Cleveland, said his chain is currently not in category management with pasta and sauces, although it plans to institute a program at a later date.
Brian Sikkema, category manager, D&W Food Centers, Grand Rapids, Mich., said his chain has not implemented a category management program for the pasta sauce category. The category continues to grow and become more profitable, he said.
"There has been a shift into the more upscale sauces. The upscale sauces bring us higher margins and more penny profit," he said. "Unlike the traditional sauces, retailers aren't giving the premium items away."
According to Information Resources Inc., Chicago, for the 52-week period ended April 27, the spaghetti/Italian sauce category in supermarkets grew 2.2% to $1.37 billion.
"Pasta sauce has the potential to be the No. 1 Center Store meal-solution category for the retailers," said Steve Pace, customer marketing director for Lipton Co., the Englewood Cliffs, N.J.-based manufacturer of the Ragu and Five Brothers lines.
Consumers use pasta sauce not just as a straight-from-the-jar pasta topping, but also as an ingredient in casseroles and recipes, by adding items like spices and meat to the sauce to personalize it, and to drive meal planning and sales of related items, such as bread, garlic spread, salads and grated cheese, Pace said.
He added that Lipton had just completed a proprietary category management study with Rockwell Consulting, which used store intercepts and out-of-stock surveys in its information, and which is in the process of being presented to retailers.
Columbus, Ohio-based Borden Foods has had a category management program that leverages the strength of the Italian meal concept -- pasta and pasta sauce -- up and running for about a year.
"We work with the retailer to define the category and then we measure the results based on several criteria.
Campbell Soup Co., Camden, N.J., calls its category management program Pasta Sauce Advantage. The program has been in a continuous state of evolution since it was introduced in early 1996, said Chris Kiser, director of category management.
Pasta sauce in particular is impacted by shifts in demographic data, with large households buying the more economical mainstream items, while empty-nesters may be more apt to buy a more premium product, he said.
Tracy Weis, category development manager at Campbell, said that is where a multiple pricing strategy comes in.
The rise of category management has caused concern among some smaller manufacturers.
Edward P. Salzano, executive vice president at Cantisano Foods, Fairport, N.Y., which manufacturers the Francesco Rinaldi brand, said that because his firm does not have the total array of services and support like Campbell or Lipton, there are times when he feels he is at a disadvantage.
"Where we feel we get hurt the most is in the depth of line. And I think the consumer is also getting hurt to a great degree. If you look at category management in its purest sense, the consumers are not getting the variety they were once offered from a lot of the chains," he said.
"But because we are looked upon as a specialist within our category, a lot of the good category managers, before they render a total decision and take as gospel what the category captain has prepared, look for input from the items that are important to them," he said.
Rob Celsi, marketing manager at Sutter Home Foods, Napa Valley, Calif., said smaller brands can survive if they find a niche and fill it. For example, Sutter Home pasta sauce is the only pasta sauce on the market made with premium varietal California wine, he said.
"Every product should have a 'USP' -- a Unique Selling Proposition. There are a lot of 'me-too' products, there are a lot of flanker brands, there are a lot of stockkeeping units on the shelf that may not have a reason for being," he said.