If there was one category destined to cash in on the recession, it was cooking sauces – but oven bake is one of the only sectors doing really well. Cathy Relf finds out why

Cooking sauces were tipped to be a big success of the recession as people cut back on going to restaurants and getting takeaways and got stuck into cooking. At first glance it looks as if they did. Value sales have risen 8.6% to £557m over the past year, with volume up slightly less at 2.3% [Kantar Worldpanel 52w/e 27 December 2009].

But the picture isn't as rosy as it first seems. Much of the value growth is due to commodity-driven price rises. The average price per pack has increased 6.2% in the past year [Kantar] and no wonder, when you consider sunflower oil has increased 24.7% in price and aluminium 41.6%, according to Mintec. "Diesel has also increased in price, as has fuel duty, which will be affecting delivery costs," says Mintec analyst Andrew Larkham. "Increased energy costs will be impacting on processing, too."

Price rises are probably chiefly to blame for the fact sales of ambient cooking sauces have gone up less by volume than the previous year's 3.2%. Certain categories have performed particularly badly. Volume sales of traditional and Mexican sauces have plummeted, and even Italian sauces by far the biggest segment couldn't match the previous year's 6.7% rise. There's a more robust picture in one sector, however. People have been turning on the oven and baking big dishes.

"Oven bake is an exciting area, which has seen a resurgence in the recession," says Premier Foods head of category savoury Carine San-Juan. "There has been an increase in families eating together. Before the recession, families were increasingly eating separately, with one meal for the parents and one for the kids, but now they are more often sharing one meal. Oven bakes are filling, tasty, hot and easy to prepare."

Premier launched Al Forno lines into its Loyd Grossman range in July and says sales of its Homepride Pasta Bakes and Potato Bakes have soared in the recession. Loyd Grossman is now the second-biggest brand in Italian sauces after Dolmio, with value sales of the total brand up 14% to £57.1m and volume up 29.1% [IRI 52w/e 26 December 2009].

"The Loyd success has been achieved through a focus on what consumers actually eat," says San-Juan. "The bolognese campaign last year brought home the message that it is a heartwarming meal everyone loves." The brand has also benefited from frequent promotions which help account for the disparity between volume and value growth.

Heavy promotional activity on cooking sauce brands also limited downtrading to scratch ingredients such as tinned tomatoes, claims San-Juan. "You can find a promotion if you want to save money," she says. "And by the time you have assembled all the ingredients, cooking from scratch is often not as cost-effective as buying a sauce."

Mars' Dolmio reigns supreme in Italian sauces and this year was no exception as it focused on meals that appeal to the whole family, such as bolognese and pasta bakes. "Brits are getting back to basics and enjoying meals together as often as possible as a way of connecting socially as a family and offering a cost-effective solution," says Wendy Wing, customer marketing manager, Mars Food UK. The strategy appears to have worked, with value sales up 14.9% to £151.7m and volume up 2.9% [IRI].

Dolmio's focus this year will be on its lasagne range, relaunched in the summer and extended with a roasted onion & garlic sauce (rsp: £1.67). "The lasagne sector has experienced massive growth in 2009 and is attractive to consumers looking for a tasty, easy-to-prepare meal," says Wing.

Things haven't gone quite so swimmingly for Mars' organic brand Seeds of Change, which has suffered along with the rest of the organic sector. Sales have fallen 2.8% by value and 4.0% by volume [IRI]. But Wing remains optimistic about organic products. "The new campaign by the Organic Trade Board will help rectify consumer confusion and bring more people back in," she says.

Seeds of Change wasn't the only Italian brand to have a rough year. Sales of Unilever's Knorr, which includes Ragu and Chicken Tonight, fell 24.5% by value and 27.4% by volume [IRI]. In June, Tesco temporarily delisted Ragu shortly after Unilever demanded double-digit price hikes on its 100 top brands while other retailers were thought to have gone to the grey market.

Napolina, whose range includes tinned tomatoes, pasta and pasta sauces, is also busy gearing up for another year of home cooking. "Caution looks set to be the watchword for consumers," says Remmelt Jongkind, marketing director. "Despite the improving economy, people are likely to maintain many of the shopping habits they adapted in the recession."

The company, whose value sales have increased 26.7% to £2.6m and volume sales 28.3% [IRI], is tweaking its pasta sauce recipes ready for spring. "Each recipe has been refined to focus on simple, good quality ingredients," says Jongkind. "We're also increasing the pack weight to 350g to offer even greater value to consumers, and introducing a more contemporary pack design will increase on-shelf standout."

Another brand that has changed its recipes is Jamie Oliver's cooking sauces, which were given a roasting in the media last year, with headlines claiming they had a "higher salt content than seawater" and "more salt than 10 bags of crisps". But the brand is starting the year with a clean slate, says Melanie Goodfellow, Fresh Retail Ventures licensing manager for food. "We've rebranded and repackaged all of the Jamie products including pasta sauces and this will be available in March. We've also reduced the salt content in many flavours without any compromise on taste."

Sacla' is also hoping to revive its fortunes, with strong NPD. The brand, which this year launched pasta sauces with Lawrence Dallaglio, has seen value sales fall 4.7%, with volume down 16.7% [IRI].

While Italian may be a mixed picture, Oriental sauces have had an excellent year, with value sales up 12.2% to £85.8m and volume up 8.7%, whereas last year value sales fell 1.1% on volume growth of 1.4% [Kantar]. The growth will have been due in no small part to the frenetic levels of NPD.

At Sharwood's, one of the biggest brands, value sales of its Chinese, Indian and Thai ranges have risen 4.0% overall and volume sales helped by promotions are up 11.1%, reversing respective declines in 2008 of 7.4% and 5.3% [IRI]. Last March, the Premier brand refreshed its Stir Fry range, introduced new flavours, segmented its Chinese range into regions including Beijing, Szechuan and Canton, and streamlined the packaging to create a more modern look.

It is sponsoring Chinese Food in Minutes, a Channel Five series starring chef Ching-He Huang, which started this week. "Partnering Ching's expertise with our refreshed Stir Fry range will generate sales across the range," says brand controller Sarah Frederickson.

Sharwood's Thai offering is the smallest of its cooking sauce ranges, but San-Juan believes there is room for growth so long as consumer fears can be overcome. "There is a big mental block stopping people moving out of Uncle Ben's Sweet & Sour into more adventurous areas. Thai has been tipped as 'the next big thing' for several years but it is not growing at the rate we expected. That's why our communication has been centred around a 'you can do it' message we are telling consumers that the hard work has been done and they only need to do the last few steps."

With Uncle Ben's sales up 6.5% in value but down 4.1% in volume [IRI], a shift may be starting. But Brits aren't giving up their sweet & sour just yet, says Wing. "Uncle Ben's Sweet & Sour remains the bestselling Oriental sauce," she claims.

Another brand flexing its muscles in Thai is Amoy, which in October introduced two new flavours, relaunched its stir-fry sauces, renamed its Sweet Soy and Spring Onion sauce 'Chow Mein' and reduced pack sizes from 150g to 120g, taking the rsp from £1.19 to 95p. "By introducing variants with lower price points, we will encourage shopper loyalty, repeat purchases and predict we can grow value sales 33%," says senior brand manager Caroline Grimshaw.

Traditional sauces were tipped to do well in the recession because of their nostalgia appeal, but value sales have fallen 3.3% in the past year while volume is down 6.8% [Kantar]. It's a tale of two sauces, however, with the two biggest players Homepride and Knorr's Chicken Tonight experiencing very different fortunes.

Knorr, which includes Chicken Tonight, saw sales fall almost 25%. However, Homepride has grown sales 15% by value and 10.2% by volume over the past year [IRI], through promotions and by focusing on tweaking packaging, recipes and ranges to suit the recessionary environment.

"You won't see any radical new blue-sky changes to the Homepride range this year," says Premier's San-Juan. "If you look at consumers' top 10 dishes, they're not fancy and difficult. We've taken the brand from decline into growth by making sure it is good value.

"Just offering traditional sauces is not enough. Homepride has performed so well because it offers a good value family solution."

And value is key even as the UK emerges tentatively from recession. In short, don't expect a let-up in the heavy promotional activity any time soon.

Focus On Cooking Sauces