Pasta is one of the great recession success stories. Volume sales have risen 5% year-on-year despite price rises driving the category's value up 16.1% [TNS 52w/e 9 August 2009].

And although there seems to have been some trading down a greater increase in the volume sales of dry pasta compared with fresh, suggesting people are favouring the cheaper option, there is also evidence that within dry pasta consumers are moving to more expensive branded pastas over own label, which has further added to the value rises. IRI reports value sales of own-label dry pasta down 19.4% and volume down a dramatic 31.4%.

Volume sales of dry pasta as a whole are up pretty much across the board, with only tagliatelle and 'other' (read 'less familiar') dry pasta experiencing falling sales. It is no coincidence that these are the sub-categories favoured traditionally by singles and couples or that sales of shapes, conversely, have risen 9.6% by volume. The big reason pasta continues to go from strength to strength in the recession is that it has resumed its rightful place on the family dinner table.

Relatively low prices, coupled with the fact it is quick and easy to prepare, versatile and liked by most ages have elevated it to the top of the shopping list for cash-strapped families.

"Pasta is a perfect recession-busting dish; it is simple enough for anyone to cook and is affordable and versatile," says Remmelt Jongkind, marketing director for Italian food brand Napolina. "Sales have grown as consumers look for tasty, filling meals that won't break the bank."

Or be rejected by fussy eaters. "Mums like to serve pasta because they know it is something the whole family will be happy to eat," says Carine San Juan, Premier Foods head of category.

Families are enjoying meals together as often as possible as a way of managing costs, confirms a consumer poll conducted by Dolmio in March. Almost half (48%), said they thought pasta was good value and convenient. By contrast, young people believe classic British dinners take too long to cook, according to a survey by the Potato Council last year.

With the emphasis very much on frugality for recession-hit shoppers, it is no surprise that sales of higher-ticket pasta sauces, while also up sharply in value, have not risen quite so impressively in volume. The total value of the Italian pasta sauce market is up 11.5% to £346.6m, according to TNS. Much of this can be accounted for by price rises (from £2.69 a kg on average to £2.95), however, and volume sales have only risen 1.8%, while total cooking sauce sales are up 8% in value and 2% in volume.

With their lower price points, ambient sauces are faring better than chilled, although shoppers only started to noticeably trade down in the spring when chilled was hit by significant price rises and the impact of the strong euro. While ambient sauce sales are up 2.4% in volume and 13.6% by value, the much smaller chilled sub-sector experienced a double fall of 3% in volume sales and 0.7% in value [TNS].

Some premium ambient sauces also had a tough time, Sacla', for example, posting a 22.5% decline in volume sales [IRI 52w/e 3 October]. Other brands, however, have either benefited from lower price points or heavy promotional activity. Loyd Grossman, for instance, has become the number two sauce behind Dolmio on the back of intense promotional activity, volumes soaring 56.4% against a value uplift of 28% [IRI 52w/e 3 October 2009].

Its decision to push volumes over value illustrates how fierce competition is in the brand-dominated sauce category. No-one is taking the situation lying down, however. A number of brands have been quick to respond to demand for more family-orientated products. This September, Sacla' launched a range endorsed by rugby star Lawrence Dallaglio and based on recipes originally cooked by the ex-England skipper's Italian father.

Others have started to offer larger formats, with Premier now selling three Loyd Grossman Bolognese sauces in 660g jars.

Own-label supplier Greencore says it has also seen strong growth from larger format sauces. "Chilled pasta sauce is predominately targeted at couples, but with pasta being a staple family meal, the large pots have been introduced to satisfy the needs of the family market," says Jane Bicknell, marketing manager, Greencore chilled sauces and soups. She confirms, however, that sales in the chilled pasta sauce market have declined over the past year as the recession has prompted consumers to trade down to ambient.

Organic products have also suffered during the downturn, says Wendy Wing, customer marketing manager at Mars Food UK, which owns organic brand Seeds of Change sales of its dry pasta have fallen 18.2% in value and 42.6% in volume [IRI 52w/e 3 October 2009].

"Although the UK organic market continued to grow in the first half of the year, sales dipped from late summer onwards," she admits. "Seeds of Change has planned activity to make shoppers more aware of the benefits of organic, specifically focused on the brand's high-quality taste."

That said, organic pasta and pasta sauce have coped better than expected in the recession, she insists. "There are already signs of improvement as consumer confidence returns," she adds. "Next year we expect the sector to return to growth."

But while organic products may be suffering, branded pastas appear to be going from strength to strength, with value sales of branded dry pasta up 91.3% [IRI 52w/e 3 October 2009].

Napolina, the UK's biggest pasta brand, has also been pushing its Italian credentials, a strategy that seems to be working sales of its dried pasta are up 13.7% in value and 17.4% in volume [IRI 52w/e 3 October 2009].

"Products that deliver great value and authenticity are best placed to drive value into the category as consumers are able to create that real taste of Italy in their own homes," says Jongkind. "Our bronze die pasta is proving very popular with consumers volume sales having grown 68% over the past year. It is extruded through bronze dies, rather than modern steel dies, to create a rough porous surface that helps sauces stick to the pasta."

Sole Nasi, marketing director of The Fresh Pasta Company, argues that despite evidence of consumers downtrading, artisan products are benefiting from the demand for authenticity. "Premium products do well in a recession," she claims. "Customers want to treat themselves and can achieve a restaurant-quality meal at home by using premium products."

Also hoping to cash in on consumers eating in during the recession is premium Italian brand Garofalo, which has proved popular in the US. It was launched into Costco and a number of top-end retailers including Ocado and Harrods last month. The range, priced from £1.59 for a 500g bag of dried pasta, uses bronze dies and high-grade durum wheat.

One area of the Italian food market that many producers are excited about is pasta bakes. Mars UK's Wing says the biggest success for Dolmio in 2009 has been its range of lasagne sauces, which includes tomato and creamy varieties and has been extended with tomato with roasted onion and garlic sauce. Quoting IRI data for the year to 5 September, the company says the lasagne cooking sauce market grew 22.4% by value to £29m, with Dolmio lasagne sauces accounting for 79.7% of the sub-sector. "We expect this growth to accelerate in 2010, with a £2.2m communications package planned to support Dolmio lasagne sauces," says Wing.

Loyd Grossman's Al Forno bake sauce range, meanwhile, has been extended with new recipes. "More than 50% of spend on Italian bakes comes from ABC1 consumers so there is a definite opportunity for a more gourmet offering," says Matt Brown, head of marketing for sauces at Premier Foods. Many pasta bake products are targeted at families, he says, claiming Al Forno fills a gap in the market for two-person oven-bake meals for connoisseurs.

The classic oven bake pasta dish is, of course, lasagne. And suppliers say it is important to cross-merchandise the pasta and sauces for such dishes.

Merchandising and promotions
In a bid to keep driving traffic to the fresh aisle, Sainsbury's did just this introducing Italian Zones in June, and using promotions and PoS to educate shoppers on the pasta and sauces that go together well. It also relaunched its chilled pasta in June.

It is not the only retailer to have promoted fresh pasta heavily, notes Bicknell. "Promotional activity in chilled pasta has been seen across all the major multiples, with money-off deals being replaced in the past few months by multibuy deals. These can offer a complete meal solution."

The model could also work well for ambient, suggests Jongkind. "We expect to see more retailers implementing meal-solution promotions for pasta and sauces to give consumers inspiration," he says. "Meal-solution promotions are expected to be a key focus for encouraging consumers to buy more often and try new products."

Pasta Reale has gone so far as to offer shoppers the chance to sample its recently relaunched Duetto dual-coloured filled pasta for free. Packs featuring a Try Me For Free sticker give shoppers the option to download a form that can be filled in and sent off with proof of purchase to receive reimbursement for the cost of Duetto.

Peter Barry, managing director of Scottish pasta producer Marshalls Foods, believes pasta sales will continue to rise.

"There continues to be scope for increased pasta consumption in the UK," he says. "Consumption lags behind other European countries including Germany, France and the Netherlands, which have comparative diets to our own."

Now it has re-established itself as a firm family favourite, pasta's big challenge is to win over the wary older consumer and ensure pasta is not pasted by price rises.

Focus On Pasta & Pasta Sauces