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Getting Saucy

January 14, 2010
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Whether consumers are mixing up a big bowl of pasta or basting a slab of ribs, one thing is for certain: The sauce is the boss. And as more consumers ditch the restaurant scene to take shelter in their kitchens, they’re turning to store shelves for sauces and marinades that provide a restaurant-style experience at home.

Data from Chicago-based Information Resources Inc. (IRI) show strong overall dollar sales growth in all major subcategories of sauces and marinades (barbecue, Mexican, steak/Worcestershire, spaghetti/Italian and others) for the 52 weeks ending Nov. 1. And the IRI data reveal even stronger dollar sales growth on the private label side of these subcategories.

According to Mike Klanac, senior director of marketing for Fredonia, N.Y.-based Carriage House Companies Inc., this growth seems to indicate that budget-minded consumers have come to understand the quality and value store brands provide.

“The good news appears to be continuing - at least for the time being,” he says.

In fact, few consumers look at private label sauces and marinades as cheap alternatives to the national brands anymore. Rob Wagner, vice president of U.S. sales for Mondiv (a division of Saint-Damase, Quebec-based Lassonde Specialties), believes one would be hard-pressed to find a skeptic of private label sauces and marinades.

“The only skeptics would be those who would buy nothing but branded [products], regardless of what you offer in private label,” he says. “But I think the average consumer is very well aware of the quality in private label sauce, and is happy with it.”

Let's Talk Tiers

When it comes to sauces and marinades, two types of “average consumers” currently exist: shoppers looking for basic products and people looking for something unique. Wagner points to four tiers of private label Italian sauces from which to choose: value, national brand equivalent (NBE), premium and what he calls “superpremium.” Superpremium store brand sauces are those that contain core premium ingredients (such as Italian tomatoes and Italian extra-virgin olive oil) and unique ingredients similar to those found in niche brands - regionally focused ingredients such as Italian cheese and Sicilian eggplant - at a lower price.

Wagner believes many consumers no longer are looking for premium-tier private label Italian sauces, which means retailers might want to consider a different three-tier structure.

“The national brand equivalent - that will always be around,” Wagner says. “But I see the premium dying off a little bit. … [They're] either going to go superpremium, or [they're] going to go to the lower segments.”

Wagner says Cincinnati-based Kroger Co. does an excellent job with its Italian sauces. The retailer used to offer Italian sauces in its value, NBE and premium tiers. But recently, Kroger transformed its premium Italian sauces (under the retailer’s Private Selection brand) into unique superpremium products.

Winn-Dixie is another retailer rolling out unique sauces and marinades with authentic ingredients. For example, the Jacksonville, Fla.-based retailer recently introduced a mojo marinade (a product in Winn-Dixie’s line of Hispanic-focused products). Winn-Dixie says the marinade contains authentic ingredients and is perfect for pork, chicken or beef. The marinade’s ingredients include grapefruit juice, orange juice and bitter orange concentrate.

Destination products that allow consumers to create a restaurant-quality meal (whether Italian, Central/South American or other) are critical in gathering the consumer’s attention, says Doug Oaks, national sales manager, retail at Red Wing, Minn.-based Food Service Specialties.

“There’s a trend toward higher quality,” he notes. “People are looking to upgrade their bottled sauces, in particular, and the reason is that they want a chef-style [meal].”

Oaks says it's wrong to believe consumers have given up dining out altogether. Consumers who frequent restaurants such as Macaroni Grill still are eating out, just not as often. And when these restaurant patrons cook at home, they want restaurant-style quality from their sauces and marinades.

Still, Oaks doesn’t believe retailers should get too complex with their sauces and marinades. Basic sauces still appeal to consumers, especially those turning to comfort foods. “People that like Eggs Benedict - they want a classic hollandaise [sauce] that’s made with egg and butter,” he says.

Materials Matter

Even if retailers are making their sauces more basic, packaging can get pretty complex. Many consumers understand the quality of private label sauces and marinades, but they might be more likely to purchase a product offered in unique packaging. For example, Wagner believes uniquely shaped glass jars are especially useful in helping a store brand sauce stand out on the shelf. Glass jars might be losing their popularity (because of their breakability and weight), but they remain a standard package style for many sauces and marinades.

“You can do something outside of a standard mason jar,” he says. “You could draw a consumer into thinking ‘What is that? Maybe that packaging will match what’s inside.’”

To make the product even more appealing, retailers could string a tag with a recipe around the neck of the jar, much like Supervalu does with its Culinary Circle line of sauces. The recipe doesn’t have to be as complex as the product’s ingredient list - Oaks believes the simplest recipes can be the most appealing.

“Simple recipes - whether they’re on a name tag on a jar or … on the back of the package - people follow them,” he says.

Oaks uses a national brand product from a different category to prove his point.

“A perfect example is Tollhouse Cookies,” he notes. “Nestlé has a chocolate chip cookie recipe on the back of every bag of chocolate chips. It’s a real simple recipe, and people follow it. Sauces are no different.”

Still, some retailers are looking beyond the glass jar and switching to plastic. These days, a plastic jar just might be able to offer the same functionality as a jar made from glass.

For example, West Chicago, Ill.-based Liquid Container recently unveiled its ThermaSet line of hot-fill, wide-mouth stock and custom PET containers. The containers are the first of their kind to allow sustained hot-fill performance at 205°F, making them ideal for viscous food items such as sauces and marinades, which tend to fill at higher temperatures. The ThermaSet line is based on a process developed by Liquid Container that substantially increases PET’s glass transition point.

Retailers can throw away any worries about bisphenol A (BPA) contamination with the ThermaSet containers, too. According to Liquid Container, there is no BPA in bottle-grade PET materials - PET resin actually is one of the cleanest packaging materials for containers.

Still, if retailers want to get even more sustainable, pouches are becoming increasingly popular, Wagner says.

Oaks adds that Food Specialty Services does a lot of pouch packaging with its sauces. Pouches do not offer as long of a shelf life as bottles and jars, but if a consumer is looking to use the sauce or marinade rather quickly, pouches could be a sustainable option for retailers.

“I think there will be more trends moving toward pouches,” Oaks says, “and … the consumer [will become] more accepting of that.”

A Healthy Relationship

No matter how a store brand sauce or marinade is made and packaged, there’s nothing more important than an honest partnership between the retailer and its supplier. Oaks believes a successful supplier-retailer relationship has to be fast, open and honest.

“You have to cut to the chase,” Oaks says.

The most successful private label partnerships Oaks recalls are ones in which a retailer teamed up with Food Service Specialties and hit the ground running. The retailer brought its thoughts and ideas to the table, and the manufacturer worked with its culinary team to come up with a product that satisfied both parties. Oaks believes all retailer-supplier relationships should work this way.

“I try to get [the retailer] involved immediately,” he says. “Tighten up communication - make it better, easier, faster.” PLB

Sidebar: Co-branding with the Captain

Until recently, it seemed like the only product that paired well with Captain Morgan Original Spiced Rum was a glass of Coca-Cola. Not anymore.

Global Icons, a Los Angeles-based brand licensing agency specializing in the development and extension of corporate brands and trademarks, recently entered into an agreement with Norwalk, Conn.-based Diageo North America Inc. for exclusive licensing representation of Captain Morgan Original Spiced Rum for sauces, glazes and marinades. Global Icons said it plans to focus on identifying and developing licensing programs that build on the “fun-loving nature of the Captain” and the brand’s equity.

“Captain Morgan is recognized and enjoyed around the globe as the flavored rum of choice,” said Bill McClinton, senior vice president of licensing at Global Icons. “It is a great opportunity to bring the distinct taste and social connectivity of the brand into products that consumers can use in the kitchen or at the barbecue. By adding the delicious flavor of Captain Morgan Original Spiced Rum (to sauces, glazes and marinades), everyday cooks can spice up any meal.”

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