NAPLES, FLA. – When consumers buy dry pasta, it typically means a big basket, said Todd Hale, senior vice-president of consumer and shopper insights at The Nielsen Co. Mr. Hale spoke at the National Pasta Association’s annual meeting Feb. 24 at the La Playa Beach and Golf Resort in Naples.

Mr. Hale’s comments underscored the importance that dry pasta has, even as he pointed to data suggesting a still challenged category.

“If you look at dry pasta sales in terms of where they are today and what’s happening to growth, obviously growth is flat to negative in a couple different channels that really matter to most,” Mr. Hale said. “Supermarkets account for almost three-fourths of dry pasta sales today, and sales are down 2.6%. And the value players’ growth is pretty much flat.

“When you think of where the growth is, on a dollar basis, it’s a real challenge. Other than refrigerated pasta, which is a real shining star when you think about 6% growth year-over-year in terms of dollar sales, although a very small player. It’s kind of hard to see growth in center store in a lot of other categories, including dry pasta.”

Mr. Hale pointed to several lessons that may be learned about current buying behavior trends in the market for pasta.

“No. 1, it (dry pasta) reaches a lot of households,” he said. “Over 80% of households buy dry pasta at least once during the year, right behind soup. Dry pasta is also very important in terms of the number of trips it drives, relative to other categories. Second on the list in terms of the trips, over six trips per household in a year. So, (it’s) pulling in a lot of shoppers with a fair amount of frequency, but not a lot of spending per trip.”

More pasta also means a bigger basket when it’s included as part of the shopping trip.

“Look at what dry pasta does when you think of how big the basket is when dry pasta is in the basket,” Mr. Hale said. “It’s almost as equal as frozen pizza, Italian entrees, in terms of all the other things that people put in the basket when they’re buying dry pasta. They have to buy the sauce, they might buy some meat, they might buy some bread, some other ingredients to include in the sauce they’re making. So it’s a big driver of purchase behavior across the store.”

With this in mind, Mr. Hale said industry needs to find more secondary locations for dry pasta. Some manufacturers at retail have been doing that, he said. Another option to drive pasta purchases may include finding ways to create more meal solution displays that provide an opportunity for shoppers to find dry pasta, sauce, bread, cheeses and other things in one location rather than shopping the whole store to find it.

“It’s connecting to shoppers that matter,” Mr. Hale said.

So who’s buying pasta? Mr. Hale said Nielsen data show it’s a small group of people buying a lot of product.

“One of the interesting things about dry pasta is that it’s really driven by a top spender,” he said. “It’s very skewed -- the top 20% of households that buy dry pasta account for 56% of sales. One-fifth of your shoppers have over half your volume. You don’t find many categories that are this skewed. So there are some people out there who really love your category. The question is: are you showing them the love? Are you connecting with them in a way they really understand how much you really need and love them? You lose one of these shoppers it means a lot to your volume. You can talk all you want about dropping coupons and bringing light, infrequent buyers into your category, but they don’t mean as much as these people who are buying week after week and really buying volumes.”

Other trends cited by Mr. Hale included the fact that women dominate dry pasta spending -- 73% to 27% (for men), and that it’s a category that attracts consumers into health and wellness.