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    COVER STORY: Private Label: Paying the price

    Consumers and grocers are finally realizing that "you get what you pay for" goes for store brands, too.

    This past September, Boulder, Colo.-based natural and organic retailer Wild Oats Markets launched a new line of natural health and beauty care. Each product prominently features the Wild Oats logo, embedded in eye-catching packaging with colors that reflect the product's natural ingredients. While each of these items serves its own purposes, they all communicate a message of high quality to the shopper, loud and clear.

    Such close attention to a consistent quality image for its store-brand products should come as no surprise to those familiar with Wild Oats: Its store brand offerings are the highest-quality products in the mix.

    "For all of our private label products, we look to create the highest-quality items with the best ingredients and highest standards," says Sonja Tuitele, Wild Oats' senior director of investor relations. "We have an in-house design team for the packaging, and we do extensive research as to the efficaciousness of the ingredients."

    While it's not surprising that a retailer with a focus on health and wellness would hold itself to such standards, there's also a shrewd business strategy behind this focus on quality.

    "It allows us to encourage those shoppers who primarily come here for perishables, to try other categories in our stores," says Tuitele. "Many of them aren't familiar with the natural and organic HBC brands, but they are familiar with the Wild Oats brand and trust it, and would be willing to try it out."

    This strategy has worked well in such departments such as grocery and vitamins and supplements, and is driving double-digit growth for the retailer's private label products. The Wild Oats brand equity has allowed the retailer to bring its products into markets that have no Wild Oats stores -- via the Web at Amazon.com and Peapod, and through a store-within-a-store concept at Stop & Shop. In effect, the Wild Oats brand in these areas has taken on the role of a national brand.

    The Wild Oats program is an example of private label's recent trend toward high-quality and premium offerings. Indeed, in light of recent reports -- both consumer- and retailer-focused -- as well as retailer activities, it seems the stars are aligning to bring this trend to the front of retailers' minds.

    In fact, according to one such report, consumers are even beginning to demand higher-quality private label items. "Consumers today expect more quality from private label products," says Blaine Becker, director of marketing and communications for the Bellevue, Wash.-based Hartman Group, which recently released the study Private Label from a Consumer Perspective. "And just as important, they're seeking relevant product and retail shopping experiences."

    According to the Hartman study, when asked if overall store-brand quality had improved in the past two years, 20 percent of those surveyed indicated that private label has improved "significantly." For about one-third (35 percent), store brands were perceived to have improved "slightly." Private label quality has "remained about the same" in the minds of 36 percent of consumers.

    If recent private label activity is any indication, food retailers are moving quickly to address this recognition of, and desire for, more higher-quality private label products, whether that quality means richer ingredients, better treatment of the livestock they come from, or simply the addition of a flavor customers have been asking for.

    In other examples of the quality trend that have emerged just over the past few months alone, Stater Bros. has introduced an exclusive line of 110 all-natural and organic private label products, Winn-Dixie has begun certifying its kosher private label products, Food Lion has launched a line of private-brand potato chips that contains no trans fat or preservatives, and Wal-Mart has rolled out private label organic milk.

    Private label in more and more cases is in a position to compete with national brands in terms of quality, according to ACNielsen's U.S. Private Label Trends and Insights, a report released in August and based on surveys of ACNielsen HomeScan panelists. Approximately 85 percent of those who are top-spend private label buyers said store brands are a good alternative to national brands. Fifty-nine percent of consumers said private label products are "just as good" as brands, and one-third even said that some private label items have "higher quality" than their national-brand competitors.

    The ACNielsen study also revealed that improvements to private label packaging are paying off -- even low-spend private label consumers have a positive perception overall of private label packaging.

    Who owns quality?

    Among 14 retail channels, including food, drug, discount, and department stores, in addition to a range of others that the Hartman Group asked consumers about, there were noticeable differences in how shoppers perceive the quality of store brand products.

    When asked to rate the channels providing the "highest-" and the "lowest-" quality store brands, top choices for high quality include natural food supermarkets, specialty grocers, and department stores. Supermarkets followed these three channels in terms of high-quality store-brand offerings. However, supermarkets also held the third-highest ranking as a provider of low-quality private label, a sign that consumers perceive inconsistencies among supermarkets when it comes to the quality level of store brands.

    Below supermarkets in the high quality ranking came a "second tier" of retailers, three of which also sell a significant amount of groceries. Ranked in descending order, they were discount superstores, drug stores, bookstores, club stores, home improvement stores, office supply stores, and discount stores. Who are providing the lowest quality levels in private label? Consumers said pet supply, convenience, and dollar stores.

    Given this data, it's no surprise that quality perception -- in league with price -- is the main factor that prompts consumers to try a private label product for the first time. The Hartman study reveals that "value" -- perceptions of quality and price together -- and "price" on its own are the two most important drivers behind first-time purchases of store-brand products, even more than the store's reputation or the product's appearance.

    Design, including a product's packaging and labeling, is apparently not an important factor at all when it comes to first-time buys.

    "They want to see that they're paying less than [for] national brands -- even if it's only less by a small amount," says Hartman's Becker. "They want to compare one against the other."

    Just as value is the most important factor behind first-time purchases of store-brand products, value keeps them coming back for more as well. Value, followed closely by quality and price, is the top factor behind why consumers say they continue to purchase store-brand products beyond initial trial.

    The presence of a store-brand option that compares favorably with a similar name brand is also an important consideration. For seven in 10 consumers, "availability" is important when deciding whether to continue to repurchase a store-brand product. Persistent out-of-stocks in private label can be devastating to a retailer's entire store-brand program, as they suggest to consumers that the store-brand product is unavailable, and force the consumer to make a choice: purchase a similar, other product now, or go to another store to buy a store-brand product.

    Decisions, decisions

    By the same token, too many choices also prevent consumers from buying more private label products, and consequently keep private label from reaching its full potential.

    "SKU proliferation, which is too many of the same things on the shelf, and the inappropriate pricing of private label are two key inhibitors to further purchasing of store brands," says Kevin Sterneckert, senior director of Stamford, Conn.-based private label consulting firm Daymon Worldwide. "Pricing today should address things like the quality/value statement, what the banner or brand means to the consumer, the value of the ingredients in the packaging, and the entire essence of the store brand in the consumer's mind when they go to make the decision to buy at the shelf."

    One of Daymon's chief pillars in its approach to retail consulting is to ensure that store-brand items are priced according to what they deliver, and not at some arbitrary percentage below national brands. This isn't solely based on driving margins, but also managing customer expectations.

    "Take pain relief, for example," explains Sterneckert. "You have a headache that's pounding and you go to the shelf and see the brand priced at $10 for 100 pills, and the store brand is $3.50 for 100. If you've never tried the store-brand pain relief, what are you thinking as a consumer? Is there something that costs less? Is it not going to take care of my headache the way the brand would? But in reality, it has the same active ingredients -- by law it has to. So the price, along with the packaging and the ingredients, must communicate quality and value.

    "They want true variety -- but variety isn't just SKU count," he adds. "In fact, variety, when we look at it from the perspective of SKU count, actually complicates the consumer's shopping experience. If you have different versions of a product, and there's true differentiation between them, consumers love that."

    Extensive research and testing with retailers revealed that the consumer responds best when both the removal of SKU duplication and optimal pricing are practiced together. Daymon created a proprietary process to get it done and launched it in the field this past May.

    "We have a dozen or so retailers that are now removing products from the shelf," says Sterneckert. "They've redone their planograms, removed brands from the shelf, appropriately assigned the facing allocations for SKUs, and are seeing impressive results."

    Indeed, Sterneckert says these customers are already seeing even more "impressive results" than what Daymon had originally forecast they would. By applying the formula to its bottled water category, for example, one customer saw private label sales volume in the category jump 238 percent. And not only did its store-brand sales jump, but the entire category was also lifted.

    By removing 7 percent to 10 percent of SKUs in a category, retailers who've gotten with the program have found other incremental benefits to running a leaner, better-priced private label operation.

    "Today, in many categories, because there are so many brands, there are the niche players that aren't able to have a facing enough for one case, and that means you take product to the back room," explains Sterneckert. "And in retail, when you take product to the back room, you're introducing shrink into the process, because something is going to happen to that half or third of a case. It's going to fall, get stepped on, or forgotten.

    "What's particularly interesting is that different brands are being removed in different regions of the country, which means that the retailers involved have been paying close attention to their markets, and tailoring the program to each one."

    The program isn't free of challenges, however. Removing SKUs of nationally branded products inevitably means some retailers in the Daymon program will lose trade dollars from the companies whose brands are removed. The net result, however, is positive, according to Sterneckert.

    "Now, we're not naive enough to say that there aren't marketing moneys involved in the process, and this may in some cases put in jeopardy some of those marketing dollars," he admits. "But we've seen that if you examine the full costs of carrying the products -- measured against the marketing dollars that are offered -- there are instances where the costs outweigh the marketing dollars offered by the manufacturers."

    All this talk about value doesn't mean that retailers should shift their focus away from price.

    The Hartman study examined consumer attitudes toward private label price and value, and it's clear that many consumers believe the potential savings that store brands offer are too tempting to pass up.

    More than eight in 10 surveyed (81 percent) claimed that they save money buying store brands. On the other hand, less than one-third of shoppers (31 percent) said they purchase store products because they "trust" the retailer. Here again, low price beat out store reputation as the most important component of private label shopping -- perhaps partially dispelling the notion that store-brand products help to differentiate retailers from competitors.

    "It's not so much the products that are important; it's relevant product and shopping experiences that matter most," says Hartman's Becker. "No matter how strong the retailer's relationship with the customer, even a Trader Joe's will [sometimes] develop a product that isn't accepted by its shoppers."

    Food Lion is an example of a grocer that has successfully combined these value and price considerations in its current private label program, which consists of more than 2,900 products across every department.

    "Food Lion strives to develop and procure private brand products that offer a real value to our customers," says Jeff Lowrance, director of corporate communications for the Salisbury, N.C.-based chain. "Our goal is to ensure these products are comparable in taste, appearance, quality, and performance to the national brands. Our private-brand products reach our stores' shelves without the advertising costs of the national brands, and these savings are passed on to our customers -- Food Lion brand items are priced 10 percent to 25 percent lower than the comparable national brands."

    Of course, price isn't the only focus at Food Lion. As with the potato chips mentioned earlier, the retailer is also continually looking for opportunities to develop products that meet specific customer needs.

    "We recently launched a line of gluten-free ice cream that's sweetened with Splenda, for our shoppers with diabetes," says Lowrance. "We're continuously soliciting feedback from our shoppers to help us continue to refine and tailor our private label offerings."

    Food Lion is evaluating a tiered private label system for next year, adding an economy level of products for budget-conscious consumers.

    It's the combination of value with quality -- along with specifically addressing customers' needs -- that allows Food Lion to successfully focus on pricing in its private label programs. The practice of consumers making their private label purchase decisions based on price alone is history.

    "Consumers' fixation on low price can be traced to private label's roots, when in the early days of generics, low price and saving money were the focus of a retailer's marketing message," says the Hartman Group's Becker. "Today we see many examples of store brands that have carved out a value niche through unique, high-quality products that effectively differentiate them from competitors, such as Loblaws' President's Choice, which is often regarded by consumers as a name brand, particularly since it's licensed out to other retailers."

    Other criteria such as appearance and promotion -- including discounts, sales, and coupons -- were ranked as less important to a trial purchase of private label products (by 45 percent and 43 percent of shoppers, respectively), while design (packaging, label, images) was weighted least importantly, ranked by only 9 percent of shoppers as "quite important" or "very important."

    One reason that promotion ranked so low might be that consumers think retailers don't make the best marketers.

    The Hartman study shows that while consumers believe private label products have intrinsic value, many store brands aren't effectively marketed.

    Consumer suggestions were as follows:

    --Private label products should be promoted more: Shoppers were fairly unanimous in saying that many private label products aren't promoted enough. They desired more sales, while at the same time wishing everyday prices would remain low.

    --Private label products should be advertised better: Shoppers consistently said they desire greater private label advertising, both at the shelf and in-store. But they were torn between wanting private label products to be advertised like national brands, and hoping that such advertising won't inflate product pricing.

    --Private label products should be marketed better: Shoppers would like to see better packaging and labeling on store brands -- again, as long as this doesn't jack up prices. Suggestions included displaying store brands more prominently, and positioning store brands with national brands for comparison-buying purposes.

    ACNielsen reached the same conclusion in its research. Among its HomeScan panel members, consumers who spend the most at retail have a weaker private label commitment, and thus, it's with these shoppers that the greatest private label opportunity lies. This suggests a need for a sharper focus on premium private label offerings, and/or the need to increase trial via in-store sampling, advertising, and displays.

    Spreading the word about its new private label product is just what Wild Oats plans to do next year.

    "In January we're launching an educational campaign for health and beauty care, to teach our shoppers about the benefits of natural HBC," says Roxanne Brodheim, national category manager for holistic health and body care at the retailer. "We're starting with seminars on healthy aging, which fits well with our new body care offerings."

    And just how do Wild Oats' national-brand HBC suppliers feel about this huge marketing push behind private label HBC?

    "They're fine with it," says Tuitele. "They're even looking forward to it, in fact, because new shoppers to the HBC department will be exposed to their brands as well. The Wild Oats name will get them into the section, and, sooner or later, they'll look to experiment."

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