Editor's Letter

Elevate Your Private Label Program

Once heralded as an economical alternative to national brand names for the consumer, private label store brands have evolved to take on a much bigger role than just value. Today, stores are using their private label programs to practically define their brand and identity.

"Store brands are important to consumers. It gives them quality alternatives to high-priced national brands and helps them save money at check-out," says Brian Sharoff, president of the Private Label Manufacturers Association. "But retailers now distinguish themselves by their private label programs. It defines them to their customers. It builds loyalty to their stores. It helps create their image to the public."

As I walked down the aisles of PLMA's 2016 Private Label Trade Show just outside Chicago on Nov. 13-15, I was amazed by the myriad products that went far beyond the basic Maple syrup, salted crackers and whole wheat bread. Just as American consumers are demanding, both large and small specialty food manufacturers are offering private label opportunities for fascinating flavor profiles and outof- the-box product innovations that allow stores to build on their core line and elevate their store brand's product offerings.

That may have been why veteran buyer Carl Lang, category manager of Beverages and Snacks for Sears Holdings Corp., had trouble sticking to his predetermined list of 130 booths to visit. (With 2,700 exhibiting booths and 5,000 buyers and visitors, the PLMA Show is the largest private label show in the United States.)

"We started private label probably about 15 years ago. But about seven years ago, we got really serious about uniformity and quality. We've enhanced it, and in the past two years, it's been a major player in our company," he says. Sears' private label brand, called Smart Sense, offers more than 2,000 products across grocery, household, health and beauty. "Now it's about extending the line. We have the basics, so what's the next evolution of it? We look for stuff that's completely unique." He noted a Graham cracker flavored pretzel that he tasted on the floor.

Lang, a well-known figure at the PLMA Show after eight years of scouting products, was accompanied by first-time visitor and Millennial Mayra Buenrostro, associate business manager with Daymon, a brand development group. "It's amazing (being here) because you start to look at all the different opportunities that we didn't think of as far as what could be a private label in some instances. So it gives you ideas."

Both say they rely heavily on "member data" and the demographics of their customer base while shopping for private label partnerships. "It's not one size fits all—high end is one thing to ethnic to inner city to suburbia to rural. We worry about all of those different kinds of mixes," Lang says. "Ultimately, people love value, so you got to really consider if you're offering something that's a value to make them want to buy."

Nancy Wekselbaum, who founded the The Gracious Gourmet—a premium line of jams and jellies—in 2006, celebrated her company's 10th anniversary with a second appearance at the PLMA Show. Last year's show led her to a co-branding opportunity with Target, for whom she developed three original flavors.

"We find a lot of retailers are focusing on doing premium brands in private label. Instead of just the basic line of ketchup, they're looking for condiments that are more sophisticated because the food consumer has evolved," she says. "Consumers want something that is a little more innovative."

Wekselbaum recommends this approach for independent retailers, too. Creating flavors that are unique to your store is a strategy to create customer and even product loyalty, she notes. And that's exactly the kind of interest she saw at the PLMA Show.

"It's been terrific. We've had a lot of people who are extremely interested because smaller retailers are seeing that we're a premium line with sophisticated flavor," she says. "To have their store's name on a product that is a little out of the ordinary helps to differentiate and elevate their brand."

Dayna Fields Managing Editor,
Fancy Food & Culinary Products