2007 Retail Executives of the Year: Affecting Change

June 1, 2007
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The 2007 Retail Executives of the Year have been announced and published in the June issue of PL Buyer. Congratulations to all the winners and thank you to the manufacturer/supplier community for helping us honor the industry's leading private label executives!

Each year in the June issue, PL Buyer recognizes the industry’s Top 25 retailers based on dollar sales and overall performance. And while upper management, business practices and aggressive strategies dictate a lot of a company’s accomplishments, most would agree it’s the people executing these programs that bring a business to life. To recognize private label executives across the industry, PL Buyer also recognizes 10 of the industry’s leading retail executives with the Annual Retail Executives of the Year Awards.

Annually, PL Buyer reaches out to the supplier community asking for nominations of retail executives who have a commitment to private label and to growing the industry, a keen understanding of the supplier-retailer relationship and an overall great attitude toward innovation and true partnership. Hailing from national and regional chains, drug stores, grocery stores and mass merchandisers, and bringing to the table a range of tenures extending to 40 years of service, this year’s retail executives of the year are: Chris Amorello, buyer, The Kroger Co.; Mike Bloom, senior vice president of merchandising, CVS/Pharmacy; Pete Bonneau, vice president efficiency and productivity, Food Lion LLC; Steve Broughton, vice president, dry grocery division, Wal-Mart Stores Inc.; Mike DeCory, brand manager, Wegmans Food Markets; Bill Geary, divisional merchandise manager for personal care (recently retired after 40 years at Walgreens), The Walgreen Co.; Colleen Rogers, buyer, private label, Whole Foods Markets; Doug Walt, vice president of hardlines, Sam’s Club; James D. White, senior vice president of consumer brands, Safeway Inc.; and Tess Wilkins, assistant general merchandise manager, foods and sundries, Costco Wholesale Corp.

All of this year’s retail executives of the year were flattered and honored to be recognized by their supplier partners and PL Buyer. What’s more, many offered some insight on the industry and what they expect to see in years to come. The following is a roundtable discussion with a few of 2007’s retail executives of the year.

How would you capture the state of the private label industry?

Pete Bonneau: I believe the state is very solid. The consumer now gives credit to the quality of private brand products and is far more apt to take advantage of the value many private brand products offer.

James D. White: The industry is in transition. There is more of a consumer focus and a greater need for brand-building activities. At Safeway, our agenda is to build proprietary and exclusive brands, like O Organics and Eating Right. The industry also has a greater focus on innovation.

Mike Bloom: The store brand industry is alive and well. It is a challenging but growth-oriented industry and it is exciting to be a part of history as we continue to push the envelope with store brands.

Mike DeCory: I think it’s in a great spot right now. Consumer acceptance of store brands has never been better. Suppliers are getting more and more focused on product quality, and branding continues to improve as well as retailers treating their brands as a brand and not just a line of products.

What changes do you expect to see in the industry over the next five years?

Bonneau: I don’t want to speculate, but looking at current trends, one might think that a successful private brand program will need to be approached more like a consumer-packaged-goods (CPG) product with more of a focus on marketing and innovation.

White: Consumer knowledge and innovation requirements will increase significantly. This will change the relationships between retailers and co-packers. It will also enhance the relationship between retailers and their customers.

Bloom: I anticipate that growth will continue at very strong levels. Retailers will continue to expand offerings in an effort to increase margin, and we should see more exclusive brands being offered throughout the retail landscape.

DeCory: I would say an increased emphasis on food safety - where raw materials are sourced from and closer attention on product quality. We’ll all be working very hard on that over the next five years.

How can the private label industry be improved?

Bonneau: My opinion is there appears to be room for more collaboration between retailers and vendors – especially in the area of key performance indicators (KPIs). My thought is that FMI and PLMA could partner together to create standards for benchmarking.

White: The industry needs greater leadership, innovation and consumer-centered solutions. The industry should also master the art of being proactive. Begin developing the product as soon as there is a clear need.

DeCory: From the retailer side, I would say that all retailers have a shared responsibility for the overall consumer perception of private label. I think that we all need to stay vigilant or be more consistent in demands for quality, food safety and great products. A bad experience in private label can hurt more than just the retailer where the product was purchased - the industry needs to collectively embrace that responsibility. From the supplier side, there needs to be more leadership on issues such as innovation and sustainability. And there needs to be more risk-taking.

What is the key to A successful private label program?

Bonneau: I feel that offering differentiated products in different tiers is an important key to success. This enables you to reach different consumer needs. I also think a successful program needs an overt level of commitment from key leaders in the retail organization. This creates alignment.

White: Consumer insights. You need strong insights on your specific consumers and shoppers as it relates to specific categories. Not only should you know how consumers respond to products within a category, but it is also important to know how consumers react within the store itself. You must understand both the small and the big picture.

Bloom: The key to success is great technology and innovative packaging for the products. After that, you need strong supplier partners, retailer partnerships and solid merchandising and marketing plans in place. We also focus heavily on communication and execution with excellence in our store-operations partners. This all brings us to great sales and margin results!

DeCory: I would say total company support and belief in the brand are the keys to success. If you’ve got company support and great vision that is communicated to the entire organization and supported, it gives you the best opportunity to consistently deliver a great experience to the consumer.

What trend is impacting the private label industry the most?

Bonneau: My thoughts are varied on this, but the first place I go to is the cost of living. Gasoline pricing is changing and will continue to change consumer behavior. This clearly creates a renewed focus on seeking out value.

White: There are three important trends. First, retailers are building more lifestyle brands that span multiple categories. Secondly, we’re seeing a growing health and wellness concern, so there are more products in that category to help promote a healthy lifestyle. Finally, retailers are enhancing their convenience offerings, such as offering restaurant-quality, meal-solution products.

Bloom: Many national-brand supplier partners have not been able to figure out how to co-exist with store brands. I think this is impacting the industry.

DeCory: Food safety is one, but also natural and organic products, particularly products that are grown and packaged with environmental sustainability in mind. A lot of times we over-package products, and [recognizing this] is getting more important as consumers are thinking more and more about the ‘green’ aspect.

What is the most important trait in a manufacturer/supplier?

Bonneau: Assuming the manufacturer has passed the credibility test and is already in the door, I believe there are a couple of important traits: a willingness to create a partnership toward shared success and the ability to innovate new products and packaging.

White: Our key partners and co-packers provide category expertise, consumer insights, marketing and product development know-how.

Bloom: The ability to innovate, manufacture quality products and stay in stock.

DeCory: First of all, it’s trust. You need to trust the folks that you work with - trust that they will work in the best interest of you and your customers. Also, the willingness to try new things around innovation is important and not necessarily product-based innovation, but also in the business process. Can they simplify the supply chain or accounting? There has to be trust and they have to be wiling to try new things.

What do you like best about your job?

Bonneau: I get enjoyment out of meeting our customers’ needs. I am jazzed by the fact that we can offer a product brand that CPGs can’t - we offer a brand that is present in almost every department of the store. That is powerful! Capitalizing on that opportunity creates the type of work that I love to do.

White: I continue to enjoy being a part of the team that executes the exceptional overall Safeway strategy, branding our shopping experience, and the lifestyle-store environment. I especially appreciate our differentiated approach to building brands. Most importantly, I enjoy working with the great people at Safeway.

Bloom: I love retail. I have been in drugstores for 26 years, and I have loved every moment of my career. I’ve had the opportunity to work with some great people along the way at Shoppers Drug Mart and Peoples Drugstores. I continue to work for a great company in CVS/Pharmacy with incredibly talented people. The single most important part of my job is the [quality of the] people that I work with. Without the exceptional talent of a great merchandising team at CVS/Pharmacy, we would not be able to achieve record results year after year.

DeCory: It’s the team atmosphere - working so closely with the people at Wegmans locally, our Daymon Worldwide team and our supplier partners. Really working and building on the talents of these individuals to develop new items that meet our unique customers’ needs. Hard work, passion and commitment from all of them is what makes our entire team successful.

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