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September 13, 2012
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Longo's Koss Says Differentiation Is Imperative Today
For those of you that didn’t get a chance to attend our inaugural conference, Private Label: The Next Generation in June in Chicago, PLBuyer Managing Editor Lynn Celmer caught up with Longo Brothers Fruit Markets Vice President of Marketing Robert Koss, one of the presenters. He shared some background on Longo’s and why it’s been so successful with revamping its private label program.
PLBuyer: What initially made you step back and decide to revisit your private label brand architecture?
Robert Koss: The biggest thing was the penetration. Our sales of our private label was stagnant, so it wasn’t growing, yet our company sales were growing. So one could argue the fact that it was almost a negative based on the fact that we were growing top line sales in our organization, and yet private label penetration was remaining constant.
PLBuyer: By changing up your private label strategy, your company has seen double-digit private label growth. Can you talk more on that?
Koss: Just by making that change alone, switching it to two-tier, but more importantly the shift to two-tier … was having a consistent label is what we’ve really seen to drive awareness at shelf level. Prior to the two tiers, we had just a Longo’s brand, and it was all over the map. There were illustrations, there were photos, and there were some products that just used text. So it basically disappeared on the shelf. So by going to the two-tier, but more importantly by going to a template design, we were able to increase awareness in-store, and more importantly at shelf.
PLBuyer: What made you decide to go with a two-tier system rather than three tiers?
Koss: It really comes down to our position in the marketplace. We are not a low-price leader. We really focus on things like quality, service and value. But in that order. And we felt at this time that the two-tier would serve our purposes. I’m not saying that we wouldn’t look at that in the future, but that’s why we agreed to go with just the two-tier program at this time.
PLBuyer: When you created your premium tier, what made you want it to be that distinct, and do you think that it has paid off as far as loyalty from your customers?
Koss: We felt that we had enough products that could be unique that we could truly call our own and be proprietary. We wanted to convey that the premium-tier products were different, and they aren’t just products that have our name on it, and there’s a reason why they are signature products. Really, it comes down to the fact that it has to be good enough and unique enough to put that stamp of approval, the Longo Brother’s Signature logo on there. Because we are still a family-run business. The family is still very involved. 
PLBuyer: I know that produce is really the backbone of your stores, and your focus is on fresh. Can you expand on that and talk about how that differentiates you from your competitors?
Koss: That’s how we started. It was a fruit store. It was a small, little 1,000 square foot store that was fresh products. That’s how the company started in 1956, and we’ve grown from there, but we’ve used that as a benchmark as we’ve entered into new categories. We also refer back to the produce department and the fresh department, because that’s how we started. It’s what differentiates us, and what we continually have to focus on and can never lose sight of because our competitors have raised their game. So we’ve got to always be watching that and keeping that top of mind.
PLBuyer: How have you as a retailer gotten past that initial challenge of getting your customers to try your private label products?
Koss: It is a challenge. The biggest thing for us is sampling. We do our sampling in house. We do not use third-party services to do our demos and sampling. So the national brands will book through us directly. So we’re able to control that experience and make sure that it aligns with our brand  positioning for the consumer. What we’ve also done is since the relaunch of the two-tier program, we have dedicated sampling that happens 52 weeks of the year. Thursday and Friday of every week, private label is demoed. In addition, we also do things such as sponsor charity events, and we do our annual conference where all of our senior management members come in and they’ll get a free product. Any chance we get we sample and demo private label products. 
PLBuyer: How do you figure out which products you’re going to demo when?
Koss: It is seasonal. We publish a magazine four times a year and we also feature private label products in that magazine. So for the duration of that magazine, those will be the products that will be sampled. So they’ll be written about in the magazine and then when the consumer gets to the store, they’ll get to try them. 
PLBuyer: What kind of reaction have you gotten from consumers regarding them getting to try out your private label products?
Koss: Biggest thing is they are surprised that we have some of these products. And that we’ve had them for so long. The example that we like to use is our crushed tomatoes without salt that we've had for years. Yet, it was only until we revamped the label that we heard from consumers. One consumer said I’ve been a customer for about 10 years, that’s great that you introduced this new low-salt tomato. I told the customer that we’ve had that tomato for 10 years. They never saw it. When customers get to sample our private label products, they are surprised by the quality and the taste. At the end of the day, you can put it in as many ads as you want, you can put it in your magazine, but unless they taste it, it’s really the only way.
PLBuyer: Can you talk about your new slogan and logo tweak, as well, and how that’s resonating with your shoppers?
Koss: We do a usage and attitude study every couple of years, and when we did the last one, our branding in the past while it was known, consumers didn’t feel that we were delivering on that. They told us that we still had this great equity in fresh. When asked who has the freshest products, Longo’s always comes up. So we said let’s really play on the fact that consumers love our fresh, we get credit for fresh so let’s put fresh in our tagline and update the logo to demonstrate that as well. 
Got a tip? Call Chris Freeman 847-405-4105.

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