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PLMA 2013 - Reflecting Our Culture of Convenience

PLMA offered insight into the many initiatives driving store brand business forward, including cultural influences, convenience and the ongoing balance of value and premium.

January 2, 2014
PLMA 2013

PLMA’s 2014 Private Label Trade Show has come and gone, effectively energizing this industry through myriad conversations centered on strategies for the future, sampling and discussion of the scores of interesting new products profiled on the expo floor, and the insight conveyed by educational sessions and other speakers.

These prevailing currents driving store brand business forward include ethnic and other cultural influences, the role of convenience across the board, and the ongoing balance of value-tier and premium private label products, with the manufacturing arm of the industry and those from the ranks of retailers collectively adding points of diversification all along the way.

A Culture of Growth

One cultural aspect that’s helping refine today’s private label industry moving forward is a drive toward increased gender diversity amongst the top tiers of company leadership. WISE (Women Impacting Storebrand Excellence)—an organization that’s now a year old—continues to hone its focus and gain momentum. A strong addition to the core of this organization was the announcement during PLMA that Tonya Herring, vice president of perishables category development for Safeway, will join the WISE Board of Directors for 2014. Other directors elected for the year include Judy Clark, senior vice president, customer solutions for Bay Valley Foods; Kathy Elkey, vice president, customer development for ConAgra Foods; Tami Polmanteer, chief human resources officer for Daymon Worldwide; and Lori Miller Burns, director of marketing for Arylessence.

Grooming more professional women for the front offices of private label manufacturing and retailing will add a much-needed point of diversity to the industry while contributing additional perspectives on shopper demographics. This is a cultural move—and a strategic one.

Nick Hahn, former director of corporate brands for The Kroger Co. and current independent corporate brands consultant, emphasized the need for private label to build a strong understanding of the cultural distinctions within regional retail markets. “Maintaining regionality is so vital to preserving strong customer experiences,” he said.

King Convenience

One of the watershed developments along the lines of convenience—one that is vying to significantly change the retail landscape—is the rise of Internet grocery sales. And one of the leaders in this game is Northeast-based online grocer FreshDirect, a retailer who is actively building its private brand portfolio.

“We have ways to speak to customers digitally that others don’t,” said Emma Fuerst Frelinghuysen, senior director, private brands for FreshDirect.

FreshDirect has launched two new private brands, Just FreshDirect and Cloud 9. Just Freshdirect will offer around 20 new products, including fresh organic eggs grown and packed at the Alderfer family farm in Telford, Pa. Cloud 9 will offer value-tier household products, such as bathroom tissue, paper towels, trash bags and sandwich bags. The company maintains specialized business interests in organic and locally sourced foods, highlighting supply-chain transparency—criteria increasingly valued by select demographics. “We know our customers wanted to see our name on products,” said Fuerst Frelinghuysen.

The PLMA show floor was proof that convenience products will rule 2014. While this trend has been simmering for quite a while, it was obvious that companies are investing more time and research into how to improve and broaden the appeal of their convenience items.

Private label K-cups are racing into retail stores, and suppliers are looking for ways to make them more sustainable. To that end, shoppers can expect to see expanded single-serve offerings into hot tea, iced tea, cocoa and chai tea, such as those offered by Bay Valley Foods, a division of TreeHouse Foods—a lineup that even includes some organic and fair trade options.

Clay Dockery, division vice president, corporate brands at Massimo Zanetti Beverages USA discussed the company’s single-serving pods that offer a more-sustainable option than traditional K-cups, with 37 percent less packaging—and reportedly a better extraction of coffee. He noted that at-home user tests have been “phenomenal.” The company has also added a “100 percent sustainable” certification program through UTZ Certified. He further noted that Massimo Zanetti is taking steps to approach coffee in a segmented manner in terms of shelving, much like wine—encouraging retailers to group products together via criteria like light, medium and dark roast, as well as coffee origins and whole bean vs. ground.

More convenient ways of packaging food also stood out, such as 4-oz. vegetable cups for individual snacks from Seneca Foods, beans in water offered in BPA-free pouches instead of cans, and speed-scratch sauce pouches for quick meals—including ethnic variants like Sicilian Marsala sauce, offered by Bay Valley Foods—that only require adding a protein. Easily pourable and storable SIG Combibloc, as seen with Alfredo sauce by Mondiv, a division of Lassonde Specialties Inc., also presents an interesting packaging option. Savory Creations International showed liquid concentrate stick packs for sauces, diluted with water to create broth anddemi-glace. LiDestri Food & Beverage interestingly showed wine in flexible, standup, spouted pouches—an emerging format for certain types of wine.

The popular flexible, squeeze-and-swallow pouch format (used for countless baby and toddler purée products) was ever-present on the PLMA expo floor. But SunOpta brings this packaging to adult-oriented products, such as its whey protein pouches targeted toward the health-and-wellness and sports-nutrition markets. The products highlight 20 grams of protein per serving, no sugar or preservatives, and the ability to provide long-lasting energy, satiety and muscle protection.

The on-the-go breakfast segment could also see more competition from drinkable oatmeal products, such as those offered by Taiwan First Biotechnology. The company’s processing technique yields a creamy, all-natural, whole-grain product with no decipherable particulate content in terms of mouthfeel. PepsiCo has started manufacturing drinkable oat-based products through its Quaker division, primarily for the Latin American market where grain-based beverages have longstanding cultural acceptance. Moving forward, expect to see the U.S. health-and-wellness beverage segment continue to diversify through inclusion of select grains—but only as long as manufacturers can maintain appealing mouthfeel of the product.

Elsewhere on the health-and-wellness beverage front, Clement Pappas, a subsidiary of Lassonde Industries Inc., highlighted the rising popularity of vegetable and fruit juice blends with its “Salad Bar in a Bottle.” This approach toward nutrition will continue to build appeal.

Liquid concentrated water enhancers were spotted on display at Heartland Food Products Group and Jel Sert. These products show much potential to compete with the leading national brand in this game. GNC has entered the fray with several liquid concentrates, as has Safeway under its Refreshe brand; the foodservice-to-retail brand Margaritaville also has a line. Liquid concentrates, as well as powdered mixes for energy and sports beverages, have shown good numbers of late and should continue to track well in the coming year and beyond. In addition to their on-the-go convenience, these products resonate with consumers because they seamlessly integrate into their lifestyle, allowing for high degrees of customization and thereby making connections well beyond a level of simple consumption. Retailers and manufacturers who bring natural and organic liquid concentrated water enhancers to market will take a leading edge in this segment.

Another convenience item of note, with strong representation at PLMA, is sandwiches—often frozen, microwavable products completely enrobed with a crust of some sort to better fit into the handheld, on-the-go lifestyle, helping limit potential messiness. City Line Foods Manufacturing Co., a division of Auntie Anne’s, Inc., showed a line of cheese-stuffed pretzel pockets, and multiple pizza manufacturers had calzone-style sandwiches on hand. Kangaroo Brands/Sandwich Bros. of Wisconsin offered burgers, chicken sandwiches and gyro sliders, as well as breakfast options, all tucked into pita-style pockets. Simplot Retail, a division of the J.R. Simplot Corporation, offered up its line of heat-and-eat burgers and chicken sandwiches—including a new pretzel burger—as well as breakfast options made on a bagels, croissants or English muffins. Simplot also has capabilities for lunch and dinner sandwiches on made panini-style or on flatbread.

Ethnic takes sampled at PLMA often made use of flatbread-style crusts, pita-style pockets, phyllo dough, and more. Selections included samosas, pastilla (Moroccan meat pies), empanadas andtequeños (Venezuelan cheese-filled, fried pastries).

For general snacking or on the side accompanying a sandwich, Snak King is bringing a wide variety of rolled tortilla chips to market, from the highly spiced, Latin American types that have come to define the product range to original, leading-edge multigrain types, made from ingredients like sweet potato, beans, flaxseeds and chia, perhaps suited to a lighter seasoning touch—and a different consumer demographic.

And what about an ethnic flavor accent for those sandwiches and requisite sides? Red Gold is now offering jalapeño ketchup—perhaps best married with its new premium, 38-oz. bottle.

As our ethnic communities in the United States gain more depth—and awareness of their traditional foods sees more inroads into traditional American culture—such products gain more resonance and find a wider audience.

Premium Private Label

Convenience weaves its way into other sandwich staples, including upscale, ready-to-cook sandwich patties like the beef and portabella mushroom options from South Mill, a mushroom specialist that has just expanded into new territory. The company sampled its Beef & Port Burgers, as well as an ethnic-spun option, Beef & Port Chipotle Burgers, both billed as healthier—and more flavorful—options than 100 percent beef burgers.

Convenient, high-end entrées offer significant opportunity for select retailers, including those operating within specialty grocery, as well as warehouse/club. Chef Eric Carré, chef de cuisine and chief technology officer for ProVita Cuisine, a division of LYFE Kitchen, was on hand at PLMA to showcase his company’s take new culinary-forward, heat-and-eat frozen entrées like tilapia with wood-fired green mole. The company enrobes the entrée portion of fish with the sauce during the freezing process, forming a protective barrier that helps maintain moistness through microwave reheating by the consumer.

Cuisine Solutions was also on hand at PLMA to talk about its upscale,sous-videcenter-of-the-plate proteins (famous for its lamb shank, but also various beef, ham, salmon, tilapia, cod, turkey, chicken and bison products), sides (beet salad, kale and collard greens with bacon, Brussels sprouts with pancetta, barley risotto, etc.), and other products, both refrigerated and frozen. Chef Marc Brennet, vice president of retail brands for the company, said that the new sliced products, like blackened sirloin—seasoned, seared, then slow-cookedsous-vide, sold ready to eat, clearly suited to upscale store brand deli and prepared foods selections—have begun to garner significant consumer and industry attention.

Any product that steps outside of the norm in the name of a stronger culinary identity merits scrutiny. Such is the case with the “fresh frozen” herbs from Daregal, sold from the freezer case. The herbs have a notably aromatic punch, quite similar to fresh—but with ready-to-use, no-prep convenience.

Another on-trend introduction, organic apple cider vinegar, was found at Mizkan Americas. While vinegars have been in the spotlight of late due to their health benefits—showing up in shrub cocktails at trendy watering holes, for instance—this option is a perfect fit for the organic-leaning, DIY home canning/pickling enthusiast.

Elsewhere on the organic front, Imperial Frozen Foods noted that it has been getting more into organics of late with its selection of frozen fruits.

The Idea Supermarket

PLMA stages its “Idea Supermarket” as a veritable superstore of collected private label products from across the country—and into Canada and overseas. Many of the products on display embody the best and brightest aspects of retailer brands today. Some highlights included:

• The power of association with charitable causes, as seen in the Full Circle + Project 7 initiative by Topco Associates

• The nice degree of expansion into store brand kitchenware household goods by retailers like Walgreens (Living Solutions), Dollar General (trueliving) and ALDI (Kitchen Living)

• Addition of gluten-free to store brand lines by H-E-B (in its H-E-B, Hill Country Fare, H-E-Buddy and Central Market lines) and Topco (Full Circle added several new gluten-free products during 2013)

• Restaurant-to-retail brands like Cracker Barrel and Pret A Manger USA (sodas like retro-trending ginger beer and classic orange, and “Yoga Bunny Detox,” an all-natural soda infused with hemp, Echinacea and ginseng)

• Premium private brands from Target (upscale-leaning pizzas like Gyro, appetizers, sauces like Truffle Aioli, dips like Cuban-Style Black Bean, and more from Archer Farms), Publix (Pastry Wrapped Shrimp), and Kroger (Private Selection Fire Roasted Vegetable pizza, Belgian Waffles, and more)

• International inspiration via premium Delhaize store brand products co-branded with known chefs in Belgium

Overall, one key constant running through the best private label products today is a keen understanding of the culture surrounding shopper demographics.

PLMA 2013 opened on Monday with a speech from Doug Rauch, former president of Trader Joe’s. He spoke about how “culture eats strategy” or, in other words, how culture is what makes companies. As retailers scramble to differentiate themselves from competition across channels, in stores and online, his point that “culture is the one thing that can’t be copied” seems more meaningful now than ever.  He also made the point that risk—often essential for true innovation—will only come out of a culture of trust.

For anyone who has ever shopped in a Trader Joe’s and experienced its high level of customer service, those words keenly resonate.

Paper or Plastic

A handful of non-food spotlights shone through at PLMA.

Global Tissue Group discussed its premium, sports-themed paper towels, “Game Towel,” available in both college and NFL team logos. The company also noted the glow-in-the-dark capabilities of its new DreamSoft facial tissue boxes.

Diamond Wipes highlighted its new value line. The products are made in the United States (a plus for many consumers these days) and conveniently cross multiple categories—makeup, baby, pet, antibacterial, etc.—and are made so they can retail for around $1. The company suggested that this makes it easy for retailers to try products as a seasonal option—and then if the volume commitment is right, they can then run a private label. Diamond noted that all formulas have now been converted to paraben-free. They even had finger-sized mitt wipes to care for the eyes and mouths of tiny dogs.

Cascades Tissue Group talked about its antibacterial towel that has been developed to put a barrier on your hands for 2 hours. Although this product has primary applications in institutional environments, they noted that some drugstores have shown interest.

Also, Huhtamaki discussed its new capabilities to supply complete, full lines—plastic cutlery plates, bowls and cups, as well as pressboard plates, bowls and cups. And the company also now offers paper bags, toothpicks, insulated cups, premium napkins and table coverings.