ASSOCIATION ANNUALLY SALUTES EXCELLENT ENDEAVORS

Being recognized for a job well done is an incentive that fosters individual excellence from the first day of kindergarten right on up into the corporate environments of adulthood.For an industry that sometimes still has to overcome certain misconceptions, recognition takes on particular significance, as it both instills a sense of pride in those on the receiving end and helps to illustrate tangible,

Being recognized for a job well done is an incentive that fosters individual excellence from the first day of kindergarten right on up into the corporate environments of adulthood.

For an industry that sometimes still has to overcome certain misconceptions, recognition takes on particular significance, as it both instills a sense of pride in those on the receiving end and helps to illustrate tangible, successful examples for peers.

Back in 1986, the Private Label Manufacturers Association, New York, began honoring companies that exemplify what it takes to succeed in the private-label industry. The association's "Salute to Excellence" awards, which are presented during a gala dinner during its annual trade show each fall, seek out retailers and wholesalers that demonstrate a strong commitment to the success of store brands. In addition, winners of the award demonstrate exemplary merchandising and marketing techniques and have a keen eye for label design, among other qualities.

In 1999, Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y., was presented with a "Salute to Excellence" award in the supermarket category for the retailer's rapid development of new private-label items, along with its ambitious label design program.

According to Jim Mizeur, vice president of nonperishables, having hands-on support from upper management is what made this possible for the retailer, and is a crucial piece of the puzzle even today.

"Larry Zettle, our executive vice president, started using his creative juices to do label design. He's right in the center of it; he has to approve all labels. He is the creative person behind most of what you see in the stores," Mizeur told SN during a recent interview.

"The key is, if this is something that senior management isn't behind, and by behind I don't mean give lip service to, you will have a lot of problems."

Meanwhile, Price Chopper began to delve into categories that were foreign to it in terms of private label, such as frozen sandwiches and some entrees. It also reemphasized some categories, which resulted in private-label versions of products like yogurt with fruit on the bottom and different varieties of cheeses "beyond just the singles and the shreds and the hunks," Mizeur said.

"I think [the decisions] were based on consumer demand and the philosophy that said 'let's try it -- if that's where the national manufacturers are leading customers, why don't we try to satisfy the customer with a private-label brand in those categories also,"' he added.

The retailer has also been incessant in working to differentiate its store brands through continuous packaging improvements over the years.

"For a lot of years, the private-label industry tried to make its packaging look like the branded. If you'd go into the laundry aisle, you had an orange bottle because Tide was orange; if you'd go into the veggie aisle, you wanted your package to look like Del Monte," Mizeur said.

Today, Price Chopper is working with three tiers of private-label products: its Price Chopper line, the less-expensive Better Value line and its latest creation, the upscale Central Market Classics label, which features a foil-embossed label with a cream-colored background.

Items from the new label have only recently been scattered on shelves in various units and a big promotion is being put on hold until the retailer develops more products -- about four to five additional stockkeeping units in different categories are expected by year's end, according to Regina Tator, category manager, private label.

"Right now what we're looking at is a three-tier program. We feel it's become necessary to appeal to the price customer to compete with the Aldis and the Sav-A-Lots and even, to some extent, Wal-Mart," she said.

"And we're also looking to appeal to some customers with some unique and upscale items."

Items currently in the mix include spaghetti sauces in flavors like vodka and roasted garlic, flavored olive oils, cooking wines and salad dressings in flavors like poppy seed -- "stuff that you would see typically in DSD vendors' flavors, very exclusive, and now it's out there at a much more reasonable price than say something like a Newman's Best or something like that," Tator told SN.

"We're not sitting back on our haunches and saying, 'OK, this is working; we're happy where we are.' We are continually looking at quality and what we need to make [the label] more attractive to the customer," Tator added.

While label design is a key element to the success of a private-label line, so, too, is promotion.

Due to a promotions program put in place years ago, Supervalu, an Eden Prairie, Minn.-based wholesaler with more than 4,000 independent retail locations and 1,330 retail and grocery extreme-value retail locations, was recognized by the PLMA with a "Salute to Excellence" award in 1996 for excellence in merchandising and how it was going to market as a collective entity at the time.

At the time the wholesaler implemented certain promotions and, at the end of the year, encapsulated the best into a marketing manual. And, that winning program is one that is still in place today.

"We have a 52-week promotion plan that is national in scope," Craig Espelien, corporate director of store brands, Supervalu, told SN. "We have monthly themes and weekly events on recommended items that are national. We try to take into account regionality. We have feature items, subfeature items, and then TPR items recommended for every week of the year."

Every quarter each region and Supervalu's corporate retail partners receive promotional suggestions for the next three months. Included are recommended products that are rife for promotion, themes that would help showcase them and cross-merchandising ideas. Whereas in 1997 the schedule was mainly focused on the grocery, frozen and dairy categories, "we've expanded it now to go really wall to wall from GM/HBC all the way through perishables," Espelien said.

Two promotions that received great accolades, he said, were a back-to-school breakfast extravaganza and a back-to-school cookie and cracker sale. While region has some effect on the exact look and feel of a promotion, Espelien said these BTS promotions in particular really showcased the commonality of theme across a variety of independent retailers.

At the close of each quarter the wholesaler collects feedback from the regions and retailers on what was good and what didn't work. "Today the calendar that we work off of has been refined to the point where major changes really don't occur. We may change some themes as something becomes fresher or something becomes stale, but Christmas comes the same time every year so the items are needed at the same time every year," Espelien said.

An important aspect of Supervalu's approach to promotions is to always keep in mind the individual plans of the larger independent stores. "The goal is to fold into what they're doing so that we don't compete with their marketing but support their marketing," he said.

Winning the PLMA award was a big step for the industry as a whole, which had predominantly focused on what the chains had been doing and how they were going to market up until then, Espelien said.

"There is more attention being paid to how wholesalers are acting as stewards for the private-label programs for their retailers. We are trying to make it so that we have a virtual chain of independents supporting a store-brand program, and I think it's great that the PLMA has recognized the efforts made by the wholesalers," he added.