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Consistent, high-quality products that exceed national brand standards are essential to creating a successful premium private-label program, retailers told SN."We do an excellent job with Master Choice," said Harold Berthold, director of grocery merchandising at Food Emporium, New York, a division of A&P, Montvale, N.J. "It's a quality product, even better than the branded."Master Choice, a premium

Consistent, high-quality products that exceed national brand standards are essential to creating a successful premium private-label program, retailers told SN.

"We do an excellent job with Master Choice," said Harold Berthold, director of grocery merchandising at Food Emporium, New York, a division of A&P, Montvale, N.J. "It's a quality product, even better than the branded."

Master Choice, a premium private-label line carried across several grocery categories, is well-received by Food Emporium's customers, according to Berthold.

The Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans Food Markets currently has two premium private-label programs in its stores, according to Steven Michaelson, group manager of the Wegmans brand. Both Wegmans Food You Feel Good About and Italian Classics lines feature outstanding, high-quality products, Michaelson said.

"The Food You Feel Good About program meets several principles," said Michaelson. "Every product in that line must be low in fat and free from artificial colors, flavors or preservatives," he explained.

Italian Classics, which has been in stores for just over a year, includes many specialty items.

"We have pastas, pasta sauces, bread crumbs, balsamic vinegars, which are aged to different times, and we have olive oils from various regions in Italy," Michaelson said.

The San Antonio-based H.E. Butt Grocery Co. carries several distinctive premium private-label products in its stores, according to Mike De La Garza, vice president of public affairs.

"The consistent, high quality of our H-E-B Own brands has elicited outstanding consumer response," said De La Garza.

Shurfine International, a group buying company based in Northlake, Ill., also searches for the highest quality when procuring products for its premium private-label lines, said Tuck Jasper, president and chief executive officer.

"The Shurfine Select, which is what I would call upscale, is better than the brands," said Jasper. Shurfine's other premium line, the Award Winner Collection, features products that have won prizes at either state fairs or food contests, he added.

Kansas City, Kan.-based Associated Wholesale Grocers' three-tiered private-label program includes a premium line called Best Choice, said Tom Watkins, executive director of AWG brands.

"The Best Choice is our top of the line," said Watkins. "Since it was first brought on board, it's been equal to or better than the national brand."

Trader Joe's, South Pasadena, Calif., carries only premium private-label products in its stores, according to Ira Cohen, senior vice president of merchandising. "We consider that every one of our private labels is a premium product," Cohen said. "We stress the quality and taste of the product and match it to the leading brands."

Like Wegmans's Food You Feel Good About line, Trader Joe's premium private-label products do not contain artificial colors, flavors or preservatives, Cohen told SN.

Retailers pursuit of the highest quality for their premium private-label programs is not going unnoticed. According to a study conducted by the Gallup Organization, Princeton, N.J., for the New York-based Private Label Manufacturers Association, 86% of consumers stated premium private label is better than or equal to national brands.

Retailers' premium private-label programs grew out of categories where there was little representation from national brands, according to Brian Sharoff, president of PLMA.

"It's actually an identification of categories where a national brand did not exist with a real, solid loyalty or the category was always deemed to be low quality," said Sharoff.

By simply improving the quality and taste to be more competitive with national brands, the category became premium, he added.

In the Master Choice line, the category selections strive to provide customers with items that are not necessarily available from national manufacturers, Food Emporium's Berthold told SN.

"We're not into just the regular canned vegetables," said Berthold. "We have artichoke hearts. That type of thing."

Wegmans recently added a key lime cilantro barbeque sauce to its Food You Feel Good About line and a candied garlic to its Italian Classics, Michaelson told SN.

"We continue to innovate in Italian Classics and Food You Feel Good About. Key lime cilantro is not a flavor that you find from most people," he said.

De La Garza told SN among H-E-B's most popular premium private- label products are H-E-B More Fruit, with 55% fruit and one-third less sugar than regular preserves; H-E-B Cranberry Cocktail, which is made from freshly pressed Cape Cod cranberries; and H-E-B Pasta Sauce, a premium-quality sauce available in vegetable primavera, four cheese, garlic herb, spicy red pepper and tomato basil.

The H-E-B label offers consumers high-quality products that include national brand alternatives and unique items, according to De La Garza.

"With the upscale products," said Jasper of Shurfine, "the consumer is looking for something that is unique, and these products fit that niche." Shurfine, however, does not stock its premium private-label line exclusively with gourmet products; the company prefers items that will generate volume sales, Jasper added.