WILD OATS TO SPROUT MORE PRIVATE-LABEL SKUS

BOULDER, Colo. -- Wild Oats Markets here plans to double the number of private-label stockkeeping units in its Natural Living section by the end of 1998, branching out into new categories like personal and hair care, said Karen Lewis, the section's director of purchasing.Twenty-five percent of total store sales come from Natural Living, which comprises vitamins, supplements, herbal products, body

BOULDER, Colo. -- Wild Oats Markets here plans to double the number of private-label stockkeeping units in its Natural Living section by the end of 1998, branching out into new categories like personal and hair care, said Karen Lewis, the section's director of purchasing.

Twenty-five percent of total store sales come from Natural Living, which comprises vitamins, supplements, herbal products, body care, homeopathic remedies, health-related books and other general merchandise, Lewis said. All told, each Natural Living department stocks between 200 and 300 private-label SKUs, she said.

Private-label items in the works include aromatherapy sprays, body lotions, deodorants, lip balms and both bar and liquid soaps, as well as a smattering of general merchandise like cappuccino mugs and vitamin pillboxes. Some of these products will reach shelves as early as the next quarter, she said.

Mockups of several of the new private-label offerings, with redesigned packaging, were unveiled for local Natural Living managers at Wildstock, a conference for Wild Oats management and vendors that ran from Jan. 31 to Feb. 3 here. The new packaging has a "simple, hand-hewn look" and features the Natural Living name and Wild Oats' "Sparky" logo, Lewis said. "It was very positively received."

As more of the new private-label SKUs are introduced at retail, they will be cut into respective sections at eye level.

"In a sea of products, you want people to see what your product is," Lewis said. "[Private label] will always be front and center."

The chain, which, through acquisitions, also includes stores under the Alfalfa's Markets, Capers and Oasis Fine Foods Marketplace banners, is continuing to fold all Natural Living private-label items under the Wild Oats name, Lewis said. (There are some exceptions in general merchandise: There will still be Alfalfa's- and Oasis-labeled clothing, for example.) The process is already 75% to 90% complete, she noted, adding that Wild Oats brand items have been performing well in Alfalfa's and Oasis stores.

Lewis said the retailer plans to stay with Vitamer, Irvine, Calif., as its store-brand vitamin and supplement supplier. She praised in particular the company's tight quality controls.

"You always want your private label to be progressive but not extended beyond acceptable safety levels. We'll never carry DHEA, for example." (DHEA, or dehydroepiandrosterone, is a much-touted but little-tested hormone commonly found on supermarket HBC shelves.)

Also at Wildstock, Lewis was presented with a "Wild Service '98" award acknowledging her department's 25% sales growth rate last year as the company's fastest.

"I feel we ran a pretty tight ship in 1997," she said. "We have a good store format. It does go through shifts and changes, but we've been able to communicate our message well."