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Private Affair

Private Affair

Retailers hope their new premium brands will gain a place at this year's holiday table

'Tis the season to be jolly.

But putting an even bigger spring in price-conscious shoppers' step is a flurry of private-label introductions timed to the holiday season.

Helping fulfill Americans' wish list are competitively priced imported products and premium fare suitable for the most discerning holiday guest.

During the last few weeks alone, exclusive lines have hit the shelves at A&P, Walmart Canada and Raley's Supermarkets.

In the past, retailers' brands were considered appropriate for everyday use, but consumers opted for national brands when entertaining company. That's all changed this year as positive experience with corporate brands makes them a viable option for holidays too.

“If shoppers were apprehensive about serving private labels last year, they're less apprehensive this year,” observed Warren Storey, vice president of product marketing and insight for Epsilon Targeting, the consumer data division of marketing firm Epsilon, Dallas.

Its research shows that during the six month period ending in August, a large number of consumers switched to private brands in non-commodity categories — a move traditionally perceived by shoppers as high-risk. But after familiarizing themselves with staple private labels, they have the confidence to move on to more value-added offerings.

“Consumers first make the switch in categories that have a low-perceived cost of switching and if they have a positive experience, they'll try others,” Storey explained.

A large portion are so pleased with what store brands have to offer, they've made the switch permanent.

New York-based Deloitte reports that 85% of consumers polled for its “2010 American Pantry Study” said they've discovered several store brands that are just as good as national brands and therefore have little reason to switch back to the brands to which they were loyal.

Private labels aren't just gaining greater day-to-day acceptance. Some will earn a very public spot at this year's holiday gatherings.

Rather than discreetly use a store brand and quickly dispose of its container, some hosts may let symbols of their brand preference linger to indicate to others their smart shopping sense.

“There are a few segments of the consumer marketplace that actually prefer certain store brands and overtly show them off in the home as symbols of their intelligent shopping behaviors,” noted Gary Stibel, founder and chief executive officer of the New England Consulting Group, Westport, Conn.

A host of high-end options will make it harder for guests to discern between national brands and private labels.

Take, for instance, A&P's decadent line-up of holiday offerings including Double Chocolate Mousse Duo shot glass desserts, Tiramisu Gelato and Pfeffernüsse Sugar Glazed gingerbread cookies, all sold under the new Food Emporium Trading Co. line.

Given its emphasis on imported specialties, the 120-item brand is named for A&P's Food Emporium banner, which has built a reputation for sourcing exotic fare from around the globe. Just last week, Food Emporium highlighted new and exclusive gourmet items like Moroccan mint tea, couscous, Phenicia Argan Oil, and a variety of pastes and jams as part of its “Taste of Morocco” event. With its new line, A&P hopes to bring similar taste adventures to the kitchens of those who shop its other banners.

“From the markets of Marrakech to the olive groves of Italy to the best bakeries to the tropics of Thailand, the Food Emporium Trading Company has searched far and wide to bring back some of the best undiscovered culinary garnishes, snacks and sauces,” read promotional materials.

Available at A&P, Waldbaum's, SuperFresh and Food Emporium, the line was developed in response to demand for premium offerings.

“We're giving customers a choice based on what they told us,” Tom O'Boyle, executive vice president, merchandising and marketing at A&P, Montvale, N.J., told SN.


In the 10 months since setting out to develop the brand, two A&P buyers have searched for international specialties — putting to use skills developed while sourcing foods for events like “Taste of Morocco.”

They've brought back Arbequina Extra Virgin Olive Oil from Spain, Organic Coconut Milk Lite from Thailand and truffles from France. Rounding out the offerings are products sourced closer to home like Spicy Tomato Jersey tomato sauce and cheesecake co-branded with Junior's Most Fabulous Cheesecake, Brooklyn, N.Y.

As part of a holiday push, the chain will demo the products in 50 stores beginning the week of Thanksgiving, and distribute Catalina coupons at its registers.

“We hope the sampling delights [shoppers],” O'Boyle said.

Considering the newness of the line, the strategy is necessary, especially during the weeks leading up to the crucial winter holidays.

“When you're talking premium [private label], sampling is the best way to overcome biases,” noted Jim Hertel, managing partner at Willard Bishop, Barrington, Ill.

The Food Emporium Trading Co. line is different from A&P's other exclusive specialty brands such as Via Roma, Green Way and Hartford Reserve, since it was created by the struggling company in-house. The line's debut is the first to come since O'Boyle joined A&P in August as part of a new management team established to turn the company around.

“We've got some in-house experts, so we designed this in-house,” he said.

Via Roma, Green Way and Hartford Reserve were created by design-branding firm, United dsn, New York.

United dsn is same company behind a new line available exclusively at Walmart Canada.

Called Wholesome Goodness, it encompasses nutritious foods with simple, natural ingredients blended to taste homemade. Sodium, sugars and fats are lowered or eliminated wherever possible, and beneficial nutrients like antioxidants and fiber are emphasized in a way that is easy to understand.

Packaging features images of the fresh ingredients used to make the products, and health tabs identify items that are a good source of iron, trans fat free, a good source of fiber and low in sodium.

For further explanation, shoppers can visit a website dedicated to the line at They might learn, for instance, that “sodium is added to food products both for taste and as a preservative. Thus the more processed the food, the higher the sodium content is likely to be.”

Though the launch wasn't deliberately timed to the holiday season, Wholesome Goodness products are worthy of family get-togethers.

Items like Yogurt Covered Dried Tart Cherries, Cranberry Orange Flavored Dressing, Pomegranate Blueberry & Acai Juice and Himalayan Sea Salt Bagel Chips may very well grace holiday tables this year.

Working in the brand's favor are its taste appeal and the better-for-you visual cues presented on packaging, noted Perry Seelert, strategic partner and co-founder of United dsn.

“This doesn't look and feel like a private label,” Seelert said. “But it's not just about the aesthetic; consumers will be amazed at how delicious, great-tasting and healthy [the products are].”

A new option is also available at Raley's Supermarkets for frazzled holiday shoppers who are short on time and unable to prepare a meal for their family.

The Raley's To Go Fresh Meals line includes 23 entrees and side dishes created by Raley's corporate chef Evelyn Miliate, who uses fresh, premium ingredients.

“As a mom, I understand the need to have quick and easy dinner solutions that I can rely on,” Miliate said in a statement. “With Raley's To Go, I can feel good about feeding my family foods that I know they will love — and at a great value.”

Varieties of single-serve portions sell for $5 and include Grilled Chicken Breast with Mashed Potatoes & Gravy with Tender Vegetables, Cheese Bandolini Pasta in Chardonnay Tomato Cream Sauce with Tender Green Beans, and Cheese Stuffed Shells with a Rustica Tomato Sauce & Tender Mixed Vegetables. Family-sized dishes of Classic Lasagna and Grilled Chicken Penne Alfredo with Broccoli are available for $10.

Key nutrition facts are posted on packaging. Each also comes with a thumbs up from Raley's Moms World Panel — a group of Raley's shoppers that the chain taps for opinions about products, ideas and advertising.

“Raley's To Go meals come tested and approved by the Raley's Moms World Panel,” states Raley's in promotional materials.

To encourage trial Raley's uses signage to highlight an offer to buy four single-serve meals for $5 and get the fifth free. It's also publicizing the brand via unconventional means.

According to the Fresh & Easy Buzz blog, the chain has partnered with Sacramento radio station KYMX to give listeners the chance to win four free Raley's To Go meals each day. Prizes include one entree and two side dishes.

By casting a wide promotional net, Raley's is thinking like a national-brand marketer, an important mindset for retailers hoping to incite trial of new private brands, said the New England Consulting Group's Stibel.

“Everybody knows that private labels and store brands are less expensive, but the smart money will promote in ways that look more like national promotions,” he said.

That's not to say that value messaging should go by the wayside.

As food prices rise faster than overall inflation, consumers will continue to rely on competitively priced private brands, Stibel added

“There will be a continued shift because inflation is not only higher today, it's going to get even higher tomorrow,” he said.