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WITH NEW ENTRIES LIKE BOXED lunches and ethnic frozens, private label is giving national brands a lot to think about. SN is recognizing 20 of them with its first-ever listing of the most innovative products introduced within the past 18 months. The list is based on a product's uniqueness, convenience and packaging, as well as its ability to target specific consumer demographics such as the aging population

WITH NEW ENTRIES LIKE BOXED lunches and ethnic frozens, private label is giving national brands a lot to think about.

SN is recognizing 20 of them with its first-ever listing of the most innovative products introduced within the past 18 months.

The list is based on a product's uniqueness, convenience and packaging, as well as its ability to target specific consumer demographics — such as the aging population — and food trends, such as ethnic. SN chose the products based on three sources: SN's coverage of private label over the past year; new product data by Datamonitor's Productscan Online; and recommendations from research firm Mintel International.

“A lot of products that came out in 2008 were out of the ordinary and surprising to see under a private label,” said Tom Vierhile, Productscan Online's director.

Take Target's Archer Farms microwavable Indian foods, for example. Such products are niche items and tend to be produced only by manufacturers of ethnic brands, he said.

“It's unique to see that kind of product under a private label,” Vierhile said.

Packaging also set the bar high for national-brand manufacturers, such as the introduction of Archer Farms cereals in resealable, bag-free containers.

“The packaging is a value proposition,” Vierhile noted.

Several retailers — including Wal-Mart, Target and Fresh & Easy — were recognized for more than one product. Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market, for instance, received honors for its Smart Box boxed lunches, Caesar packaged salad and ready-to-eat marinated chicken tenders.

Private label accounts for more than 70% of the Tesco-owned chain's sales. More than 80% of customers cite Fresh & Easy's own-brand products as one of the main reasons they shop at the retailer, according to Fresh & Easy customer surveys.

All of its private-label products contain no artificial colors, flavors or added trans fats.

“We've put a lot of effort into creating great food for our customers at unbelievably low prices, because no one should have to compromise the opportunity to buy quality, fresh food,” spokesman Brendan Wonnacott told SN. “It's high quality at budget prices.”

Many new items were developed based on customer feedback, said Wonnacott, citing fresh-prepared ready meals; new juices and brewed teas; soy and goat yogurt; and ready-to-grill meats.

An additional 200 products started rolling out in Fresh & Easy's 10,000-square-foot stores in September. New selections include vegetable curry, as well as new coffee and tea flavors, different varieties of cereals, new flavors of kettle and veggie chips and new juice blends.

“In these price-conscious times, it is very important to continue to offer high-quality items, because people don't want to, and shouldn't have to, compromise on quality to save money,” Wonnacott said.

On the following pages are the 20 best new private-label products as chosen by SN. They appear in alphabetical order.

Caesar Salad

This washed and ready-to-serve salad contains romaine lettuce, shredded Parmesan cheese, croutons and the company's own original Caesar dressing. It's sold in the refrigerated case in a 12-ounce bag that retails for about $3.28. “This is more of a dinner salad than a side salad, which makes it a nice convenience item,” Vierhile said.

Fully cooked & ready to eat marinated chicken tenders

These ready-to-eat tenders are not only convenient, they're also flavored with lime and cilantro.

The tenders fit in nicely with Fresh & Easy's positioning as a store that's easy to shop for reasonably priced convenience items, said Lynn Dornblaser, CPG Trend Insight Director for research firm Mintel International. “With Fresh & Easy, Tesco is trying to be an old-fashioned grocery store that you could just swing in, buy a couple of things and leave,” she added.

Smart Box boxed lunches

These boxed lunches are positioned as a portion-controlled, healthy alternative to traditional school lunches.

Selections include Apple Dots, Fruit Punch Maze, Grape Finder and Milk-Tack-Toe. Each 13-ounce box sells for $2.99 and contains a variety of healthy lunch components. Grape Finder, for instance, contains snack-size portions of grape juice, carrots, string cheese, crackers and dried fruit.

Such ingredients cater to the growing number of time-pressed parents who want to send their kids to school with a healthy lunch, but don't have the time to prepare something from scratch.

While there are plenty of portion-controlled snacks available in supermarkets, “prepackaged lunches is an untapped market,” said Vierhile. “It's a substantial alternative to Lunchables.”

Central Market Organics frozen pizza

H-E-B's Central Market Organics frozen pizza is available in such flavors as Spinach & Feta, Three Cheese, and Uncured Pepperoni. Each sells for about $4.99.

The pizza shows that H-E-B is trying to break away from the crowd and do something different with its private label, Vierhile said.

“I'm not sure the world is ready for spinach on their pizza, but it definitely makes it more nutritious,” he said.

Mom to Mom baby products line

Safeway's new Mom to Mom baby products line was developed with the input and guidance of real moms.

The line launched on Mother's Day last year in May with 80 products, including diapers, baby wipes, toiletries and formula.

Tips from real moms are used on store displays and shelf talkers. The tips include “Read to your little one every day. It's great bonding time, and it will help prepare her for school.”

Member's Mark Pizzaghetti

Sam's Club Pizzaghetti is exactly what it sounds like: pizza with spaghetti and meatballs on top.

The unusual combination of two comfort foods proves that retailers are not afraid to take private-label risks.

“This product shows that private label doesn't have to be boring or an imitation of a national brand,” Dornblaser said. “It can be fun.”

While the unusual ingredient combination may not have longevity in the market, it's a good move, because it will build awareness of Sam's Club.

“This might be an in-and-out product,” Dornblaser said.

“In another six months, there may be something else interesting on the shelves.”

Inked energy drink

There are energy bars for golfers and eyeliner for surfers. Now there's an energy drink for those with tattoos.

Inked — 7-Eleven's new proprietary energy drink — is targeted toward young, tattooed Americans.

Flavors include Maori Citrus, named after natives of New Zealand who have a tradition of tattooing, and Chikara Tropical Grapefruit, named from the Chinese character meaning “power.” The suggested retail price is $1.99 for a 12-ounce can.

What makes Inked so unique is the colorful graphics and design of the packaging. Chikara, for instance, has an image of a tsunami.

“This doesn't look like a private label at all,” Vierhile said. “It looks like a branded product.”

Dornblaser said 7-Eleven is using an interesting lifestyle segmentation strategy by reaching out specifically to young consumers with tattoos.

“There's a lot of talk about the importance of going beyond traditional demographics,” she said.

Culinary Circle frozen desserts

Supervalu launched Culinary Circle this year with an initial 150 items of chilled and frozen foods priced 20% to 25% below casual restaurant food, and about 10% to 15% lower than other premium national brands.

Chocolate Chip Lava Cookie and Chocolate Molten Lava Cake are two of the flavors available in the brand's frozen dessert selections.

Such cakes tie in with the foodservice trade, where lava cakes are popular in restaurants. Lava cakes are typically chocolate with a chocolate filing. The center is made from not baking the cake all the way through, so the ‘lava’ filling is hot and runny.

“What's unique about this product is that it combines both gourmet and restaurant trends,” Vierhile said.

Supervalu took a risk by innovating in the frozen dessert category, which hasn't had much excitement recently, said Vierhile.

“Here is a perfect example of how private label is trying to shake things up a bit,” he said.

Other flavors include Carrot Cake, Pineapple Upside Down Cake, White & Dark Chocolate Mousse Cake and New York Style Cheesecake.

Culinary Circle refrigerated side dishes

Potatoes are far from boring with Supervalu's new Culinary Circle baked scalloped potatoes, creamy mashed potatoes, garlic mashed potatoes and roasted rosemary garlic potatoes.

What's more, the packaging features a window box so that consumers can see what's inside.

Like other new private-label offerings, the potatoes are designed to provide a restaurant experience at home. While retailers in the U.K. have tapped into this trend for years, the U.S. is now following suit.

“It's fascinating to see a company like Supervalu trying to get as close at it can to the U.K. retail market,” she said.

The Culinary Circle introduction comes at a good time, in light of the downturned economy. Consumers want restaurant-quality meals, but they don't want to spend a lot to get them. If Culinary Circle products deliver on the promise of providing a taste experience that's comparable to a restaurant, but at a lower price, the line can do very well, Dornblaser said.

“The timing of Culinary Circle could be exactly right,” she said.

Wild Harvest natural cereal

Supervalu's Wild Harvest cereal caters to health and wellness shoppers looking to add excitement to their breakfast routine by incorporating specialty ingredients into their cereal. It comes in such flavors as Mango Crisp and Wild Berry Crisp.

“This is not your average cereal,” Vierhile said. “Some of the ingredients, like mango, are on the expensive side.”

Introduced in April, Wild Harvest is a natural and organic line priced about 15% lower than branded natural and organic products.

The line is available across all Supervalu banners, including Acme, Albertsons, bigg's, Cub Foods, Farm Fresh, Hornbacher's, Jewel-Osco, Lucky, Shaw's/Star Market, Shop 'n Save and Shoppers Food & Pharmacy.

The first 150 items range from staples like milk, eggs, meat and fresh produce to pastas and sauces, cookies, crackers, cereal and juice. The line will eventually boast up to 300 products across various categories.

Archer Farms All-Natural Granola

Target says it's “revolutionized the cereal box” with its new bag-free oval container, which has an easy-flow spout and a reclosable, snap-shut lid.

“Good things come in smart packages,” packaging for the 20-ounce containers reads. “Breakfast will never be the same again.”

Available in such flavors as Pecan Sticky Bun and Chocolate Chunk Hazelnut Biscotti, the granola has a gourmet positioning.

“Not only is the packaging unique, but so are the flavors,” Vierhile said. “It's very upscale.”

The packaging caters to consumers who are concerned about how to keep their food fresher.

“Packaging is one of the easiest ways for products to stand out, so coming out with a new and propriety packaging is a smart move for Target,” Vierhile said.

Along with granola, a variety of other cereals are also available. Each sells for $4.49 each.

Archer Farms Indian-inspired microwavable entrees

These shelf-stable entrees can be prepared in just minutes in the microwave. Sold in 12.3-ounce boxes that retail for $2.49, they are available in varieties including Creamy Coconut Curry & Rice and Tikka Masala & Spiced Green Pea Rice. The tikka masala sauce includes tomatoes, caramelized onions and garlic, ginger and other spices. A side of hot spiced potatoes includes red chilies and cumin.

“Archer Farms gives you everything you need to savor the deliciously deep flavors of authentic Indian food,” the packaging states.

The line caters to those who may want to experience ethnic foods, but don't feel knowledgeable enough to cook them on their own.

“This lets people prepare ethnic food without feeling as if they bungled a recipe,” Vierhile said.

As with its new cereal packaging and expanded Choxie line, Target isn't waiting for food trends to reach critical mass before it gets its private label involved.

“This is an example where private label is leading rather than following,” Vierhile said.

Choxie chocolate tasting kit

Target has sweetened its Choxie premium chocolate private-label line with a tasting pack consisting of dark chocolate samples from around the world.

The $12 collection features chocolates made with a high percentage of pure cacao, sourced from around the world, from western Africa to Central and South America. Selections include 71% Ecuadorian cacao, 64% Costa Rican cacao, 64% Peruvian cacao, 58% Ghanian cacao and 49% Venezuelan cacao.

Along with containing small samples of each chocolate, the box includes descriptions of how each should taste. The Costa Rican samples, for instance, taste “sweet and mild, with a hint of caramel and golden raisins,” according to the packaging. “It's almost like a wine tasting,” Dornblaser noted.

Chocolate tasting packs are not new, but tend to be found only in high-end stores.

“This shows that Target, typically positioned as a store for getting staples, is taking it to a higher level,” Dornblaser said.

“Discount Brands” line

Tesco is appealing to cash-strapped consumers with a new private-label line called Discount Brands.

Available in the U.K., the line comprises about 350 products. Positioned as an alternative to national brands, it includes tea bags, biscuits, shampoos and dishwashing liquid.

“What makes this so unique is that it was created in response to the [downturned] economy,” Dornblaser said.

Great Value BeneFit Probiotic Light Nonfat Yogurt With Added Fiber

Available in strawberry, peach, vanilla, raspberry and blueberry, this gluten-free yogurt comes in individual 4-ounce plastic cups. A four-count pack sells for $1.98. The packaging promotes the benefits of probiotics, which are bacteria that help maintain the natural balance of organisms in the intestines.

“Regulates digestive health — Beneficial bacteria — Contains active cultures — Tastes great,” the package reads.

Vierhile said Wal-Mart is smart to tap into the probiotics trend.

“You're seeing more and more attention being paid to probiotics,” he noted.

Sam's Choice frozen gourmet skillet meal kits

Skillet meals have been around for years, but Wal-Mart is jump-starting the category with flavors like Roasted Garlic & Rosemary Chicken and Alfredo & Artichoke Chicken. There's also a Greek-style Herbed Chicken & Feta Cheese.

Vierhile is especially impressed with the Greek variety because it's an ethnic food offering that doesn't have any major foodservice competition.

“There's no real Greek restaurant chain out there,” he said.

“Tilt & pour” plastic milk carton

Sam's Club's new milk cartons allow consumers to pour milk simply by tilting the container, rather than lifting it. This is especially useful for older consumers.

The packaging is so unique that it could become a destination product — a reason why people want to go to Sam's Club, said Dornblaser.

“This is one of the few products out there that's packaged specifically for seniors,” Dornblaser said.

Dornblaser said that other than nutritional supplements, few products on the market are geared to seniors. In light of the massive number of aging Baby Boomers, that needs to change, she said.

“Baby Boomers are getting ready for Social Security and need products and packaging that's appropriate for them,” she said.

Aqua-V Vitamin-Infused Water Beverage

Wegmans taps into the vitamin-water trend with flavors like Dragon Fruit and Triple Antioxidants, Acai, Blueberry, Pomegranate.

“Vitamin waters are big,” said Vierhile. “This shows that Wegmans wants to be a player in that market.”

Wegmans is marketing the water to exercise buffs, as well as to those who simply want a healthy beverage at work, in the car or anywhere else.

“Replenish your body with the thirst-quenching alternative to plain water that's dripping with the vitamins and minerals your body has been screaming for,” the packaging reads.

All of the varieties are sold in resealable 20-ounce plastic bottles. Lemonade and Fruit Punch flavors are also available in a six-pack containing single-serve 12-ounce plastic bottles. The suggested retail price is $1 for the 20-ounce size and $4.99 for the six-pack.

Food You Feel Good About packaged salad

These cold-water-washed salads sell in 5-ounce clamshells. Along with Organic Sweet Baby Lettuce, there's also an Asian salad that contains spinach, red chard, misuna, frisee, tango and arugula.

Including specialty items like red chard is unique to see in a private label, said Vierhile. So unique that it could motivate consumers to go to Wegmans over other chains.

“This product is a bold move, because you didn't see these types of ingredients before,” he said.

Travels of India frozen food

At a time when ethnic food is growing in popularity, these frozen dinners provide consumers a unique restaurant experience at home, said Dornblaser.

The line comes at a time when people of all ages — especially the young — are traveling more and tasting food from other cultures.

“Ethnic meals can be hard to make on your own,” Dornblaser said. “Even though people are buying cookbooks and watching the Food Network, it's more aspirational. Buying a frozen meal is more of a reality.”