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Private brand power

Metro's private brands team is on a quest to grow its program with quality products Canadian consumers will embrace

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In a centre-store aisle at a Metro supermarket in Montreal, four women gather around a shopping cart full of private brand products. The women—Marie-France Gibson, Paula Deane, Marie Horodecki-Aymes and Annie St-Laurent—are assembled in the store one late summer morning for a photo shoot and to be interviewed for this story.

The women are all smiles, enjoying the occasion. They laugh and joke. Clearly, they appreciate each other’s company.

The women are members of Metro’s private brands team. Gibson, vice-president of corporate brands, leads the team; Deane is the director of product development for private brands; Horodecki-Aymes is director of design and packaging for private brands; and St-Laurent is director of business development and negotiation for private brands. Together, they make the strategic decisions regarding Metro’s store brands.

Their goal is simple: they are on a quest to grow Metro’s private brands program with quality products that Canadian consumers will embrace.

Moving the needle
Gibson, Deane, Horodecki-Aymes and St-Laurent have some major goals in front of them. One is to increase Metro’s sales of private brands by 4% in the next two years. To do that, Gibson says Metro’s private brand team will need to innovate and execute.

“Within our private label team, innovative ideas are welcome,” she adds. “They can come from all members. But we need to execute them. That is the key to success.”

With annual sales of about $16 billion, Metro operates more than 600 grocery stores under several banners, including Metro, Metro Plus, Super C and Food Basics, as well as about 700 drugstores under the Jean Coutu, Brunet, Metro Pharmacy and Drug Basics banners. Metro’s private brands are sold throughout its banners, but the company wouldn’t disclose sales figures.

READ: Why the future of bricks-and-mortar lies in private label

Metro offers several tiers of private brands under its Selection and Irresistibles lines. Selection is Metro’s national brand equivalent line and includes more than 2,500 grocery products. It’s the retailer’s largest-selling private brand. Under the line, Metro also offers Selection Eco, a line of eco-friendly household and cleaning products.

Irresistibles is Metro’s upscale line and features premium and exclusive food, beverage and non-food products. The line has grown over the years and now has several extensions, including Irresistibles Organics, Irresistibles Gluten-Free, Irresistibles Artisan (premium deli meats and premium bakery) and Irresistibles Life Smart (lower salt, sugar and fat, and vitamin-enriched). Last year, Metro launched Irresistibles Naturalia, featuring products such as all-natural peanut butter and grain-fed chicken that are free from artificial and synthetic ingredients. Overall, Metro offers more than 1,500 products in the Irresistibles line.

When Gibson began with the grocer nine years ago, she focused on improving category management for Metro’s store brands to improve growth opportunities through proper shelving, promotion and pricing. She knew the success of Metro’s private brands hinged on studying and surveying each category, and finding out what tier or tiers of private brands made the best sense for each category. It’s a constant process.

“We want to make sure our brands stand out,” Gibson says.

Metro is careful to only introduce private brands that will make a difference in categories and drive clients to its stores, Gibson stresses. Too many new products can reduce overall impact. In essence, less is best.

“Our private brands really need to perk up [categories], so we have to be more sensible [with product introductions],” Gibson says.

Because its volume and scale are smaller than other retailers in the Canadian market, Gibson says Metro must negotiate more smartly with suppliers. Metro sources most of its private brands from Canadian suppliers because the Canadian dollar is weak compared to the U.S. dollar and euro. But for some categories, including cheese, bakery, sauces, chocolates and olive oil, Metro will import products from suppliers with stellar reputations.

Playing to its strengths
With Selection, Metro has worked to develop strong price points while improving product quality, Gibson says.

“This gives us true differentiation,” she adds. “And now we’re trying to build even more value by offering items with more count, like bigger packs, and more significant in-and-outs for different times of year.”

Gibson and the team are excited about the growth potential of Irresistibles. Sales for the line, including its extensions, are up 15% in 2018, she says.

Metro is accentuating Irresistibles because more Canadians want premium private brand products, Gibson says. The line is also where Metro can differentiate most with exclusive items to maintain shopper loyalty. Consider new products such as Irresistibles green tea and white chocolaty coated ice cream bars, and Irresistibles Naturalia coconut flakes and hemp seeds granola, both which recently received top honors in the Private Label Manufacturing Association’s 2018 Salute to Excellence Awards.

In creating products for Irresistibles, Deane says the strategy is more about than just honing in on trends to create a cutting-edge product. “You always have to find the balance between something that is trendy but something that will also resonate with consumers and sell,” she adds.

Deane knew that Naturalia coconut flakes and hemp seeds granola was a winning combination of ingredients. First, it was granola, a product of which consumers are familiar. Second, it featured coconut, an ingredient that continues to gain popularity. And, third, it includes hemp seed, an ingredient that consumers are hearing more about because of its health benefits.

“It’s about taking something recognizable by the consumer and taking it to the next level,” Deane says of the product. “It fills consumers’ wants and needs for something different.”

The good news for Metro is that private brands continue to grow in sales, and consumers are willing to pay more for them, which bodes well for premium products. According to market researcher Nielsen, market share of private brands has grown consistently the past five years. Retail sales of private brands in Canada were $14.4 billion in 2017 with a dollar share of 18.6%.

READ: Private label opportunities strong

“But when we convert to volume or consumption, that share jumps to 23.6%: Basically almost one quarter of what we consume is a private label product,” Carman Allison, vice-president of consumer insights at Nielsen Canada, told Canadian Grocer earlier this year.

“Canadians share very positive attitudes toward private label,” Allison adds. “When we asked consumers if private label is a good alternative to national brands, 70% responded positively. We also found high scores for equal quality (63%), good value (62%), and 34% of us are willing to pay more for our favorite private label brand.”

Consumers’ willingness to pay more enables retailers to introduce more premium offerings, which is what Metro is doing in grocery and fresh. In the latter, Metro is known for its meat and seafood, especially its kebobs, which the supermarket offers in beef, chicken and lamb varieties with a myriad of on-trend flavours.

Consumer demand for organics and natural products continues to increase in Canada, and Metro realizes the opportunity to grow sales in those categories in fresh through Irresistibles Organics and Irresistibles Naturalia.

“The fresh department is going to give [our organic and natural private brands] a big lift,” Gibson says.

Deane, who has spent her entire 15-year career in private brands, says “now” is one of the most exciting times she has ever experienced in the industry. Not only are consumers more accepting of private brands, but they are embracing premium products.

“Consumers see that we are offering them innovative products,” she says. “It’s a great opportunity for us. Our customers will drive to our stores to buy those particular products because they know the quality is there.”

On the packaging side, Horodecki-Aymes also strives for innovation and differentiation. She takes a methodical approach, making small changes at a time. She knows the impact that subtle but powerful packaging can have on products, from colours to enticing product photos and taglines.

Horodecki-Aymes also knows the importance of utility in packaging. It was her idea for Metro to introduce a limited-edition glow-in-the-dark box for facial tissues as a private brand so consumers could locate the tissue box in the dark.

“It’s about providing our customers with simple and useful solutions.”

A version of this article appeared at StoreBrands.com.

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