The private-label industry has been growing exponentially for the past several years, both in the United States and abroad, and that growth has been punctuated by improvements to product quality and expansions in categories offered. Currently, the industry maintains a domestic market share of more than 16% in terms of dollar sales, according to the 2004 Private-Label Yearbook published by the Private Label Manufacturers Association.
Retailers and manufacturers alike have come to recognize the positive impact store brands can have on a company's financial performance. To that end, much care is given to the development of private-label lines and quality assurance measures are firmly in place to make sure store brands today are the best that money can buy.
To honor the efforts of all involved, the PLMA invited retailers and wholesalers to offer up their best store-brand products for a comparison-tasting event that will culminate with an announcement of winners during the association's annual trade show next month.
The event sought out products that were introduced into the market over the past year. It was the first in what is expected to become an annual PLMA event here in the states. Eligible product categories were chosen by the PLMA to reflect mainstream as well as gourmet items, and efforts were made to incorporate consumer packaged goods, frozen foods, refrigerated and fresh products.
Submissions reflected the immense scope of the industry, as 260 nominations were received from retailers in all channels of trade including traditional grocery operators like Shaw's, the limited assortment store Aldi, health food supermarket powerhouse Wild Oats, club store giant Costco, and Target, representing mass merchandisers.
A panel of 26 judges -- 14 professionals involved in various aspects of the food industry and 12 consumer panelists -- convened in New York on Aug. 4 and 5 to put the adage "try it, you might like it" to the test. And, like it they did.
Divided into four groups, the judges crunched, scooped, sipped and dipped their way through 15 food categories including breakfast foods; gourmet, specialty and ethnic foods; appetizers; cookies; dairy; snacks; sides; ready-to-eat; non-alcoholic beverages; pasta, pasta sauce and pizza; alcoholic beverages; healthy eating; dressings and condiments; entrees; and desserts and ice cream.
Products were prepared in an on-site test kitchen, dished out to panelists and then judged on elements such as appearance, smell, taste, texture, packaging and price value. Judges were extremely focused on the task at hand and could be overheard saying things like "this is a well-priced alternative" when referring to a package of shredded cheese, to "this looks nothing like the package" when sizing up some frozen fruit, to "does anybody else find this bitter?" while swilling some store-brand olive oil during the two-day sessions.
In the end, 25 products within those 15 food categories were singled out as being the cream of the private-label crop.
Winning retailers and wholesalers will be announced during the PLMA's Salute to Excellence Awards breakfast Monday, Nov. 15, in the grand ballroom of the Hyatt Regency O'Hare hotel in Chicago.