Increasingly, retailers are realizing that their store brands, beyond being margin-boosters, can help them stand out from the competition. So developed are some retailers' own-brand products that they've become a destination rather than default purchase.
This year's winners of the second Private Label Manufacturers Association's Salute to Excellence Food & Drink Awards testify to that evolution. Many of the 24 winners described in the following pages are items that don't necessarily mimic an existing product on the shelf, like Costco's premium cooked bacon and A&P Canada's Chipotle Pepper Puree.
Consumers know more about food than before and want to trade up where they can afford to. Retailers are responding, with premium-positioned offerings like organic chocolate truffles from Wild Oats and cognac from Albertsons, two of the winning products. The growing popularity of Italian and Hispanic cuisines was reflected in items like Aldi's Guava Mango drink and Wakefern's imported balsamic vinegar. Other products, like Target's steam-in-a-bag vegetables and Kroger's frozen pizza six-pack, align with consumers' desires for quick, easy meals and healthy eating.
Today's retailers often are looking for unique products, said Brian Sharoff, president of the PLMA. "The products we're testing reflect what's going on in the supermarket. If you did it 20 years ago, you'd have canned soup, cheese, much more basic products."
The PLMA accepted submissions from retailers and non-retailers through June 15 in 16 dry grocery, frozen, refrigerated and fresh categories (in the end, the list of categories was expanded to 24). They had to be introduced in the previous 12 months and sold in stores and/or via the store's Web site or catalog at the time of nomination.
In all, 170 products were submitted. Judging took place over two days in August. Twenty-four judges -- 12 consumers and 12 food industry professionals -- rated the products on a scale of 1 to 10 in appearance, taste, texture, smell, packaging, presentation and value. The winners represented 17 companies.
Each product category was judged by a group of six judges, who at times seemed impressed by the store-brand products before them. "This is actually a Tar-jay product?" one said, holding up Target's Archer Farms edamame, which won in the healthy eating category. Albertsons' Hawaiian pizza, although not a winner, was praised for its texture and bacon and pineapple topping.
Other times, the judges registered their disappointment when the taste was off or the contents didn't resemble the package. A snack nut product was derided as tasting "old," while the pungent garlic flavor of a canned tomato product was too much for the judges. Exclaimed one: "I hope the mints are coming." In the final analysis, the winners had to not just look good, but taste great.