If we were to look at phrases that have cropped up during the recent recessionary times in the consumer goods sector, “private label” has to be among those at the top of the list.
From clothing to cereals, toothpaste to televisions, there is hardly a category that has not seen retailers trying their hand at creating own labelled products.
The first motivation for most retailers to move into private label is margin. On first analysis, it appears that the branded suppliers are making tons of extra money by being out there in front of the consumer with a specific named product. The retailer finds that creating an alternative product under its own label allows it to capture extra gross margin. Typically the product category picked at the earliest stage of private label development would be one for which several generic or commodity suppliers are available.
At this early stage, the retailer is aiming for a relatively predictable, stable-demand and easily available product whose sales would be driven by the footfall that is already attracted into the store. A powerful bait to attract the customer is the visible reduction in price, as compared to a similar branded product. If the product can be compared like-for-like, customers would certainly convert to private label over time.
However, maintaining prices lower than brands can also be counter-productive. In many products, while customers might not be able to discern any qualitative difference, they may suspect that they are not getting a product comparable to one from a national or international brand. And while private label can drive off-take, the price differential can also erode gross margin which was the reason that the retailer may have got into private label in the first place. Over time, such a strategy can prove difficult to sustain, as costs of developing, sourcing and managing private label products move up.
The other strong reason a retailer chooses to have private label is to create a product offering that is differentiated from competitors who also offer brands that are similar or identical to the ones offered by the retailer. Department stores, supermarkets and hypermarkets around the world have all tried this approach – some have been more successful than others. The idea is to provide a customer strong reasons to visit their particular store, rather than any of the comparable competitors.
Of course, when differentiation is the operating factor, the products need more insight and development, and closer handling by the retailer at all stages. A price-driven private label line may be sourced from generic suppliers, but that approach isn’t good enough for a line driven by a differentiation strategy. In this case, costs of product development and management increase for the retailer. However, to compensate, the discount from a comparable national brand is not as high as generic nascent private label. In fact, some retailers have taken their private label to compete head on with national brands – they treat their private labels as respectfully as a national branded supplier would treat its brand.
So what does it take to go from a “copycat” to being a real brand?
Third Eyesight has evolved a Private Label Maturity Model (see the accompanying graphic) that can help retailers think through their approach to private label, whether their product offering is dominated by private label, or whether they have only just begun considering the possibility of including private label in their product range. The model sketches out a maturity path on five parameters that are affected by or influence the strength of a retailer’s private label offering:
In some cases, retailers may have multiple labels, some of which may be quite nascent while others might be highly evolved, clear and comparable to a national brand. This could be by default, because the labels have been launched at different times and have had more or less time to evolve. However, this can also be used as a conscious strategy to target various segments and competitive brands differently, depending on the strength of the competition and their relationship with the consumer.
The interesting thing is that size and scale do not offer any specific advantage to becoming a more sophisticated private label player. Some extremely large retailers continue to follow a discounted-price “me-too” private label strategy where even the packaging and colours of the product are copied from national brands, while much smaller players demonstrate capabilities to understand their specific consumers’ needs to design, source and promote proprietary products that compare with the best brands in the market.
For a moment, let’s also look at private labels from the suppliers’ point of view. As far as we can see, private label seems to be here to stay and grow. Suppliers can treat private labels as a threat, and figure out how to ensure that they retain a certain visibility and relationship with the consumer. On the other hand, interestingly, some suppliers are also looking at private label as an opportunity. They see the growth of private label as inevitable, and would much rather collaborate in the retailer’s private label development efforts. This way they can maintain some kind of influence on the product development, possibly avoid direct head-on conflict with their own star branded products and, if everything else fails, at least grab a share of the market that would have otherwise gone over to generic suppliers.
If you are retailer, I would suggest using the Private Label Maturity Model to clarify where you want to position yourself, and continue to use it as a guide as you develop and deliver your private label offering.
If you are a supplier concerned about private label, my suggestion would be to gauge how developed your customer is and is likely to become, and ensure that you are at least in step, if not a step ahead.
Of course, if you need support, we’ll only be too happy to help! (Contact Third Eyesight to discuss your private label needs.)
The grocery market is loud. From the times when food markets were in streets and town squares, hawkers have cried out their wares, and the freshness or newness of everything made evident to the customers passing by. So, I guess, it is no surprise that today’s FMCG and food market is also tuned to high-decibel promotion.
You don’t need to search too long for the reason – margins are generally thin on these frequent-use products and inventories need to move fast. And what you don’t make a noise about may not be visible to the customer and may remain unsold.
But if that was the whole story, most players should be focussing on one brand, or at most a few brands, and should be using their advertising budgets to maximum effect on these.
Instead we see exactly the reverse phenomenon in the market – more brands, more sub-brands, more varieties of everything. Why? Because newness sells – it creates excitement, anticipation, and in customers with a sense of experimentation it creates the urge to buy.
The old proven method of doing this was the “New Improved” starburst on the pack. The slicker, updated method is to launch a new variety that is apparently different in some way. For instance, if the old supplement helped to strengthen bones, the new line might contain separate “child” and “adult” versions (growth vs. osteoporosis). The old shampoo might have helped to keep hair clean and prevent dandruff – the new one might leave the customer wondering if she should pick the dandruff-fighter that also reduces hair loss, or the variety that makes her hair glossy, or even the one that provides a date for the next weekend! By the time she reaches the end of the shelf, she might have forgotten that her need essentially was to prevent dandruff.
Due to this, the grocery and FMCG product mix is fractal. Each grocery shelf or grocery store is susceptible to fragmentation. Each such fraction is supposed to act as the seed that can allow a new segment in the market or a new use occasion to grow, and provide the FMCG company or the retailer with an avenue for additional business. This phenomenon is particularly visible in a growing consumption environment – consumption feeds proliferation, while proliferation provides further occasions to consume.
However, an unfortunate outcome of this proliferation of brands and SKUs is the heightened noise, in which the brand often loses its unique voice. Also, over time, the brand may be too thinly spread or be undifferentiated from its competitors, and its sales only sustained through ever increasing bouts of expensive advertising – a vicious spiral.
Another issue is the real estate availability and the cost. Chris Anderson wrote about “the long tail” about 5 years ago – the myriad products for which the market is limited, but demand may be sustained over a long period of time through internet sales. However, while the long tail works for e-commerce businesses such as Amazon that carry limited inventory, the physical store runs out of space for micro-segment items very quickly.
All of these factors obviously start hurting visibly when the market turns down, and when marketing investments start being evaluated against the returns. This is when proliferation starts giving way to “rationalization”, reduction of the brand portfolio, narrowing the SKU focus.
We are already seeing signs of this in many of the developed modern retail markets currently, where retailers and their suppliers are closely analyzing which parts of their portfolio they need to sustain, and which they need to drop.
The story in the Indian market is slightly different for a variety of reasons.
First, the market is still growing, and for most FMCG suppliers there are vast expanses of the market are still blank canvases.
Secondly, India has been a branded supplier driven market for a long time, and remains so, by and large. However, the SKU and brand density is nowhere close to what is seen in the West. There is plenty of headroom still for new varieties to be added and new brands to be developed.
But possibly the most important factor is the new modern retailers, who are desperately seeking additional sources of margin. When there is a limit to the traffic that you can divert from traditional mom-and-pop stores, and when you hit the glass ceiling on transaction values per customer, proliferation becomes the game to play. Therefore, these retailers are either busy introducing own labels or encouraging new branded vendors who would offer them higher margins than the more established brands.
Own label is obviously the tricky one. The customer needs to feel comfortable with the switch – in the US, a study showed that consumers would more easily switch to own label merchandise in categories where the “risk” was perceived to be low (such as household goods, rather than children’s products). Also, the best own label gross margins typically come from products that are presented to the consumer as “brands” comparable to national branded products, because the pricing is more on par.
So, on the retailer’s part, this requires sophistication of product development and brand management that may be expensive and may need time to develop. A short-cut could be the acquisition of an existing brand, its entire assets including the organisation, as some retailers have been reportedly looking to do. How well they integrate the brands into their businesses remains to be seen.
In the long term, like their counterparts in more developed markets, these retailers may also come to the point where they wonder whether these owned brands offer them enough return on the expense and the management effort spent on them, or whether they would be better off just buying brands that consumers are already familiar with through multiple channels.
In the short term, however, we can expect proliferation, fragmentation, fractalization in all its forms. We can expect the illusion of plenty of choice to continue driving sales, and more and more products to fulfil needs that even the customer doesn’t know he has.
‘Refrigerated and Frozen Food Retailer’ magazine wrote about price wars in food and grocery retail, between retailers, or between retailers’ private labels and national brands.
The comments about the difference between retailers’ own brands and national supplier brands are particularly interesting. The question, whether retailers’ own brands necessarily need to be cheaper and whether they can catch up later, is also very acute.
To me, the price difference here is really reflected by the difference between whether you are creating a brand (albeit one that is available only in one chain of stores) or a lower-priced private label.
A brand needs distinctiveness, a private label is mostly a me-too. A brand needs to build its own relationships and desirability beyond the store it is available in, while private label sells because there is an existing customer for something else that it is knocking-off. (Of course there are private labels that are not me-too and that are distinctive, but they are the exceptions proving the rule, so I would much rather go with the simplified view of the world for now.)
Finally, migrating up the price curve is difficult in the best of times. Believing that it can be done quickly after an introductory low price, in the current economic scenario, would be highly optimistic.
Price-optimization solution providers believe that retailers can increase private label prices:
DemandTec’s Derek Smith is seeing smaller price gaps between national brands and private label, with private label also adding more tiers. This allows one tier to fulfill the opening price point in a category, with the other tier playing roughly on par with the national brand or even priced above it…
“You also have to understand what price gap is necessary to get the consumer to trade up or down,” depending on your strategy, he adds. For example, you might want to incent shoppers to trade down to your private label, so you get more margin. So… do you raise the price on the national brand, lower the price on the private label, or do a bit of both? Once again, it will depend on your customer set and their purchasing history…
Lyle Walker, VP of marketing, KSS Retail, has seen some of the retailers he has worked with raise prices on their private label without losing sales – thus significantly increasing category profits. “We build demand models with two years’ worth of POS history, and then dynamically adjust elasticity values based on weekly updates of POS data,” said Mr. Walker.
Of course, Mr. Walker also qualifies the argument by saying that the increment may be “pennies here and pennies there,” implying that the discount for private label may still remain large enough for the customer not to notice the “pennies” being added on gradually.
Which sort of negates the whole question about whether retailers’ private label can really compete by pricing on par with national supplier brands, doesn’t it?
(The original RFF article is available here.)
Delhaize and Unilever may not yet have felt the need to visit a relationship counseler, and of course, the jury’s still out on who (if anyone) will actually win in their battle.
For now, Unilever has lost shelf-space for around 300 of its brands at Delhaize stores.
Delhaize may potentially lose some of the sales that those brands got for it, in case consumers want a specific brand rather than a private label or a substitute brand.
The consumers lose not just in terms of their choice being reduced, but perhaps also in becoming confused about the specific value / benefits of competing products when the certainty of their customary brands is removed. Remember, brand loyalty is built on the predictability of a repeated experience over a period of time. If you remove that factor from the purchase, each purchase becomes an experiment again, until a similar predictability is found.
(For those who missed the previous post, you can read it here.)
Referencing this battle, reactions to a discussion in at least one online poll on www.retailwire.com seem to favour retailers, or equally blame both retailers and suppliers. Only about a quarter of the respondents felt that retailers were not being fair. Considering that the respondent universe comprised of professionals from retail companies, suppliers as well as service providers, this seems to be a surprising result. Or perhaps not? Perhaps brands are no longer delivering a significant value to be able to command a premium over private label?
Some of the reactions from that discussion are reproduced below with permission from Retailwire.
About 7 months ago a spat occurred between the leading retail company in India Future Group and branded supplier Cadbury’s, with respect to margins offered to the Future Group. (A friend described it as a Bollywood saga.) Future Group had also previously had run-ins with other suppliers including the likes of Pepsi. (The previous post is here.)
Now there’s a European film noire sequel in the making, in a battle between the Belgian retailer Delhaize and European FMCG big daddy Unilever. Delhaize has suspended purchases from Unilever as, according to Delhaize, Unilever is making “unacceptable demands” that the chain stock more Unilever brands.
Like other branded suppliers, Unilever has obviously been impacted across Europe and the US as retailers have become more sophisticated in their approach to private label and squeezed out brands that they have been able to replace with their own products.
Given further weakening of the economic scenario, it is likely that consumers would switch to cheaper private labels offered by retailers, and retailers would be tempted to give over even more shelf space to their own labels where they get higher margins than branded products – a continually losing spiral for the branded FMCG companies.
According to a consumer survey carried out by an agency in Flanders in northern Belgium, apparently 31 per cent of shoppers polled were choosing to shop at chains other than Delhaize, and another 19 per cent were not happy with Delhaize decision (but there doesn’t seem to be indication yet that they would switch). Most of the customers who said they were remaining with Delhaize are either switching to other brands or to Delhaize’s own label products.
However this brawl ends, and whether it turns out to be a win-lose or a lose-lose situation, even this survey demonstrates that the retail store has the upper hand – less than one-third of the surveyed customers displayed their hard-core brand loyalty by switching to other stores.
That is obviously a worrying sign for branded suppliers who have invested humongous sums of money and decades of effort in developing their brands. But it also raises questions about whether the consumer is really perceiving any value out of the billions in advertising and millions of man-hours spent by the FMCG companies in developing the nth variation of toothpaste or detergent.
Tough times raise tough questions, and the ones that comes to mind are these:
What do you think?