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Private Label Maturity Model

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:

  • consumer knowledge and insight
  • product design and quality
  • pricing
  • promotion
  • supply chain & sourcing

Private Label Maturity Model - Third Eyesight

(Click here for a larger image)

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.)

Fractal Branding – Voice or Noise?

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.

Private label price warriors

‘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.)

Retailers vs Brands – the reactions

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.

  • It’s hard for me to feel for both retailers and vendors when they obviously do what’s best for themselves, regardless of the long-term impact. In this case though, I would tell Unilever to go aggressive and pull all their lines from Delhaize. Then up the marketing of these lines with a cooperative marketing program involving the other retailers. Let Delhaize try to survive with shelves full of private label products and see how long they last. (Marc Gordon, President, Fourword Marketing)
  • First, you seem to be talking more about Europe than the U.S. and that’s a different animal. However, given the universality of the question, I’d say first that the best and worst of people and companies come out during hard times. The best redouble their efforts to build meaningful long-term relationships with their trading partners. Unfortunately, it seems that most are simply trying to squeeze an extra penny or two out of the other. To your specific question–No! CPG companies are only starting to rationalize their portfolios. There are still way too many products out there simply for the sake of putting their name out there–not because the product moves. Some manufacturers are starting to cut back on their lines, but I suspect much more is needed. As to developing private label, what do you expect? Retailers have been copycating for years. But I think consumers have gotten wise to the fact that just because it looks like a brand doesn’t mean it has the same quality. And to any retailer who can’t do any more than copy, shame on them! (Len Lewis, President, Lewis Communications, Inc.)
  • Fast moving consumer goods companies still need to rationalize brand portfolios in many cases, as so many retailers are finding higher profits in reduced SKU counts, without losing shopper loyalty. Depending on how this shakes out with specific retailer strategies over time, this may or may not make room for more local brands and niche players in some instances. Private label is a whole different animal today than it was even four or five years ago. The top tiers are not just inferior substitutes for national brands; they are national brand equivalents (or better) and widely recognized as such by consumers who are switching, and are not likely to come back. As for retailers copycatting, that’s always been a factor. Sometimes retailer behavior is outrageous, but there are laws protecting trade dress, etc., and branded manufacturers frequently litigate, and win. (Warren Thayer, Editor, Refrigerated & Frozen Foods Retailer, BNP Media)
  • There is significant brand proliferation in FMCG. Think about cereal, ketchup, salad dressing or the myriad of other categories that have duplication on top of duplication. I led an industry-wide study that proved retailers could remove 12 – 18 percent of the actual SKUs from a given category (almost across the board) and not lose sales–in fact retailers will grow their sales (by unit volume and revenue). Consumers want true variety and differentiation – not the same thing in the same size. How many red ketchups in the 24oz bottle do you really need on the shelf? In many cases, there should be a couple of national brands and the store brands.
    The study also showed that the very large marketing dollars thrown at retailers to help promote products are in many cases not enough to cover all of the downstream costs and activities retailers engage in to accommodate duplication of brands. The inventory carrying costs alone are staggering. The FMCG companies will not want to hear this, but without fail, we found that there is too much duplication and with careful consumers, retailers should make sure they are offering the very best solutions for their customers while maximizing profits and opportunities. (Kevin Sterneckert, Research Director, Retail, AMR Research)
  • How many shoppers (in the US, anyway) would drive out of their way to get Unilever soap? Probably not too many. Price, proximity and shopping habits are stronger than most CPG loyalty. Higher ticket items, like durables, and higher involvement categories like skin care, have more resilience. Retailers are understandably using the recession as a catalyst to drive sales of private label. Are they playing fair? Well, no.  Manufacturers are over a barrel, giving as much information as they can in order to stay in good standing with retailers. Further, some retailers have even used promotions that pull on national brand strength to promote private label. Publix Supermarkets ran a Buy-One-Get-One, where shoppers could buy a national brand (Thomas’s English Muffins) and get the Publix private label brand free. This drove trial – and presumably–conversion to their brand. No, they aren’t playing fair. The question for national brands is how to stay relevant and on shelf. (Liz Crawford, President, Crawford Consulting)
  • Technology and collaboration should be helping to solve this problem, and it is a problem that existed before the current downturn and will continue when the recovery comes (hopefully very soon!!). If the retailer can show empirically that the new product lines do nothing to add to the profit mix, or worse do something to harm it, at the store, the supplier should yield and remove or not introduce the items. If the manufacturer can show empirically that the new product lines work to bolster the profit mix at the store level, the retailer should yield and add the items. This may be over-simplifying the situation, and there will always be exceptions, but without collaboration both retailers and suppliers are going to lose and the shopper will suffer as well. (Ron Margulis, Managing Director, RAM Communications)
  • “SKU Rationalization” is a dangerous game…as the volume of sales per item does not necessarily reflect the impact to the brand as a whole. The push-pull of private label vs. branded product has been going on a long time and it’s not stopping any time soon. While it’s possible to create an apparel store built solely on private label merchandise, I don’t believe it’s possible in FMCG. All those advertising dollars have, in fact, made a difference. It’s also true that not all private label merchandise is create equal. I might be okay with generic canned food, but there are other products that have a distinct difference in quality. Q-Tips, Band-aids, some cheeses come immediately to mind. There’s a reason why book sellers carry slow movers. There’s a reason why apparel retailers buy a full compliment of colors, even if the percent contribution isn’t the same across all of them. Similarly, there’s a reason why FMCG retailers need to carry brands. It adds to their own brand credibility. (Paula Rosenblum, Managing Partner, RSR Research)
  • I’ll take on whether retailers are “playing fair” by copy-catting national brands/morphing them into private labels: 8-10 years ago, I would have cried foul; these days, it’s par for the course. Yet another reason why vendors have to keep their innovation pipelines full or risk being one private label switch away from extinction. Think of your retailer knocking you off as the sincerest form of flattery (if you can bear it)! (Carol Spieckerman, President, newmarketbuilders)
  • As indicated in the poll questions, there is sufficient blame on both sides. Retailers are dealing with manufacturers who force impractical line extensions through financial influence (incentives) detracting from a balanced category. Private Label is skimming the cream of category sales and threatening to take a disproportionate amount of shelf space. Private Label also can trade down category average pricing through poorly thought-out pricing schemes that do not reflect the market place. The extreme in either direction reduces the optimization of the consumer-centric effort we are all chasing. Manufacturers are the Mecca of product innovation. Private Label merely mimics. When we deviate from true innovation and the goal is to reduce the shelf space of competitors, everyone loses. The leap to Private Label is a result of cash-pinched consumers looking for a bargain. Private Label has a place in retailer strategy, but it should not be the entire strategy. Nor should the overwhelming ownership of space by a single brand. The premium or angel customers will continue to buy brands that exhibit the features and benefits of quality and consistency. Which customers do we want to develop as our base? Angel customers or bargain hunters? By lowering standards, quality and differentiation, we move into a downward spiral into Heck. Manufacturers must put forth innovation and quality as the model. Retailers need to maintain the balance in the categories that maintains a profitable mix of customers. It is about strategy and thinking beyond next week. Ask John Galt. (‘GMROI’)
  • There were several reports on just-food.com last week out of the Consumer Analyst Group of New York (CAGNY) conference in Florida about what some of the bigger brands plan to do about rationalizing their portfolios. Some were particularly interesting and relevant to this discussion. As for the sub-debate about differences between the US and the ROW (rest of the world)–also very interesting and relevant especially when looked at in the context of globalization vs consumer preferences for locally produced food (a subject on which there is still much to be said as it cannot possibly be, in my view, an either or proposition). ( Bernice Hurst, Managing Director, Fine Food Network)
  • For FMCG, a CPG firm must ensure they have a brand strategy to address the intended audience. Most will say they have that, but the truth is that they try to “cover the Earth” with a wide assortment to capture any and all consumers they can. In these economic times, there will tend to be even less “rationalization,” so to speak, since CPG firms will try to grab any demographic who is spending money.  Of course, regions vary in their propensity to embrace things like private label, however there are great examples across the globe of deep penetration of P/L, some of which have already been mentioned, and also Trade Joe’s in the US. P/L success has more to do with intentions of the retailer, rather than the line of products, specifically. (Ralph Jacobson, Global Consumer Products Industry Marketing Executive, IBM)
  • Where’s the data? Which consumers are buying which products? Which ones are not selling so well? Where’s the demand? Both sides can play the win-lose drama as long as they like and both will lose. (Camille Schuster, President, Global Collaborations, Inc.)
  • Brands are the initiators of product and package innovation.
    • Until Private Label companies or a collaboration with retailers can fund research and development and spend back big dollars back against the brand, the brands will always have customers looking for their new products.
    • Retailers cannot give up the slotting fees that brands pay for shelf space. That is why many stores get more branded skus then they probably need.
    • I am not sold that manufactures can’t execute with creative accounting, “Brand partnership stores.” Retailers work on slim margins but as more retailers self manufacture there is AN opportunity to sell to yourself.
      (‘YOURBOYS’ )

Retailers vs Brands – a sequel

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:

  • In recent years FMCG companies have rationalized their brand portfolios, but have they done enough?
  • Are they really clear about the value the remaining brands are delivering?
  • Are the retailers really playing fair when they build up so-called partnerships with suppliers, only to take on board the product learnings and then develop own-label copycat products (sometimes down to package colouring and graphics)?

What do you think?

Creating & Managing Lifestyle and Fashion Brands – Third Eyesight Knowledge Series© Workshop – 23 August 2008, New Delhi, India

The Third Eyesight Knowledge Series© comprises of workshops designed and developed to help functional heads, line managers and executives refresh and upgrade functional and product expertise.  

Third Eyesight’s next workshop in this series is focussed on Creating & Managing Lifestyle and Fashion Brands.

 

IS THIS FOR YOU?

This workshop will be useful to you, if you are 

  • a brand owner wanting to look at growing your scale
  • a manufacturer wanting to add value to your products and to gain additional margins
  • a retailer wanting to invest in your own brands / private label
  • a brand manager looking to expand the footprint of your brand over more products
  • an entrepreneur wanting to launch a new brand
  • an investor who wants to understand how brands create value 
  • an exporter or buying office professional wanting to understand your customers and markets better
  • a brand owner and believe that your business is undervalued
  • a designer wanting to scale the business beyond yourself
  • a marketing or sales professional looking to add value to your skill-base
  • a service provider working with the lifestyle and fashion sector
  • a teacher or researcher looking at understanding the process of brand development

THE WORKSHOP CONTENT

This workshop will help participants in understanding:

  • the basics of lifestyle brands and their positioning in the lifestyle consumer goods industry
  • the development of the brand ethos
  • how to translate the brand intangibles into reality,
  • how to attract and retain new customers in the competitive environment, and
  • how to sustain and nurture the brand value over a period of time

REGISTRATIONS

Click Here or Call +91 (124) 4293478 or 4030162

Retailers vs Brands

In early-June Big Bazaar (part of Future Group) was reported to have broken off its relationship with Cadbury’s. About 2-3 weeks later the two were reportedly back together. The alleged differences and the apparent solutions have been reported widely, as also the feeling that some issues remain unresolved.

If that reads like something you would find in a celebrity tabloid, you’re probably right. The relationship between brands and large retailers is truly one of the “love-hate” kind. And this case is no different from many other such relationships in various markets around the world. In fact, the Future Group itself is reported to have had similar run-ins with PepsiCo’s FritoLay and GlaxoSmithKline in the past.

I won’t dwell on the various allegations and clarifications about commercial structures and differential pricing in this particular case, since the view from outside isn’t really clear. But it is certainly worth noting that this case is not unique, and thinking about what the future (no pun intended) might hold for brands in markets such as India.

There is no doubt that brands love the scale that large retailers provide them, with the quick access to a large footprint in the market, and the high visibility. On the other hand, as a vendor, they hate the negotiating edge that this scale gives the large retailer. Brand generally rule fragmented retail environments such as India. Large retailers, on the other hand, squeeze out more margins in the form of bulk discounts, placement fees and the like. There’s more: special promotions, differential merchandising and delivery needs…the list of demands seems endless.

On the other side, retailers love brands for the footfall they bring. The brand typically creates a “need to buy” on the consumer’s part, and invests in creating a distinctive proposition which is valuable in a cluttered market. In many cases the brand would have also advertised where it is available. This is all good stuff for the retailer, who then essentially has to make sure that the brand is available and visible in-store to the customer to convert the walk-ins into sales. However, what retailers don’t like is the fact that brands will generally charge a premium of 10-50% over a comparable generic product. In some cases the premium may be so high that the brand product’s price itself is multiples of a generic product’s price.

The retailer-brand partnership is a very powerful one, even from early days. Many consumer brands and branded companies have scaled up significantly with the growth of their retail customers. The US market due to its sheer size and its evolution offers numerous examples including companies such as Levi Strauss, Hanes, Fruit of the Loom and Proctor & Gamble that grew on the back of discounters such as Wal-Mart and K-Mart as well as retailers such as JC Penney, Macy’s and Sears. Similar examples appear from other countries where the modernisation and consolidation of retail have happened over decades along with economic development.

An established brand provides the new retailer credibility, even as the retailer provides the brand new shelf-space. Or the other way around: even a new brand provides value to an established retailer by identifying the market need, developing the product, managing sourcing & production, and establishing the consumer’s interest in the product, while it is the established retailer who provides the much-needed credibility and presence to the new brand.

For most, this remained a happy relationship for a long time even as the retail environment grew and evolved. Retailers focussed on creating shelf-space and managing it, while the brands focussed on creating products and desirability.

However, economic shocks various times and the rise of low-cost imports raised questions in retailers’ minds about the value added by the brand compared to the margin they supposedly made on the higher prices. At the same time, better communication and travel infrastructure as well as falling costs made it easier for retailers to consider approaching factories directly.

Enter private label, the “other” in the love-hate triangle.

Over the last couple of decades, department stores, hypermarkets, grocery stores and even discounters have worked seriously on private label.  The opening premise was that you could entice the customer with a lower price (sharing some of the margin earned by direct sourcing), and as long as you gave a comparable product the consumer was happy. Many Indian retailers followed a similar route when they began exploring private label.

The strategy has had a varied degree of success, much of it to do with how the private label has been handled (indifferently in most cases). Recognising this flaw, many retailers around the world have attempted to improve their handling of their private label product development and also presenting it also in a manner (including advertising) similar to a national or an international brand. Some of these retailers’ own labels are now serious brands in their own right even though they are restricted to only one retail chain.

The difference between a “label” and a “brand” is the inherent promise that a brand has built into the name, the repeated experience that the customer has had with the brand that reinforces this promise, and the relationship that develops between the consumer and the brand. All of this requires structuring, nurturing and careful management, and it costs time, effort and money. When the economy and individual incomes are growing, consumers are willing to shell out a little extra for a brand and all that it stands for.

However, brands get into trouble if income and spending perceptions turn downwards, and comparable products are available. The 10+ per cent premium between branded and generic begins to look like an important saving to the customer.  Or conversely, due to the growing market more suppliers for the same product appear that the retailer can use as a foil to the branded market leader. With falling import barriers, more diverse contract manufacturing becomes available for sourcing private label merchandise. The scenario becomes particularly grim if the relationship between the brand and the consumer is not old enough to have become lasting – in this case, replacement of the brand with an alternative or a retailer’s own label is truly feasible.

The Indian market, at this time, shows all of the above ingredients. Inflation is making consumers reconsider how and where they spend their money.  The growth of the market over the last few years has attracted several companies with alternative products and brands e.g. ITC as a challenger to biscuit-cookie major Britannia as well as to Pepsi’s potato chip brand Lays. Retailers such as the Future Group, Shopper’s Stop and Reliance have actively incorporated imports into their sourcing strategy. In many cases, the brands that most want to be on the modern retailer’s shelves are new to the market, and don’t yet have a strong imprint on the consumer’s mind.

However, at the same time, retailers themselves are still developing the systems and disciplines to manage their relatively new businesses. They are more than fully occupied with rising real estate costs, and managing the front end. If a brand can handle the product and supply side for a reasonable margin, they are more than happy to ride with the brand.

There is place for the branded suppliers in the market, and for them even to lead the market. Even as retailers grow, branded suppliers won’t lie down or die quietly. Many of them (such as Hindustan Unilever) are also actively engaging with smaller retailers, to help them improve their business processes and competitiveness. On the other hand, they are also reconciled to the inevitable growth of modern retailers, and are developing “key account management” functions, parallel distribution processes etc. to cater to the large retailers differently from the rest of the market.

So will brands survive, or will it be the retailer with the muscle of the storefront relegate them to a small portion of the market?

As long as the competitive pressures and economic cycles remain, the relationship between retailers and their branded suppliers will inherently be a tug-of-war for margin.

In either case, whether individual brands or retailers win or lose in the short term, the consumer will hopefully be a beneficiary in terms of better product, more variety and some sanity in terms of prices.

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