A Touch of Class: Private Label Packaged Food Raising its Game in Canada

Private label packaged food is a multibillion dollar business in Canada, with some well-known and established private label lines elevated to the status of quasi brands in their own right. A typical example is the oldest Canadian private label, President’s Choice. In fact, President’s Choice has been voted as one of Canada’s most trusted food brands, according to a 2011 study from BrandSpark.

Despite recent gains private label’s success still not guaranteed

The success of private label food in Canada, however, is by no means assured. Indeed, overall growth has not been as strong as might have been expected, even during recessionary periods. Nonetheless, the ongoing slowness of economic recovery, persistently shaky consumer confidence and a continuing squeeze on profit margins have all helped keep private label in the spotlight.

While multi-tier pricing strategies are not new to retailers’ private label growth strategies, they have become more pronounced in recent years, with many retailers introducing clearly differentiated private label lines in various price segments. In addition to product assortment and price, packaging design is also typically used to set various segments apart on store shelves.

The development of higher-quality private label lines comes at a time when the slow pace of economic recovery and persistent concerns over the financial wellbeing of Canadian households (especially in view of ongoing debates about potential housing market correction in Canada) are starting to take their toll on middle-class and higher-income earners. These consumers groups appear to be returning, after more upbeat consumer confidence news of early 2011, to more prudent spending and are once again eyeing retailers and products that can provide a good balance between perceived quality and retail price.

Black is the colour of premium and luxury private label in Canada

Seeking to capture sales and share of spending by those consumers who are looking for higher-quality products and are still able to spend more, Canadian retailers are stepping up their game with the creation and expansion of super-premium, or even luxury, private label ranges. Black is the colour of choice for such offerings, which is not entirely surprising as black has been traditionally associated with quality, luxury and exclusivity in the Canadian psyche – from the little black Chanel dress to the American Express Centurion card (also known as the Black Card), which is reserved for those with high discretionary incomes.

Not surprisingly, Loblaws Cos Ltd, the leading grocery retailer in Canada and the marketer of the first and oldest Canadian private label range under the President’s Choice banner, has been among the first to announce its new and fairly extensive Black Label super-premium line. All its products are positioned as gourmet yet still affordable indulgences and luxuries. The new line includes a range of products in categories including confectionery, cheese, cooking oils, pasta and pasta sauces, cookies, spices, spreads and cheese, amongst others. Retail prices range between C$2-25.

To differentiate the line from other private label products marketed by the retailer, President’s Choice Black Label products come in black-coloured packaging. Often the products also feature information about their origins, as is the case with its fine cheeses for instance. The retailer has indicated that the new line is seeking to capture middle-class and higher-income consumers who, while buying basic groceries at Loblaws-operated stores, often turn to speciality retailers and small boutiques for small luxuries. Consumer reception of the new product lines has been fairly positive thus far.

Only in Canada! – Wal-Mart test-markets premium private label range

In summer 2011, Wal-Mart test-marketed and then launched its own black label line of private label food and beverages, although with a more limited product selection than that of President’s Choice Black Label. Dubbed “Our Finest”, the new premium-positioned private label range currently features close to 200 SKUs.

Unlike Loblaws, Wal-Mart’s Our Finest range does not feature entirely black packaging. It does, however, differentiate its products with a black label showcasing the line’s name. Also featured on product packaging are food or beverage photos, as well as tips and serving suggestions. Like President’s Choice Black Label, the line is positioned as a range of affordable luxury indulgences. For instance, Wal-Mart Canada’s new Our Finest Cocoa Dusted Belgian Truffles retail at C$3.97 for a 200g pack, which translates into a retail price of C$19.85 per kg. In contrast, the average retail price for chocolate confectionery standard boxed assortments in Canada is more than C$35 per kg.

Other retailers have also been developing and promoting their own black private label lines in the premium, and now super-premium, segments. For instance, the Life range marketed by Shoppers Drug Mart, Canada’s largest drugstore chain, features its own line differentiated by black packaging and labelled Life Premium Gourmet. Growth of its range of chocolate confectionery has outpaced that of mass-market branded rivals. Interestingly, Life Premium Gourmet’s pricing is not dramatically lower than that of branded chocolates, especially when compared with those present in the mass-market space. For instance, Life Premium Gourmet Milk Chocolates retail for an average of C$3.49 for 140g (C$24.93 per kg). In contrast, leading comparable brands such as Smarties, for instance, typically carry a retail price of C$1.29 for 50g (C$25.80 per kg).

Jean Coutu, the second largest drugstore chain in Canada, based in the province of Quebec, also features its own “black label” private label range. Its Désir Lait line of boxed chocolates (featuring black boxes) retails for an average of C$8.99 for 250g (C$35.96 per kg). Meanwhile, comparable mainstream brands like Pot O Gold and Lindt Swiss carry average retail prices, respectively, of C$5.97 for 283g (C$21.10 per kg) and C$9.99 for 215g (C$46.46 per kg). In this instance, the price of Jean Coutu’s Désir Lait sits firmly between the prices of two leading mass-market brands.

What next for super-premium black label store brands?

Looking ahead, and especially within the next 2-3 years, at least two factors will support the further development of higher-quality, super-premium private label packaged foods. These are, firstly, the slow pace of economic recovery, high levels of household debt and the resultant more cautious attitude towards spending by many Canadians and, secondly, the expected opening of Target stores in Canada, which feature a strong private label portfolio and are likely to put further pressure on existing retailers seeking to maintain and grow customer traffic as well as grow profit margins in view of upcoming price battles.

Despite a shaky performance in 2011, the overall economic outlook in Canada through to 2016 remains broadly positive. The Canadian economy is expected to register real GDP growth at a constant value CAGR of 2-3% over the forecast period. The Canadian population is also expected to increase by 1% per year, as is the number of households. A high unemployment rate, at 8% in 2011, is expected to drop to 6% over the forecast period, which is in turn expected to help boost the Canadian economy.

At the same time, many experts are raising concerns over instability in the US and EU, which might affect the recovery in Canada as the economy relies strongly on exports. Additionally, many experts are expressing concern over the Canadian housing market, potential increases in interest rates and a threat of what some see as a housing bubble ready to burst. Furthermore, the Canadian household debt-to-income ratio reached an all-time high of around 153% in 2012, one of the highest among developed countries. This is making personal debt reduction a priority for many, including those with higher incomes.

Following in the steps of potentially unfavourable macroeconomic trends, retailers like Wal-Mart Canada are seeing an increasing number of higher-income earners coming to shop and save. This trend is likely to continue over the next 2-3 years at least. However, these consumers are still seeking out higher-quality products. As such, the further development of super-premium private label ranges and in-store merchandising strategies can help to better attract the attention of this increasing consumer group looking for small luxuries at an affordable price. This strategy can also help increase overall customer traffic and spending in stores in the face of an increasingly competitive grocery retailing landscape.

Furthermore, the imminent arrival of Target in Canada in 2013, with its strong private label portfolio, including premium-positioned foods, will put further pressure on retailers to maintain/grow consumer traffic and seek competitive advantage and profits. While the extent of the impact Target’s entry will have on Canadian grocery retailing and fast moving consumer goods is still subject to debate, the initial response to Target’s pop-up shop in Toronto has been highly positive.

Regardless of whether or not Target succeeds or fails in Canada, the continued development of premium and super-premium private label offerings in the short to medium term at least stands to help retailers maintain – if not grow – their profit margins going forward.