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Price Leader Expansion Under Standard Leader Umbrella

Over the last year, private label sales of food and other grocery products in the U.S. have grown at over 10% per annum. These private label products are examples of Price Leaders, companies and products who offer performance less than that of the larger, industry-leading, Standard Leaders for a price substantially less than Standard Leaders.

Standard Leaders are the companies and the products that are most common in an industry. Standard Leader products make up the majority of the industry’s sales. A Camry and an Accord would be Standard Leader products. The Yaris and the Fit are Price Leader products.

Private label products rely in the brand name of the retailer to establish Reliability, while offering the consumer Function benefits that are roughly equivalent to the Standard Leader product. Sometimes industry Standard Leaders will produce private label products which are unrelated to their major branded products. More often, though, private label products are produced by private label company specialists, such as Ralcorp and Cott. The majority of these private label food producers are mid-sized private companies. Most are unknown by the average consumer. They include companies such as Schwann’s, Land O’Lakes, Specialty Foods, Sterm Foods and Pan-O-Gold.

In the food business, private label products can put significant pressure on the industry’s Standard Leaders. That is happening today. While private label products have grown 10% in the last year, many of the branded food companies are growing well below that or are shrinking in their sales. ConAgra Foods saw a sales increase due to price increases, but sales volume actually fell. Kraft Foods, General Mills and H.J. Heinz also saw declines in sales volumes.

The reason for the disparities in growth rates between private label products and branded foods is pricing. Last year the branded food companies had a unique opportunity to raise prices dramatically, on the order of 10%, due to the rising commodity prices at the time. However, these commodity prices have come down and the branded food companies have continued to maintain, or even raise prices. With the fall-off in the economy, and these price umbrellas set by the branded food companies, private labels have jumped in popularity. This is a form of the Leader’s Trap. We just placed many examples of the Leader’s Trap on our StrategyStreet web site (see www.strategystreet.com/tools/glossary of terms/leaders trap and also the Symptom and Implication, “Leaders Stress Quality to Offset Competitors’ Lower Prices” on StrategyStreet.com).

The problem that private labels are creating for the branded food companies is one of improving Functions and Reliability. The increased volume that the branded food companies are allowing private label products enables these Price Leader companies to improve their products, reducing or erasing the Functional and quality differences their products have compared to the branded products. The private label products then become permanently stronger.

This is a serious challenge. J.D. Power & Associates recently reported that consumer perceptions of private label grocery brands have shifted to the positive. Many consumers no longer consider them to be low quality with bland packaging. These consumers look at private label brands as unique and having quality that equals that of traditional brands. The traditional branded companies are setting up powerful competitors who will always maintain a price advantage over them.

These private label store brands are unlikely to lose all the market share they have gained over the past year, once the industry Standard Leaders reduce their prices, as they inevitably will.

Posted 4/9/09

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