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Special Report: 2021 Game Changers

The June 2021 cover story recognizes people, private brands and company innovations that are taking store brands to the next level.
Dan Ochwat
Executive Editor
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What are the elements driving the dynamic private label space? People, innovation and, of course, the private brands themselves.

People like Chad Coester — Albertsons’ senior vice president of owned brands — a man who stepped into the role less than two years ago and has Albertsons on pace for a 30% market share in own brands, are changing the perception of private brands.

See the story in the digital edition

Private brands themselves like Kroger’s Simple Truth line of vegan products, arguably a leader in the plant-based category growing by 500 more products in the last year, are altering the follow-the-leader mentality of private label.And innovations, like the Daymon portal, are elevating how retailers do private label business. In the last few years, store brands have become more powerful, sophisticated and have undoubtedly changed how consumers and the retail industry as a whole views them. 

Store Brands magazine wanted to put faces and recognition to the people, brands and companies elevating own brands. After receiving a host of nominations from readers and internal coverage, the editors of Store Brands narrowed the list and compiled here the first list of Store Brands’ Game Changers.

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Ardent Mills
Denver-based Ardent Mills, a leading flour-milling and ingredient company, could’ve just stood pat as the plant-based trend continued to grow, but the company looked to innovate within the category instead, acquiring Andean Naturals and developing a fast-rising quinoa business.

However, it’s how Ardent went about the acquisition that changed the game, bringing a new rotational crop to U.S. farmers, while ensuring that smallholder farmers in South America maintained demand.

The company said quinoa is one of the most sustainable crops, using only 14 inches of water per year. Additionally, the product is traditionally grown by smallholder farmers in the Andes in South America, and Ardent Mills has committed to support both smallholder farmers in the Andes and is collaborating with U.S. farmers who want to use quinoa in soil health and regenerative agriculture programs. 

Quinoa is one of the fastest-growing products today thanks to its nutritional value, containing fiber, minerals, vitamins, fatty acids and antioxidants. Citing a Mintel report, Ardent said the North American quinoa market has grown at a rate of nearly 20% per year over the last 10 years, and the growth is projected to rise at a rate of 17%, year over year, reaching 117,000 metric tons by 2025. Ardent’s Andean Naturals quinoa blend expects to be right there fueling store brand clients and supporting farmers.

It’s no secret the private brand and retail supply chain faced unprecedented pressure during the COVID-19 pandemic. One of those pressures was in-person visits to manufacturing facilities, something Brandkey Graphics had been out in front of via its Trackpack cloud-based tools. The company had already been offering cloud-based work tools before COVID-19, but they became essential during the pandemic.

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The St. Louis Park Minn.-based company said private label clients used such tools as its digital color proofing, remote press checks, virtual supplier validation and consultation to identify, track and resolve issues without the need for in-person visits and meetings.

Additionally, in the private brand space, brand owners have more control of the decision-making specifically related to sustainability. The company’s Trackpack tool enables the brand owners to

assess their current supply chain and set the path for their sustainability roadmap in three main areas: insight and validation into suppliers/manufacturers capabilities (green certifications, processes, and innovations); insight and validation of material usage; insight and validation of live production performance and adherence.

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Kyle Patterson

While a very recent innovation, launched in April, Daymon’s Supplier Portal is an online interface for retailers looking to build brands and get them out to market quickly that could have long-standing impact.

Kyle Patterson, vice president, at Stamford, Conn.-based Daymon, said the company began a phased launch approach to “enhance the ability for both existing and prospective clients, the unique ability to relay capacity, credentials, contacts and collateral in a way that enhance the markets’ ability to drive private brand forward.”

He added that the company had been digitizing this type of information more than a decade ago in a searchable database, but “what we lacked was a direct way for our manufacturer base to communicate those needs in a succinct and direct way to the market we influence, both domestic and globally.”

The supplier portal created direct access, and a manufacturer, importer/exporter or agent’s interests can readily begin the communication process with like-minded customers to increase speed to market and open up business building opportunities that otherwise might be difficult to capture and route.

“Through Daymon’s significant investment in technology, resources and training, we have streamlined access to this information, increased the speed in which we can react to various business needs and will further enable business partners the opportunity to individually matchmake opportunities that are in line with an organization’s needs and wants,” Patterson said.

Trade shows were postponed. Companies instituted travel bans. Plant visits were canceled. How suppliers and retailers interacted changed mightily during the pandemic. It was especially difficult for retailers to meet new suppliers.

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Last May, Solon, Ohio-based ECRM stepped up and launched a virtual platform — ECRM Connect — that helped retailers meet suppliers and continue business. In fact, in a year the platform had more than 3,450 buyers and 2,965 suppliers participate in 100,745 meetings across 92 category-specific virtual sessions focused on the U.S., European, Latin American and Asian markets. The platform enables suppliers and retailers to interact over video meetings and offers such tools as the ability to take meeting notes, review products and supplier capabilities, rank meetings and communicate follow-up timelines and next steps.

ECRM also became a pivotal partner for retailers launching open calls for suppliers to pitch products and get on shelves. Walmart, Casey’s, Yesway, Schnucks and many more used the RangeMe platform to source diverse suppliers and private label partners.

FMI - The Food Industry Association
The way retailers handle category management is outdated and has historically undermined the role of private brands, said Jim Wisner, president of Wisner Marketing Group, who worked with FMI - The Food Industry Association, IRI and others to develop a new program from the association that aims to move away from cat-man thinking and into “shopper-centric retailing.”

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The program’s goals are to maximize loyalty and profits around store brands by developing a tactical approach for private brands that factor in modern shopper insights and brand architecture to execute a private brand program.

The FMI Private Brand Management: A Shopper-Centric Approach platform offers a roadmap of steps from brand planning, culling shopper attributes, setting performance goals, developing category tactics and executing a brand plan. It was developed over the past 18 months with Wisner Marketing Group, IRI, select retailers, manufacturers and more.

“This new approach involves: putting private brands at the forefront of retailer strategy; shift of focus from categories of products to categories of shoppers; a coordinated approach to maximize shopper experience across categories and departments; a validated benchmarking process for optimizing performance; and an approach that leverages differentiation among retailers rather than directing everyone to the ‘same box’ as is the case with category management,” Wisner said.

G.S. Gelato
A leading gelato and sorbetto producer for regional and national grocery private brands, Fort Walton Beach, Fla.-based G.S. Gelato stepped up to meet a $7 billion plant-based trend with a line of plant-based frozen desserts.

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The company has carved out a name for itself over the last 25 years with its authentic Italian gelato and sorbetto and over the last 18 months created a collection of plant-based versions to provide consumers a “permissible indulgence,” as the company describes the product. The plant-based line is an example of how private label retailers can rely on G.S. Gelato to know what’s coming next and be one step ahead. The company received in 2021 a “Best New Product Award” in Newsweek.

Paper towels and bathroom tissue became must-have items during the pandemic and continue to be essential items. Sofidel was able to answer the call through a timely capital investment of more than $1 billion in two greenfield plants and additional paper machines that were commissioned just before the start of the pandemic.

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Sofidel saw increased sales in private label paper towel and bathroom tissue that began in March 2020, citing own brand growth outperformed national brand growth by more than 25% in both categories, Sofidel said.

A European company that has made a significant investment in the U.S., Sofidel said it stands on sustainability, using less water in the production of paper than other paper companies, and Sofidel is the only U.S. member of the WWF Climate Changers.


Chad Coester, senior vice president of Own Brands, Albertsons
In the 18 months that Chad Coester has led Albertsons’ private brand team, team member nominators say he has helped elevate the category, bring new labeling to the retailer’s products and driven the online prioritization of Albertsons’ brands.

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During his tenure with the Boise, Idaho-based retailer, Coester has helped add more than 16,000 QR codes to own brand packaging, giving shoppers the ability to see ingredient descriptions and other information just by scanning the label. He also is credited with opening up communication between the Own Brands and e-commerce teams to lobby for a larger online profile of own brands. And, he has grown the talent pool on the Own Brands team while encouraging wider involvement in the broader industry, including such organizations as PLMA, WISE, and FMI.

But ask the man himself, and he will say that the real credit is the team and their dedication to innovating to better server customers’ needs, bringing an array of perspectives to drive novel products and high quality standards.

“Our diverse private brand team members reflect the communities we serve,” Coester said. “From Food scientists to brand managers and all team members in between, our people are passionate, forward-thinking, innovative and always put the customer at the center of everything they do. Our talented Own Brands team is helping us achieve our goal of becoming the No. 1 reason customers choose to shop with us, whether in-store or online.

Phyllis Johnson, senior director of own brands, Catalina USA
In her role at Catalina, Phyllis Johnson is making clear that leadership in store brands means taking a wide view of the role that products can play in diversity and inclusion. Recently, Johnson spearheaded the creation of Catalina’s “Private Brand Shoppers of Color Playbook,” which recommends ways for retailers to drive loyalty by meeting the needs of diverse communities — from meeting unique ingredient and flavor demands to knowing the best channel for marketing.

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Johnson also is an advocate for using data to identify the opportunities within retailers’ private brand programs and leverage those opportunities to better address the needs of their consumers. In the right hands, shopper insights can drive new product development, as well as provide a path forward for retailers to use their platform to direct health messages to shoppers.

“This approach, if done correctly, can be a game-changer in private brands as it allows the retailer to leverage amplified shopper data to gain insights that were not available before,” Johnson said.

Lauren Kossar, associate creative director, CBX
Well before actress Kate Winslet was championing Wawa coffee and hoagies on Delaware County, Pa.-based TV show “Mare of Eastown,” the regional chain had carved a soft spot in its customers’ hearts. But an agency like CBX isn’t employed to just take loyalty for granted; instead, the agency builds more innovation behind it. Lauren Kossar did that for Wawa at CBX.

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In fact, for the past 15 years, Kossar has led the charge, designing, directing, and shaping the realization of the Wawa brand. Most recently though, Kossar has guided designs for such  beloved Wawa products as ice cream, beverages, ready-to-eat foods, and she’s supported Wawa’s growth by developing designs for new program initiatives such as Wawa dinners.

Asked about the chain, Kossar said, “Wawa has had the unique ability of transcending from just another convenience store to elevating to a truly iconic brand. Most convenience stores simply solve a need, but Wawa has become a desired destination by communicating their core values in customer service and dedication to quality. Wawa has found its voice through the consumer: understanding them, their likes and dislikes, discovering common threads that connect them all, and putting those needs first, a true ‘wing-mate.’”

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Brenda Lord, vice president of store brands quality assurance, CVS Health
At CVS, Brenda Lord stresses quality and value when it comes to its store brands products — to the point her team instituted a 100% money back guarantee on all store brands products.

With the launch of the Live Better by CVS Health brand, a Game Changer itself, she helped spearhead a brand that gives shoppers transparency with sourcing stories right on the package. She also recently ushered in a deep men’s grooming products line — Goodline Grooming Co., the first private label men’s skin care and self-care line at the retailer.

Lord oversees a team of more than 70 people. The team tests more than 6,000 products a year to ensure stability, validated methodology, active ingredients, potency, adverse effects and more in the products. On shelves, the retailer’s private brands make up 23% of the assortment, largely attributed to Lord and her team.

Lord and the own brands in her direction deliver transparency and quality, backed by its mantra — Tested to Be Trusted. It makes the lineup pioneers in proactive and reactive health, wellness, grocery and more.

Jen Linke, vice president of brand management, Federated Group
Just before the pandemic struck, Jen Linke launched the LifeGoods line of nonfood store brand products. It happened to be good timing, as bleach and paper products were the first off the line.

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However, it isn’t just timing that makes her a game changer, the time-tested quality of the brand resulted in a 700% increase in sales. The follow up: a complementary food brand called Life Every Day. Together, the beautifully designed brands elevated an assortment of private label items that emphasized “gratitude,” the company said.

It’s an appealing trait to be a brand that represents comfort and warmth, especially during trying times like a pandemic. The Life Inspired portfolio of store brands, as they’re referred to by Federated, offers a vital solution to independent wholesalers and retailers. Linke also helped lead over the last year introducing virtual trade shows to collaborate with partners and deliver products the safest, most efficient way possible.

Doug Baker, vice president, industry relations, FMI - The Food Industry Association
Doug Baker has been in the food retail industry for more than 30 years, but the COVID-19 pandemic brought on challenges he — and the rest of the industry — hadn’t seen coming. At the height of disruption, Baker and FMI pivoted to introduce an online format of the 2020 FMI Private Brands Summit + Business Conference Suites and focused on how to accelerate business recovery and stabilize issues during the pandemic.

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As the pandemic wore on, Baker saw private brands thrive but he warns to be cautious. “The rise in demand for private brands — in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic — has created a tipping point,” he said.

Baker’s work at FMI also has been featured in the Power of Private Brands series, the latest altering to focus on business opportunities around the pandemic, helping companies adjust. He’s also passionate about technology and what business can look like going forward and has implemented an FMI Talking Private Brands Series. Baker’s helping suppliers and retailers change the game.

Peggy Davies, president, Private Label Manufacturers Association
The Private Label Manufacturers Association had an especially difficult 2020. Not only did the COVID-19 pandemic cause the association to postpone its trade events, it lost a legend, when president Brian Sharoff passed away. Peggy Davies stepped in temporarily and then established herself as the new president, signing a three-year contract to remain in the role that she said has her looking forward, embracing an industry primed for growth.

Dennie Gordon wearing a purple shirt

“Significant sales growth of private label over several years has been well-documented in PLMA’s Private Label Yearbook, using syndicated data,” she said. “A number of chains that have highly developed private brands like Aldi, Costco and Trader Joe’s, and others are unreported. That means actual figures for sales and market share are likely considerably higher than the numbers that are widely quoted — currently about $160 billion in annual sales and 23% for market share across all major retail channels.”

She’s proud of helping to navigate the association and maintain an effective organization despite the pandemic, quickly reinventing programs online to serve members. This shouldn’t be a surprise, taking in Davies past accomplishments, that includes being a founder of the organization WISE (Women Impacting Storebrand Excellence), being one of the first-ever graduates of the private label executive program at the association and serving on the executive committee of the PLMA board of directors as well as chairing initiatives. Her work with the organization has been actively building out educational programs such as the latest PLMA Executive Education series, and bringing back the trade shows as safe in-person events.

In 2017, Davies also successfully launched University Outreach, a program that brings undergraduate students from universities across the country to the PLMA show to learn about the industry.

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Screenshot from LinkedIn

Elisabeth Galvin, founder and CEO, Stellar Snacks
Launched in 2019, Elisabeth Galvin founded one of the only pretzel manufacturers on the West Coast, Carson CIty, Nev., and is the only woman-owned factory baking pretzels — as well as roasting, blending and packing snack and nut mixes. Galvin in that short time began producing own brand product for some of the largest retailers in the world, the company said. Galvin’s quick success, according to Aidan McAuley, director of sales at Stellar Snacks, is an investment in state-of-the-art technology that has increased productivity and consistency in the products. “Elisabeth filled not only a geographic void for pretzels, but also raised the bar in terms of quality, taste,” McAuley said.

Derek Gaskins, chief marketing officer, Yesway
The idea of premium isn’t usually associated with a convenience store, but Yesway did it, offering more than 50 premium private brand SKUs under the Yesway brand and having them complement favorite private brand products from the recently acquired Allsup’s lineup — such as high quality milk, bread, eggs and foodservice items like the Allsup’s World Famous Burritos program.

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Combined, the store brands program continues to curry favor with consumers in the markets they operate, Gaskins said, all 402 stores across the Yesway and Allsup’s banners, and that loyalty was prevalent during the pandemic. “Our own brands products truly resonated and we were fortunate to have large package sizes of key products like beverages, snacks and grocery products to meet the shifting consumer needs,” he said.

Gaskins has been changing the game in the convenience industry for some time, also serving as chief customer officer for Rutter’s convenience stores, as senior vice president of marketing and merchandising, with Mid-Atlantic Convenience Stores, leading the development of the Circle K brand, and as vice president of marketing with NACS - The Association for Convenience and Fuel Retailing.


Albertsons’ Open Nature, Soleil
The Albertsons private brands division generated nearly $13 billion in sales in fiscal year 2019 and poised to do more, following the launch of 1,200 new own brand products in 2020, above its stated goal of 800.


The company prides itself on innovation and had two notable extensions in the last year elevating food and beverage. In Soleil, its sparkling water under its Signature Select brand, the company created a caffeinated version to stand out in the category and it just backed the brand with seriously creative marketing. Albertsons partnered with six world-renowned artists to relaunch 20 packaging redesigns and added four new flavors. What’s more, the brand was treated to three of its own Spotify music playlists as part of the #siptothebeat promotion and promoted on digital channels and social, including Buzzfeed, Instagram, Giphy Stickers and Pinterest.

In food, meeting the trend of eating more at home and making it easier, Albertsons introduced a 12-SKU Open Nature Savory Skillets program in October 2020. The products leverage a high-tech liquid nitrogen process to keep food at its peak of freshness unlike other freezing techniques, the company said. The program was originally conceived as a disruptive “scoop and weigh” bulk program, according to the company, allowing consumers to customize their purchase. With the onset of COVID, Albertsons pivoted to a 16-oz. retail bag but stayed innovative in merchandising the program in the fresh meat department rather than the frozen doors.

Amazon Aplenty
Amazon as a company is the embodiment of a game changer, from Amazon Go stores to the initial rollout of its Amazon Fresh stores, and just launched in April, the retailer introduced a highly anticipated private brand for its Amazon Fresh stores. Called Aplenty, the snacks and cookies brand focuses on big flavors and taste, the company said, rigorously taste-testing them and creating them from recipes rooted in high-quality ingredients. The company added that the items are backed with a money-back “Delicious Guarantee.” Items include twice-baked pita chips, Salted Caramel Chip Mini Cookies made with real butter and sugar, Cornbread Crackers, Honey Dijon Mustard with stone-ground mustard seed, and Pink Himalayan Sea Salt Kettle Cooked Potato Chips.


“As with all things at Amazon, we innovate on behalf of our customers across all of our businesses, and that includes the food category,” said an Amazon spokesperson. “We obsess over the things our customers care about like quality products and great selection. With Aplenty, we set out to create a delicious line of food products made from high-quality ingredients and cooking methods to deliver abundant flavor.”

Bed Bath & Beyond’s Simply Essential
Over the last several months, Bed Bath & Beyond has been debuting new owned brands as part of a larger retail transformation, ultimately bringing 10 new store brands to market into next year. But the Simply Essential brand stands out among the group as the home store’s way to bring in a new opening price point brand.

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“Historically, Bed Bath & Beyond had been benchmarked only against specialty and department store competitors, leaving a sizable segment of the population underserved and a massive gap in its product assortment at opening price points,” the company said. “To address this, the company instituted data-driven category line reviews, looked at its product assortment, customer data, and competitor pricing. The solution created from these data-driven line reviews is Simply Essential, an owned brand assortment that delivers hardworking products for value-conscious consumers that will shake up the private brand landscape.”

The line includes more than 1,200 SKUs across bedding, bath, kitchen and more. It’s a competitive pricing brand bringing new opening price points. For example, the company said in a category like kitchen gadgets — an area Bed Bath & Beyond had been missing out on — 50% of that market is priced below $5, whereas Simply Essential kitchen gadgets like ladles and spoons are priced as low as $1.

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Live Better by CVS Health
In June 2020, amid a COVID-19 pandemic that had customers much more in tune with proactive wellness, CVS debuted Live Better by CVS Health, a beautifully packaged line of products that “lifted the veil on products and ingredients,” the company said, by being more transparent around sourcing methods and health benefits on packaging — and making the vessels at least 80% recyclable. It’s a bold commitment, featuring more than 80 exclusive wellness products from sun care, baby care and herbal supplements, cold and flu, sleep aids and oral care, incorporating ingredients like ashwagandha, turmeric, saw palmetto, elderberry, and valerian root.

Kroger’s Simple Truth, Mythical Creature extension
Over the last 18 months, Kroger has put a huge focus on launching plant-based products, becoming a bonafide leader in the area. The inclusion of more than 50 new items last year under the Simple Truth line are just the beginning, too, expecting to build out a “robust pipeline for the next two to three years and beyond,” the company said.

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The brand mission offers a platform of completely dairy-free, egg-free, 100% vegan items, covering the basics such as meat alternatives, cheese alternatives, and yogurt-alternatives, while also incorporating indulgent, foodie-forward products like Oat Milk Frozen Dessert Pints, Vegan Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, Liquid Gold Queso, and Creamy Pourable Salad Dressings. Simple Truth Plant Based has also worked further into the pantry with Plant Based snacks, flours, pastas, and breakfast options.

Kroger said consumer insights demonstrated that a “vegan lifestyle” posed too pricey or lacked taste, so to make the line work, the grocery worked closely on each individual product to ensure the foods had mouthfeel and flavors that come as close to conventional items as technologically possible. In 2020, The Good Food Institute named Kroger tops in private label plant-based assortment.

Beyond the plant-based push, Kroger deserves a nod for its Mythical Creature Ice Cream, an assortment of unique and playful ice cream flavors that include Mermaid Sparkle, Unicorn Swirl and Dragon’s Dream. The line is a game changer in how Kroger Our Brands worked with corporate-owned dairy manufacturing facilities to produce and reproduce an fun, on-trend item at mass and fast.

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Target’s All in Motion
Along with eating more at home, work-from-home and workout-from-home became vital pandemic trends, and Target’s athleisure brand All in Motion, which launched ahead of the growing trend, was there to meet the increased consumer need. In fact, in the retailer’s Q1 2021 report, Target said its owned brands grew 36%, a record high for the retailer. The retailer also reported a 60% jump in its apparel sales for the quarter. All in Motion celebrated its first year earning more than $1 billion, expanding the line in January to exceed 700 items for men, women and children, with a focus on inclusivity.


Walmart’s Hart
In the early part of 2020, Walmart unveiled a brand-new tool line with more than 350 tools and products. The retailer worked with Techtronic Industries, or TTI, and added hundreds more products this year, venturing into vacuums and cleaning products. The innovation is the products are tied to a rechargeable battery system, but it’s also the retailer’s commitment to make this a DIY, cross-category brand to trust, and the retailer/supplier relationship.