Teaming up to help the consumer

Lawrence Aylward
Editor In Chief
Lawrence Aylward profile picture
Metro’s private brands team is led by (left to right) Marie Horodecki-Aymes, Marie-France Gibson, Paula Deane and Annie St-Laurent. Their goal is to increase Metro’s sales of private brands by 4 percent in the next two years.

In a center-store aisle at a Metro supermarket in Montreal, four women gather around a shopping cart full of Metro’s private brand products. The women — Marie-France Gibson, Paula Deane, Marie Horodecki-Aymes and Annie St-Laurent — are assembled in the store on this late summer morning for a photo shoot and to be interviewed for this story.

With the women gathered around the cart of products, the photographer aims his camera and snaps away. The women are all smiles, enjoying the occasion. They laugh and joke. Clearly, they appreciate each other’s company.

The women are the leaders of the private brands team for Montreal-based Metro, which operates several banners in the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario. Gibson, Metro’s vice president of corporate brands, leads the team; Deane is the director of product development for private brands; Horodecki-Aymes is director of design and packaging for private brands; and St-Laurent is director of business development and negotiation for private brands. Together, they make the strategic decisions regarding Metro’s store brands.

The fact that four women head the private brands team for one of Canada’s leading grocers is a victory for gender equality. But Gibson, Deane, Horodecki-Aymes and St-Laurent don’t flaunt that fact. If they are singularly or collectively proud of it — and they should be — they never let on.

Their goal as professionals is simple: They are on an infinite quest to grow Metro’s private brands program with quality products that Canadian consumers will embrace and enjoy. To achieve a successful private brands program, they know they must bond, whether they’re in a high-level business meeting or yakking it up during a photo shoot. They need each other, even if they don’t always see eye to eye.

“We’re all different, and sometimes we don’t agree with each other,” Horodecki-Aymes says. “But we always find ways to achieve the best results possible.”

Horodecki-Aymes says this in the presence of her co-workers, who couldn’t agree more with her words.

“We are honest with each other,” St-Laurent adds. “We challenge each other, but in the end we need to find solutions together.”

Deane doesn’t take her relationships with Gibson, Horodecki-Aymes and St-Laurent for granted.

“You don’t see this in all organizations,” Deane says of their rapport. “And that’s what makes this team really strong. We have strong opinions about things, yet we are respectful of each other’s opinions. I really appreciate the opportunity to work with everybody.”

Moving the needle
Gibson, Deane, Horodecki-Aymes and St-Laurent know how important it is to be in sync because they have some major goals in front of them. One is to increase Metro’s sales of private brands by 4 percent in the next two years. To do that, Gibson says Metro’s private brand team will need to innovate and execute.

“Within our private label team, innovative ideas are welcome,” she adds. “They can come from all members. But we need to execute them. That is the key to success.”

Metro, which began in 1947, is the third-largest grocer in Canada after Loblaws and Sobeys. With annual sales of about $16 billion, Metro operates more than 600 grocery stores under several banners, including Metro, Metro Plus, Super C and Food Basics, as well as about 700 drugstores under the Jean Coutu, Brunet, Metro Pharmacy and Drug Basics banners. Metro and Metro Plus comprise 333 of the grocers. Metro’s private brands are sold throughout its banners, but the company wouldn’t disclose sales figures.

Metro offers several tiers of private brands under its Selection and Irresistibles lines. Selection is Metro’s national brand equivalent line and includes more than 2,500 grocery products. It’s the retailer’s largest-selling private brand. Under the line, Metro also offers Selection Eco, a line of eco-friendly household and cleaning products.

Irresistibles is Metro’s upscale line and features premium and exclusive food, beverage and non-food products. The line has grown over the years and now has several extensions, including Irresistibles Organics, Irresistibles Gluten-Free, Irresistibles Artisan (premium deli meats and premium bakery) and Irresistibles Life Smart (lower salt, sugar and fat, and vitamin-enriched). Last year, Metro launched Irresistibles Naturalia, featuring products like all-natural peanut butter and grain-fed chicken that are free from artificial and synthetic ingredients. Overall, Metro offers more than 1,500 products in the Irresistibles line.

When Gibson began with Metro nine years ago, she focused on improving category management for Metro’s store brands to improve growth opportunities through proper shelving, promotion and pricing. She knew the success of Metro’s private brands hinged on studying and surveying each category, and finding out what tier or tiers of Metro’s private brands made the best sense for each category. It’s a constant process.

“We want to make sure our brands stand out,” Gibson says.

Metro is careful to only introduce private brands that will make a difference in categories and drive clients to its stores, Gibson stresses. Too many new products could reduce overall impact. In essence, less is best.

“Our private brands really need to perk up [categories], so we have to be more sensible [with product introductions],” Gibson says.

Because its volume and scale are smaller than other retailers in the Canadian market, Gibson says Metro must negotiate more smartly with suppliers. Metro sources most of its private brands from Canadian suppliers because the Canadian dollar is weak compared to the U.S. dollar and euro. But for some categories, including cheese, bakery, sauces, chocolates and olive oil, Metro will import products from suppliers with stellar reputations for manufacturing those products.

Playing to its strengths
With Selection, Metro has worked to develop strong price points while improving product quality, Gibson says.

“This gives us true differentiation,” she adds. “And now we’re trying to build even more value by offering items with more count, like bigger packs, and more significant in-and-outs for different times of year.”

Gibson and the team are excited about the growth potential of Irresistibles. Sales for the line, including its extensions, are up 15 percent in 2018, she says.

Metro is accentuating Irresistibles because more Canadians want premium private brand products, Gibson says. The line is also where Metro can differentiate most with exclusive items to maintain shopper loyalty. Consider new products like Irresistibles green tea and white chocolaty coated ice cream bars and Irresistibles Naturalia coconut flakes and hemp seeds granola, both which recently received top honors in the Private Label Manufacturing Association’s 2018 Salute to Excellence Awards.

In creating new products for Irresistibles, Deane says the strategy is more about than just honing in on trends to create a cutting-edge and dynamic product. “You always have to find the balance between something that is trendy but something that will also resonate with consumers and sell,” she adds.

Deane knew that Naturalia coconut flakes and hemp seeds granola was a winning combination of ingredients. First, it was granola, a product of which consumers are familiar. Second, it featured coconut, an ingredient that continues to gain popularity. And, third, it includes hemp seed, an ingredient that consumers are hearing more about because of its health benefits.

“It’s about taking something recognizable by the consumer and taking it to the next level,” Deane says of the product. “It fills consumers’ wants and needs for something different.”

The good news for Metro and other Canadian retailers of private brands is that private brands continue to grow in sales among Canadian grocers, and consumers are willing to pay more for them, which bodes well for premium products. According to market researcher Nielsen, market share of private brands has grown consistently the past five years. Retail sales of private brands in Canada were $14.4 billion in 2017 with a dollar share of 18.6 percent.

“But when we convert to volume or consumption, that share jumps to 23.6 percent: Basically almost one quarter of what we consume is a private label product,” Carman Allison, vice president of consumer insights at Nielsen Canada, told Canadian Grocer, Store Brands’ sister publication, earlier this year.

“Canadians share very positive attitudes toward private label,” Allison adds. “When we asked consumers if private label is a good alternative to national brands, 70 percent responded positively. We also found high scores for equal quality (63 percent), good value (62 percent), and 34 percent of us are willing to pay more for our favorite private label brand.”

Consumers’ willingness to pay more enables retailers to introduce more premium offerings, which is what Metro is doing in grocery and fresh. In the latter, Metro is known for its meat and seafood, especially its kebobs, which the supermarket offers in beef, chicken and lamb varieties with myriad on-trend flavors.

Consumer demand for organics and natural products continues to increase in Canada, and Metro realizes the opportunity to grow sales in those categories in fresh through Irresistibles Organics and Irresistibles Naturalia.

“The fresh department is going to give [our organic and natural private brands] a big lift,” Gibson says.

Deane, who has spent her entire 15-year career in private brands, says “now” is one of the most exciting times she has ever experienced in the industry. Not only are consumers more accepting of private brands, but they are embracing premium products.

“Consumers see that we are offering them innovative products,” she says. “It’s a great opportunity for us. Our customers will drive to our stores to buy those particular products because they know the quality is there.”

On the packaging side, Horodecki-Aymes also strives for innovation and differentiation. When she arrived at Metro about six years ago, Horodecki-Aymes didn’t seek immediate and drastic changes to packaging, which she says could’ve confused customers. She takes a methodical approach, making small changes at a time. She knows the impact that subtle but powerful packaging can have on products, from colors to enticing product photos to taglines that utilize personalization. For instance, the tagline on Irresistibles Naturalia reads, “Nature in your kitchen,” which speaks directly to consumers.

Horodecki-Aymes also knows the importance of utility in packaging. It was her idea for Metro to introduce a limited-edition glow-in-the-dark box for facial tissues as a private brand so consumers could locate the tissue box in the dark.

“It’s about providing our customers with simple and useful solutions,” Horodecki-Aymes says.

For Gibson, Deane, Horodecki-Aymes and St-Laurent, it will always be about that — working together to appease Metro’s customers.