As part of our dedicated Private Label Issue, ESM spoke to industry leaders at a number of retailers across Europe about the innovations that they are bringing to the table, and why they believe that private label can be a kingmaker in a changing retail landscape. This article first appeared in ESM May/June 2022.
Michelle Rowley, Head of Own Label Product Development, Co-op (UK)
Do you think that consumer preference for private labels increased during the pandemic?
The pandemic drove a variety of shopping behaviours, which kept retailers on their toes. Our overwhelming desire was to keep the nation fed, and it is something that, as a business, we are really proud we were able to do. Particularly during lockdown, our presence as a convenience retailer in every postal area of the UK enabled us to provide great-quality, good-value products within walking distance of most people’s homes.
It’s fair to say that during the earlier days of the pandemic, the growth of branded products exceeded the growth of own-label products, however, as we move out of the pandemic, we’re seeing early evidence that favour may be shifting to private label, where the overall market is showing share in the past month has stepped up to 51% of overall grocery spend.
At Co-op, I am proud of the principles we stick to when creating our own-label food products, which I truly believe, increasingly, makes the customer choice for own-label easier.
The retail sector has had to deal with significant food price inflation in recent months. How have you had to adapt your private-label range to accommodate these cost increases?
We’re focused on doing right by our customers and working with our suppliers and supporting our farmers. Whilst price rises are inevitable, we will always continue to explore ways to mitigate this for consumers. Our own label provides us with a great opportunity to provide a strong range of products that meet our convenience customer needs, using our ethical and responsible sourcing principles to ensure quality products that provide excellent value for money.
A more recent sub-brand launch for us was our Honest Value range, which launched in our stores in Q4 2020 and Q1 2021, where we are investing £8.7 million [€10.5 million] across 102 products. The range gives our customers and members the chance to purchase great-value everyday products at great low prices.
How have you sought to improve the ‘eco’ credentials of your private-label offering, given increased demand for sustainable options?
Our stated focus, as a business, is to ‘Co-operate for a Fairer World’, and facing directly into the climate crisis is something we are absolutely undertaking. In May 2021, we launched our Ten-Point Climate Plan, which contained ten significant commitments, not least of which is our ambition to be the world’s first food retailer to produce carbon-neutral own-brand food and drink by 2025. We are well on track to achieve this, alongside the slightly longer-term goal of reaching net zero by 2040.
We have had a laser-like focus on plastic reduction in our own-brand packaging, and I am pleased to say that all Co-op own-brand food packaging can now be recycled, be that through kerbside collections or our in-store soft-plastic recycling collection points, which we launched last year, into over 2,400 of our stores.
What has been the biggest private-label innovation at your company over the past year? Are there any new-product launches that have proved particularly successful?
My intention is to continually create and serve to our customers an impactful, celebrated own-brand convenience range that they can trust to provide great quality and value. My own department is called the Delicious Food Team, and we do what the name suggests!
A recent launch that made a huge impact was our plant-based range, called GRO. GRO was launched just before lockdown and became one of the fastest-growing plant-based ranges in its first year of launch. There are products across fresh, frozen and ambient, which appeal not only to vegans, but also those following a vegetarian and flexitarian diet.
We are also famous for our ‘Irresistible’ pizzas, which, at the time of launch in 2019, were one of the only truly authentic sourdough pizzas on the market, exclusively using a 75-year-old mother dough from Puglia in our bases.