Culinary-style butters, including seasoned butter buttons and compound butters from M.A.D. Foods, are part of the gourmet private label trend.
With a theme of “The Store Brands Phenomenon”, the Private Label Manufacturers Association (PLMA) kicked off its annual private label trade show this week, running Nov. 12-14 at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, Ill., near Chicago. It’s no small descriptor, but the sector has lived up to the title hype: PLMA cited recent research by Circana showing that store brand dollar sales rose 5.9% during the first nine months of this year, outpacing the 4.3% growth of national brands, and are on track to hit $233 billion in 2023.
The busy show floor was a testament to the dynamic in the private label industry, as consumers are on a simultaneous quest for quality, innovation and value. During a breakfast keynote address on Nov. 13, IGA, Inc. president and CEO John Ross reinforced what many manufacturers, retailers and consumers have realized over the past few years. "I think the phrase ‘national brand equivalent’ needs to disappear because what I see is (manufacturers) beginning to lead and to innovate, creating new opportunities for us to think about how we serve the customer and how that is great for our customers, great for our retailers and great for this industry," he declared.
Ross emphasized the importance of improving access to fresh, healthy foods through store brand offerings at both chain and independent grocery stores, which represent a third of grocery destinations. “It's making sure that those marginal middle class Americans, the people that are underserved this country, continue to survive and thrive and feed their family in ways that makes it all work. And in the long-term application, great food provided at a fair cost,” he said.
On that note, many exhibitors at this year’s PLMA event shared the ways in which they are improving food security and, in a broader sense, making the world a better place. Some vendors shared details about their hunger relief efforts, while others spotlighted their commitment to improving health and wellness through donations to cancer research. Information about sustainable sourcing, fair trade and eco-friendly manufacturing practices was also prominent.
Other trends spotted on the exhibit floor illustrated different facets of the store brand phenomenon. While plant-based products were front and center over the last few years at this and other trade shows, those items were seemingly less dominant this time around.
Below are some key takeaways from the 2023 PLMA show.
Big Flavor, New Formats
Consumers’ penchant for cooking at home – projected to continue in 2024 – is evident in a spate of products available to store brands. For instance, butter isn’t just butter – it’s compound butters in black truffle and red wine and shallot flavors or and tubes to make butter buttons to accompany fresh proteins in a value-added package.
“The butters you see here are very much associated with meat. The (flavored) butter does all of the work for you,” said Amy Farges, director of marketing at M.A.D. Foods and the AuxDélices des Bois brand.
Another example was a line of microwavable 7” pizzas from Lucia's Pizza, available in varieties like chicken tikka masala, red hot chicken and gyro and a soon-to-debut breakfast pizza portfolio. VP of product development noted that even the crust is authentic, with masa crust used for Hispanic-inspired pizzas “We're customizing the flavors for the demographics,” he told Progressive Grocer. “The biggest South Korean population is in Los Angeles County, so we’re doing South Korean barbecue pizza for retailers there. Also, the three biggest halal areas in the country are Philadelphia, Detroit and Texas, and we’re coming up with some for those markets.”
As evident in the PLMA show’s Idea Supermarket, seasonal offerings from store brands are also catching on, including boldly flavored foods for the fall and holidays.
Intensenly flavored spices and other seasonings, like a lower-sodium Microsalt, underscored shoppers' interest in flavor.
Flavor Delivery on the Way
The focus on flavor is also apparent in the many spices, seasonings, dips and sauces on display at PLMA’s event, from Microsalt made with 50% less sodium to porcini shiitake alfredo sauce from BC Gourmet USA’s Sauces ‘N Love line to a Mediterranean beet dip made with beets, za’atar and medjoool dates from Haig’s Delicacies, to name a few.
At The Nutmeg Spice Co. booth, owner Dave Barrett said that home cooks are looking for authentic, value-priced blends. “We try to keep on top of trends. The Mexican Street Corn seasoning was big this year, along with Everything Bagel, Totally Guacamole and other various varieties of fun barbecue seasonings,” he reported.
Refrigerated and frozen entrees are already sold under many retail store brands, of course, but the PLMA show included new offerings that take it to another level. As barbecue remains popular, Smokin’ Joe’s BBQ showcased its Hardwood Smoked pork belly burnt ends, while the appeal of restaurant-quality sushi was brought to life by Hot Maki, which shared samples its frozen rice bowl-in-a-roll products. Other examples include Chicken Shawarma Poutine from Delcato and Organic Chicken Lasagna from Culinevo Kitchen.
To the Dogs
Pet parents are a big audience for store brands, and many pet food companies highlighted their foods and treats that go well beyond basic kibble and bones. One example was a line of artisanal pet food from Howl & Roar, including bottled bone broth and ready-to-eat chicken casserole.
Across the exhibit halls, Ross’ point about private label offerings standing on their own was borne out in the package design examples shared by store brands. In addition to elevated aesthetics, store brand packaging is increasingly sustainable, too. The PLMA Idea Supermarket and Salute to Excellence Awards display likewise included items that stood out for the packaging as well as the content, such as Hy-Vee’s Very Bellissima beauty line, Giant Eagle’s redesigned Market District collection and an “Instagrammable” assortment from the Dutch online retailer Picnic.