With consumer spending power declining while cost prices rise, it takes a very special performance to win the approval of the leading grocery retail buyers. Nic Paton salutes the 39 winning suppliers in our 2011 survey

It’s very much the political phrase of the moment: “the squeezed middle”.

And as well as referring to hard-pressed consumers coping, it could just as easily be applied to suppliers who are caught between combative buyers who don’t want to give an inch on on-shelf pricing and their own soaring costs.

Yet, even in such a challenging retail environment, it is clear from The Grocer’s Supplier Survey 2011 that, in the best relationships, great customer service is hugely valued. The 39 winning suppliers selected across 18 categories were chosen by their harshest critics buyers from supermarkets, wholesalers and buying groups based on quality of produce, reliability of supply, category management and new product development.

And among the judges’ comments, key phrases kept being repeated, highlighting the importance of “reliability”, “availability” (particularly challenging last winter, of course), “flexibility”, “alignment”, “insight” and “dynamism”.

Conversations between buyers and suppliers continue to be “robust”, says Andrew Leydon, head of marketing at McBride’s, winner in the own-label household supplier category; but in a successful relationship, “you do have to have them,” adds Dennis Manley, commercial manager at Crown Chicken, winner in the own-label meat, fish and poultry category.

However, it’s not all about tough talking. The range of challenges facing buyers and suppliers means collaboration is much more important, argues Gary Miller, sales director at Müller Dairy, winner in the branded chilled and frozen desserts category.

“Retailers are looking for strategies that are ‘recession-proof’ in their quest to offer consumers value for money, so it’s a case of getting the balance right in terms of range and promotional activity,” he says.

In-store execution the “theatre” of the shop is one area where suppliers and buyers need to be working more collaboratively, suggests Colin Bebbington, UK sales director at Kellogg’s, winner in the branded cereals category.

“We have put vigorous effort into making sure our execution works well at an individual store level, from point-of-sale promotions and ensuring stocks are right and are there at the right time, to the display working and so on. It is getting the basics right so the buyers do not have to worry. Execution is the difference between those who perform and those who do not.”

The Grocer Gold Awards 2011

To be named category champion is a result in itself. But the winners of our Supplier Survey 2011 are also automatically shortlisted for the overall Branded and Own-Label Supplier of the Year awards at The Grocer Golds (above). Sponsored by News International and Reach, the sumptuous awards ceremony takes place at the Guildhall in London on 15 June and is one of THE highlights in the grocery calendar. For tickets and info go to thegrocer.co.uk/goldawards, or email grocergold@wrbm.com. The shortlist for the 23 other awards will be online next week.

Balancing the rising cost of commodities with retailers’ price aspirations is difficult but not impossible, says Austin Sugarman, MD of Fine Foods International, winner in the own-label hot beverages category.

“Consumers continue to trade down and there has been growth in standard own-label coffee, but there has also been growth at the premium own-label end. We have been developing more premium, single-origin coffees with retailers. Last May we did the first Rainforest Alliance-certified freeze-dried own-label coffee with Asda, for example. Consumers do not want to give up on quality completely.”

At Greencore, winner in the own-label bread and bakery category, premium own-label has enjoyed a similar boost, says commercial director Peter Hartshorn. “It is a balancing act, feeding commodity price hikes through on the shelf and taking it on the chin. But in an environment where Asda and Tesco are going toe-to-toe on price,” he adds, “that is where robust relationships and good business plans come into their own.”

Ian Anderson, marketing director at Nice-Pak International, notes an even more significant shift to premium own label in infant care.

“Through all the doom and gloom of the recession, it was as if the consumer had finally had enough of making sacrifices on products that affected their children and wanted to trade up actively to higher-spec products but at affordable prices.”

Among “hero” categories for brands is soft drinks, and once again Coca-Cola comes out top. Craig Smith, vice-president of marketing and strategic planning at Coca-Cola Enterprises, credits cross-category collaboration with the likes of Diageo.

“Category initiatives are vital, as are links with other suppliers,” he says. “But in the winter weather in January it was all about ensuring on-shelf availability was not affected. So it’s a mix.”

Most notably, the company even collaborated with PepsiCo-owned Walkers.

For a brand such as Diageo, winner in the branded alcoholic drinks category, the potential of category extensions such as pre-mixers “is massively exciting”, says sales director David Smith, with the pre-mix cans segment up 40% and now the fastest-growing segment in the spirits sector.

“Pre-mixers have been taking spirits into a whole new domain. It is getting spirits at a more accessible price point, as well as getting them into the fridge and so increasing the frequency of consumption, making it more like beer or wine,” he says.

Overall, however, for most suppliers there is little sign things are going to get any easier this year; but then, getting to the top of the class and staying there is never easy.

The winners


Branded winner: Diageo
What buyers said: “Proactively worked to drive sales and distribution of its portfolio to a wide variety of customer types.” “It has signed up to a growth agenda and is delivering against it.” “Demonstrated a step change in its customer-focused approach.” “First to market on products or initiatives on spirits.” “Shows flexibility, customer service, insight and dynamism.”
What the company says: “It comes down to the overall approach as well as specific initiatives. We have a very clear strategy for growth, focused on category growth and innovation, and based on our customer needs.”

Own-label winner: Halewood
What buyers said: “It has worked to ensure greater availability at all times and proactively delivered new pack designs and formats to keep costs down without affecting the quality of the liquid.” “A collaborative approach to development and exceptional service.”
What the company says: “In the past 12 months we’ve faced increased competition. We’ve managed to meet these challenges head on by retaining our ‘think big’ attitude and entrepreneurial spirit to continually produce products that retailers and consumers can genuinely benefit from. We strive to work closely with all our customers, providing them with own-label and NPD solutions.”


Branded winner: Unilever
What buyers said: “Responsive, progressive category champions. It has a collaborative approach and is willing to support new products with investment at point of sale, tastings, articles and so on. A high level of account management.”
What the company says: “Pot Noodle GTi was launched into the UK market in September 2010. A revved up range of new microwaveable meals offering everything a standard Pot Noodle does but better it delivers an instant taste hit in a meal-sized portion. Now we are gearing up for an exciting year ahead with the ambition to be the standout food and drink brand, marketing to youth.”

Own-label winner: Premier Foods
What buyers said: “Premier Foods should be congratulated for its outstanding account management, with primary contacts given real autonomy within the business, and for being open to new ideas and keen to trial initiatives and apply learnings.”
What the company says: “Premier Foods believes in working in partnership with its retailers, operating joint business plans with many accounts to drive mutual profitable growth. With strong account management teams across all channels, we are delighted that our customers recognise our capabilities and commitment.”

Biscuits & cakes

Branded winner: Burton’s Foods
What the buyers said: “Great price-marked NPD and great support for retailers and consumer promotions.” “Product innovation, including the new Cadbury’s Dual Biscuits, has been second to none.” “It ticks most of the boxes, particularly when it comes to NPD.”
What the company says: “Our renewed focus on NPD is really what has put Burton’s Foods at the forefront of biscuit innovation, with exciting product lines such as the Cadbury Biscuit range testament to our commitment to meeting consumers’ needs in compelling new ways and to adding excitement to the biscuit aisle. Our focus is on power brands and adding value to our customer and consumers driving the business and the market forward.”

Own-label winner: United Biscuits
What the buyers said: “Consistent quality, with availability maintained to the best of its ability through a tough period.” “Consistency of quality and service is excellent.” “Innovative, quality and competitive products.”
What the company says: “We’re incredibly proud of our product quality and believe we have the best-tasting private-label biscuits, snacks and nuts on the market. Repeatedly positive customer feedback and quality reviews confirm this. It’s through product quality, expertise in our factories and the knowledge and service provided by our own-label teams in the UK and Northern Europe that own label in UB is seeing significant success and growth.”

Bread & bakery

Branded winner: Allied Bakeries
What buyers said: “Excellent NPD, reliable supply and meticulous attention to detail make Allied Bakeries the natural choice for this category.”
What the company says: “Shopper insights lie at the heart of our NPD and engaging with consumers on this level has resulted in the successful launch of nine market firsts. It’s clear from the success of new products in 2010, such as Little Big Loaf and Oatilicious, that consumption-led strategies through our category understanding is one key area that is driving the success of the business. We also pay a great deal of attention to our supply chain capability and believe this allows us to deliver our customers great-quality fresh bread every day.”

Own-label winner: Greencore
What the buyers said: “It offers great service, delivers on time and reacts proactively to pressing issues.” “Greencore is driving particularly strong growth in celebration cakes and is extending market share.”
What the company says: “We’ve focused this year on ensuring we have strong joint business plans in place. These are aligned with our customers and we have tangible milestones in place for new product development, service or whatever.”


Branded winner: Kellogg’s
What the buyers said: “In a tough market, Kellogg’s has continued to support the category with promotions and consumer-driven activity.” “It has strong promotional plans and effective marketing.” “Kellogg’s has worked hard to develop collaborative relationships and has an in-depth understanding of our business.”
What the company says: “Krave launched in July last year, has been a huge success. It’s been very strong through the major multiples and has received very positive feedback. It’s targeted at people older teenagers and 20-somethings who tend to drop out of cereals. So it’s been growing the category. We’ve also put efforts simply into ensuring execution works well at individual store level.”

Own-label winner: Nestlé Cereal Partners
What the buyers said: “Nestlé offers collaborative working relationship. It is flexible and aligned to our goals. It is also passionate about food quality and is working hard to move perceptions of own-label cereals.”
What the company says: “Our strategy has always been to produce cereals that match the brand leader. However, our consumer research often shows that we exceed this expectation. Taste and quality are at the heart of our service, and reformulation to continually improve the products is delivered with a dedicated team focused on outstanding customer brands.”


Joint branded winners: Kepak, Daniels Foods
What buyers said: Kepak: “Great new product development with good above-the-line support, and an excellent promotional package.” “It continues to innovate within a narrow market.” Daniels Foods: “The execution of its promotions and service is second to none in this category.”
What the companies say: Kepak: “Innovation is very important. We deliver hardworking, easy-to-trial NPD such as Rustlers Hot Tubs and now Hot Wraps.” Daniels Foods: “Our operations functions and commercial functions work very closely together. One thing we feel we do very well is collaboration on data sharing.”

Own-label winner: Greencore
What buyers said: “They have a proactive approach to quality and new product development improvements across ready meals, soups and sandwiches. “
What the company says: “Customer relationships are critical. We structure our individual category teams to give us really good consumer insight and knowledge, and through that we can give tailored solutions for our customers. We also understand that innovation is an important part of what our customers expect us to supply.”


Branded winner: Cadbury
What the buyers said: “Cadbury is a long-term partner and the company is hugely collaborative.” “Great NPD and a shared agenda.” “Great forward thinking on planning for the Olympics.”
What the company says: “We made some exciting developments within singles, sharing, sugar, hot beverages, mints and gum and over-the-counter in 2010, which contributed to strong sales. NPD highlights include the introduction of Cadbury Dairy Milk Bliss and the addition of Crunchie Rocks to the bitesize portfolio. The biggest campaign of the year was Spots v Stripes with an investment of £14m in 2010 alone.”

Own-label winner: Glisten
Wthat the buyers said: “Innovative in product and account management.” “Collaborative, good NPD and consistent quality and service.”
What the company says: “For more than 100 years Glisten Confectionery has been manufacturing quality confectionery in the UK. Our history is filled with sweet success and in the past few years it has grown in line with the popularity of our brands and the appeal of our traditional and contemporary confectionery.”

Crisps, nuts & snacks

Branded winner: Walkers
What buyers said: “Walkers has been driving NPD through exclusive lines, in-store execution and strong category support.” “It continually innovates to drive consumer interest in the category and contributes significantly to category growth.” “Very professional.”
What the company says: “There’s a real sense of momentum in the category, so our sales team will be thrilled by this recognition. We have worked in partnership with our customers to deliver exciting NPD in-store for consumers, such as the launch of Walkers Extra Crunchy which is currently back on TV alongside on-pack campaigns including Rainy Days and more recently Clash of the Comics.”

Own-label winner: Tayto
What the buyers said: “Produces the right product for our consumer base to high standards.” “Thorough, creative and professional.”
What the company says: “Through working integrally with retailers to understand their shopper needs, we’ve jointly brought products to shelf, ensuring great flavour delivery that meets consumer expectations in today’s marketplace. Value for money has continued to be of major importance to shoppers. With this in mind, we have striven to deliver products that offer the flavour, texture and quality of a leading brand but at a more economic price point. “


Branded winner: Arla
What the buyers said: “Growing brands, good support, good understanding of our business.” “Strong promotional schedule.”
What the company says: “We’ve managed to achieve double-digit growth within all our brands Lurpak, Cravendale, Anchor and so on in large part through the quality of our advertising campaigns but also through our NPD. The key has been activity that adds to the category. For example, our Starbucks Discoveries range of iced coffees launched last spring has created a whole new customer base for that product and is now being joined by a Frappuccino variant.”

Own-label winner: Milk Link
What the buyers said: “We have worked with Milk Link (The Cheese Company) for a number of years, developing our own-label ranges within both retail and catering.” “It has supported change and innovation within the category, delivering great results.”
What the company says: “For Milk Link the key to building strong relationships with our customers is having the ability to understand their needs (and those of their consumers), and then providing the necessary category insights, range of products and packaging formats, and service levels to meet them.”

Desserts (chilled & frozen)

Branded winner: Müller Dairy
What the buyers said: “Its promotional strategy has benefited the category hugely.” “The company works closely with us on trialling promotional offers and SKUs.”
What the company says: “We’ve approached category and industry issues by taking a collaborative approach with customers and over the past year have focused on four key areas: getting the basics right; tailoring our channel strategy; making promotions work harder; and maximising the potential of the Müller brand portfolio with effective marketing support and the launch of innovative new lines such as the Corner Greek Style Yogurts, Mini Müller Rice Pots and Müllerlight Yogurt Inspired By desserts range.”

Joint own-label winners: Uniq, Coppenrath & Wiese
What the buyers said: Uniq: “Uniq offers excellent supply and availability of key own-label lines, especially on high-profile promotions and during the Christmas period.” Coppenrath & Wiese: “Brilliant account management directional and empowered.” “Significant investment in plant and people.”
What the companies say: Uniq: “The key to our success is coming up with innovation to grow the category and doing a great job, day in, day out.” Coppenrath & Wiese: “We maintain a daily dialogue with buyers and the supply chain to make sure we get the deliveries through.”


Branded winner: Birds Eye
What the buyers said: “Total collaboration in all initiatives.” “Good above and below-the-line support and a good understanding of our business.”
What the company says: “It’s one of our primary missions at Birds Eye to continue dispelling the myths that have built up around frozen food and to effectively educate consumers on the benefits that the category can provide, such as convenience, less wastage and freshness. We activate this and drive all-important footfall into the aisle through our ongoing, impactful advertising, most recently featuring our straight-talking polar bear, as well as through a raft of quality NPD based on real consumer insight.”

Own-label winner: R&R
What the buyers said: “First to market.” “Efficient, extremely proactive and really focused on driving projects forward.” “Responsive to demands and solution-driven.”
What the company says: “We’ve had a strong focus on NPD, for example launching a successful Ben & Jerry’s-style premium range under Asda’s Loaded brand in March last year. We’ve redesigned some of our packaging and aimed to be flexible around our formats. It’s about developing the right value offer for each retailer.”

Hot beverages

Branded winner: Kraft
What the buyers said: “Innovation in packs and approach to business model.” “Willing to try a number of different things to drive sales and business.”
What the company says: “Over the past two years, Kenco has made great strides towards transforming the coffee category with its innovative NPD, from sourcing all of its beans from Rainforest Alliance-certified farms to Kenco Eco Refills, with 97% less packaging weight, and its first Whole Bean Instant product, Kenco Millicano.”

Own-label winner: Fine Foods International
What the buyers said: “Great support.” “Excellent product quality and service levels.” “Very supportive in development of the category.”
What the company says: “We have been developing more premium, single-origin coffees with retailers. For example, we recently launched the first Rainforest Alliance-certified freeze-dried own-label coffee with Asda. Consumers continue to trade down and away from brands but they still want quality they are looking for better quality as well as better value from own label now.”


Branded winner: P&G
What the buyers said: “Chosen because of its NPD, eventing strategy and account management.” “Collaborative approach and clear understanding of and support for our growth strategy.” “Provides deep-cut deals and supports us with regular promotions.”
What the company says: “Both laundry and household categories have been strong drivers of growth for us again this year. In laundry, we’ve followed the hugely successful Ariel Excel Gel launch in 2009 with the rollout of our Actilift stain treatment technology across the full Ariel range. Actilift has been an important innovation on the brand as it delivers outstanding new levels of performance across all the Ariel range.”

Own-label winner: Mcbride
What the buyers said: “Worked hard in development of own-label strategy.” “Has brought genuine innovation to the household category.”
What the company says: “Historically within private label this category has tended to be focused on propositions as close to their branded equivalent as possible. But this has been starting to change and the focus is now more around generating unique solutions for retailers that can compete with the brands.”

Infant care

Branded winner: P&G
What the buyers said: “Its shopper-based design function has helped hugely in the range review work.”
What the company says: “Pampers is our biggest brand globally and we launched a number of exciting new products in the past year that have helped grow it from strength to strength and maintained strong category leadership. Following the launch of Pampers Simply Dry, we then brought our breakthrough DryMax technology to the premium end of the market.”

Own-label winner: Nice-Pak
What the buyers said: “It’s an extremely reliable supplier that is delivering good quality and a first-class service.”
What the company says: “There’s been an enormous push to help our customers raise the quality and desirability of their product ranges. We’ve striven to be as responsive as possible and offer rapid speed to market on new ideas and innovation. We have coupled a deep understanding of the shopper with an unrivalled expertise in product development, which has helped our customers to grow their sales and profitability.”

Meat, fish, poultry

Branded winner: Young’s
What buyers said: “The promotions and range available from Young’s are excellent.”
What the company says: “We are trying to inspire people to eat fish more often twice a week by offering a wider variety of responsibly sourced fish, and fish recipes. Innovation will be a key driver and true category management, together with our retailers, will be a key enabler.”

Own-label winner: Crown Chicken
What buyers said: “A prime example of a first-class product, which should be sold under our brand. Excellent service.”
What the company says: “Availability remains a key factor. We have achieved near-as-dammit 100% availability on all major accounts all year. There has been major cost inflation for everybody, but chicken is still one of the cheapest proteins on the market. It does still offer value on the shelf.”

Personal care

Branded winner: P&G
What buyers said: “P&G offers a commercially viable product for both parties in a category where price point would normally prohibit this.” “NPD, eventing strategy and account management are all excellent.”
What the company says: “The biggest launch of the year for us in this category has been Gillette Fusion ProGlide. Fusion ProGlide was already the number one razor in the US and we saw unprecedented retail support behind the launch in the UK. It’s now the number-one razor in the UK as well. In haircare we’ve launched new ranges on Pantene, Herbal Essences and Head & Shoulders with heavyweight marketing in and out of stores to back it up. Also, Olay Regenerist has been a huge success.”

Joint own-label winners: Mercona, Toiletry Sales
What buyers said: Mercona: “Good strategic alignment. Real drive for sales. Good availability and resource on supply. A great category team.” Toiletry Sales: “Reliable supply, good quality products and a first-class service.” What the companies say: Mercona: “Working in conjunction with major UK and Northern European retailers, we are committed to developing the best-possible products to compete in increasingly competitive categories.” Toiletry Sales: “The development of specifications to meet our customers’ needs is at the very heart of our business.”


Branded winner: Purina
What buyers said: “Tremendous support for the category, via promotions and consumer-led activity, not least providing range and merchandising support.” “Great maturity and patience.”
What the company says: “As petcare is a category that can drive an overall higher grocery basket spend, getting the offer right can add real value for retailers. As a company we’re committed to helping pets live happier, healthier and longer lives, and by working closely with retailers we’re able to provide the best-quality products to our consumers. By creating an environment where real teamwork and expertise are an important means, we’re able to provide solutions to our partners that make a difference.”

Own-label winner: C&D
What buyers said: “It could have gone under in 2005 when its plant was destroyed. But we and a handful of retailers stuck with the company and it repaid our loyalty by becoming our leading own-label supplier. Best people on the account.” “Excellent management of bringing in our new design.”
What the company says: “The secret is simply in how we approach our business and talk to our customers. It’s about being proactive and treating our business with them as if they were brands. We have what you might term a branded approach to own label. We work closely on NPD and launch plans and continue to invest in newer and ever more up-to-date processes.”

Soft drinks

Branded winner: Coca-Cola Enterprises
What buyers said: “Provided layout review support and category information for the benefit of total soft drinks. A strong approach to business and a willingness to take a total view of new ideas within the business. As ever, the epitome of professionalism.”
What the company says: “We’re really pleased with performance in what has been probably the fastest-growing fmcg category in 2010. There’s been some price taking, but the improvement in the mix of the category has been encouraging. The growth in more valuable segments energy, sports, on-the-go packs and so on has been good.”

Own-label winner: Cott Beverages
What buyers said: “Consistently strong availability. It invested resource into the account and continues to provide products of the highest quality. It’s flexible when it comes to developing NPD. It is committed to keeping costs down and is always looking for ways to improve product and process. A great growth agenda, exceeding and beating deadlines, with a can-do culture.”
What the company says: “We focus on doing the basics really well for our customers every day to deliver great products for our shoppers. Success in own-label soft drinks requires a strong focus on quality delivered at best cost.”