A competitive own-label range is becoming ever more crucial to the success of the supermarkets – and women are playing an ever greater role. We meet the big hitters

Own label is on the march. And that makes the work of women such as Sam Dickson, VP of commercial strategy, operations & own brand at Asda, more vital than ever.

“My role leading our own brands became essential for Asda to support our customers,” she tells The Grocer. “I re-prioritised our entire workload to fast-track the launch and extension of our Just Essentials brand. This became a brand that customers relied heavily on, and they still do now.”

The rise of Just Essentials – a budget-focused range that immediately pushed up Asda’s sales when launched in 2022 – shows just how important own label has become. And that’s not just the value tier either.

At a total level, own label value sales grew 11.8% last year, outpacing the 6.4% value growth registered across total grocery [NIQ 52 w/e 9 September 2023]. What’s more, while unit sales dipped by 3.4% across grocery, 15 own-label categories mustered double-digit volume growth.

“Keeping customers at the heart of our product creation is critical”

Waitrose own brand director Maddy Wilson

Waitrose own brand director Maddy Wilson says the changing economic climate has made jobs like hers vital. “The cost of living crisis has put a greater focus on own-label products, as people look for ways to make their money go further, so every decision we make is magnified,” she says. “Keeping customers at the heart of our product creation and decision-making is critical.”

As women, Wilson and Dickson have a certain advantage in understanding those customers. That’s because women still do the majority of grocery shopping.

According to a Statista survey of 5,936 over-16s, 56% of women did “all or most” of the food shopping for their household in 2020, compared with 26% of men.

“I think that ability to really put themselves in the shoppers’ shoes and innovate well does help,” says Thea Alexander, CEO of fmcg consultancy YF.

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Source: Getty Images

The private label category boasts an impressive group of influential women driving its success

Private label certainly seems to be a field where women are excelling. They account for 70% of own-label leadership roles at Sainsbury’s, compared with 43% of senior leadership roles within the overall business. At Co-op, meanwhile, 50% of the own-brand leadership team is female.

The range of roles in own label is vast. But for those who head up the entire operation, like Wilson and Dickson, a specific set of skills is required. Paul Stainton, UK partner of retail consultancy firm IPLC, suggests these broad-brush roles are “more attractive to people who have got a creative mindset”.

“You’ve got to be innovating,” he explains. “You’ve got to be launching new variants, trying new and different recipes, picking up on world tastes, picking up on the latest trends.”

Leadership skills are also a must. Own label heads must work in a team to “help break down barriers and bring new perspectives”, Wilson says.

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It’s a highly desirable set of skills – which is why retailers are keen to attract and maintain top female talent wherever possible.

Waitrose, for example, aims to provide more support for working mums through the launch of a Carers Network. “It’s important to show that it is possible to have a family and progress in your career,” says Wilson. “We’re also improving the wording in our job adverts, making it even more inclusive to encourage more women – and others from diverse backgrounds – to apply.”

Co-op, meanwhile, offers mentoring and coaching to all women across the business through its Aspire Women’s Network. “I have personally benefited from mentoring offered to me through this network, and I’m committed to ensuring I pay that forward to other colleagues across our business,” says Co-op head of brand Nicole Tallant.

Asda’s Dickson is also passionate about coaching the next generation of female leaders. “I currently run a ‘future leaders group’ of aspiring young managers, where I and my peers commit time to share learning experiences in a form of mentorship to accelerate their careers,” she says. Additionally, Asda’s Allies Inclusion Networks includes a group specifically focused on women.

With such strong female role models and a wealth of resources aimed at furthering women’s careers, the future looks bright for the next generation of female leaders in private label. Turn over for the top 10 leading the way today.

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Source: Matthew Hollins

Julie Ashfield shares a name with one Aldi’s own label ranges — Ashfields

Julie Ashfield

Managing director of buying, Aldi UK

Heading up buying is a crucial role at Aldi, which prides itself on a strong own-label range. One woman with the credentials to handle that hefty responsibility is Julie Ashfield, who joined Aldi as a graduate in 1999

Under her stewardship, Aldi has overtaken Morrisons as the UK’s fourth-largest supermarket and secured a high-profile appearance on Channel 4 with Aldi’s Next Big Thing.


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Source: Matthew Hollins

Maddy Wilson became Waitrose’s own brand director in February 2024

Maddy Wilson

Own brand director, Waitrose

At Waitrose, own label is key to showcasing its premium credentials and its more affordable staples. So there is plenty of responsibilty on the shoulders of Maddy Wilson, who stepped into the role of own brand director this month. She oversees every own-label product and brand, including the 900-strong Essential Waitrose range, Cooks’ Ingredients and recently launched Japan Menyu range.


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Source: Matthew Hollins

Sainsbury’s tripled its own-label NPD with Claire Hughes at the helm

Claire Hughes

Director of product & innovation, Sainsbury’s

Hughes has proven her worth since joining Sainsbury’s as head of quality & innovation in 2018. In the year she took over as director of product & innovation – 2020 – Sainsbury’s tripled its own-label NPD.

Recent developments include budget range Stamford Street and premium food-to-go lineup Kitchen Deli, both of which launched last year.


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Source: Matthew Hollins

Cassie Edwards spearheaded a journey that culminated in the launch of Tesco’s Finest Chef’s Collection

Cassie Edwards

Head of product direction, Tesco

Since starting at Tesco in 2022, Cassie Edwards has been travelling the world discovering product trends that can be brought to supermarket aisles. That culminated in the launch of its Finest Chef’s Collection range in November.

A farmer’s daughter, Edwards grew up understanding “‘field to fork’ before it was a thing” and previously held senior roles at M&S and Greencore.


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Source: Matthew Hollins

Sadie Woodhouse has risen through the ranks at Bakkavor since 1999

Sadie Woodhouse

Spalding general manager, Bakkavor

Sadie Woodhouse is a crucial figure in own-label operations. Having joined own-label supplier Bakkavor in 1999, she rose through the ranks by establishing robust factory controls and leading improvement projects. Woodhouse moved to Bakkavor USA in 2016, before returning to the UK in 2020 as GM of operations at Bakkavor Meals, In her current role, she runs the busy Spalding site.


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Source: Matthew Hollins

Kathryn Turner was behind the M&S Gut Health range

Kathryn Turner

Director of product development, M&S Food

Kathryn Turner has honed her product expertise at M&S for almost 30 years. In her most recent roles, as head of product and director of product development, she has become a custodian of innovation and quality.

One of her most recent feats was the M&S Gut Health range, followed in January by the launch of a gut health shot developed with nutrition app Zoe.


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Source: Matthew Hollins

Gail Paddy has set the strategic direction of Morrisons’ ranges since 2017

Gail Paddy

Own brand director, Morrisons

As own brand director, Gail Paddy has set the strategic direction of Morrisons’ ranges since 2017. That includes last year’s relaunch of its value Savers lineup to include brighter, more eye-catching packaging.

Paddy is certainly well qualified, boasting over 30 years’ experience in food retail. She started on the Sainsbury’s graduate scheme in 1993 before going on to spend more than 20 years at Asda.


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Source: Matthew Hollins

Sam Dickson took over as VP of own brand in 2021

Sam Dickson

VP commercial strategy, operations & own brand, Asda

Sam Dickson is a true heavyweight at Asda. When taking over as VP of own brand in 2021, she was tasked with improving quality. And she has delivered in spades. Dickson has overseen a transformation that has involved reviewing, resetting and introducing 7,000-plus Asda lines.

That included the launch of Just Essentials in 2022, along with Health Menu and House of Yum.


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Source: Matthew Hollins

Nicole Tallant started at Co-op as a senior buyer in 2018

Nicole Tallant

Head of brand, Co-op

Championing quality and supporting British farmers are key aims for Co-op head of brand Nicole Tallant. Having started at Co-op as a senior buyer in 2018, she assumed her current role last year. She is responsible for bringing Co-op’s values to life through its own-label offering – which means using only British meat in Co-op’s own brand ranges and championing Fairtrade ingredients.


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Source: Matthew Hollins

Louise Weise takes the lead on the Lidl Plus loyalty app

Louise Weise

Customer director, Lidl GB

Lidl’s loyalty scheme was named as a key driver of its impressive Christmas performance. That’s just one reason why Louise Weise, who takes the lead on Lidl Plus, merits a place on this list. As customer director – a role she assumed in 2022– she heads up a team of 40 that looks after customer insights, food promotions, and non-food. They are responsible for everything from Lidl’s Deluxe range to its Wine Tour.


Own label today is unrecognisable from its earlier iterations. An emphasis on high-quality goods, coupled with an increase in customer focus on price, has boosted sales to the point that own label now comprises more than half of all grocery sales.

Emily Deer

And as with our other female power lists, the category boasts an impressive group of influential women driving its success. Lidl and Aldi, whose ranges are over 90% own label, have been pioneers. Noteworthy figures such as Aldi’s Julie Ashfield and Lidl’s Louise Weise have been instrumental in building extensive own-label ranges, contributing to impressive sales growth at both discounters.

Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons have own-label lines comprising between 22% and 26% of their product ranges. Visionary leaders such as Cassie Edwards, Claire Hughes, Sam Dickson and Gail Paddy are spearheading efforts to enrich these ranges and collaborate with suppliers such as Bakkavor – a prominent player in private label.

At Waitrose, Maddy Wilson has played a pivotal role in growing own label, which makes up over a fifth of its range.

And despite embracing brands 15 years ago, M&S has continued to expand and innovate in its own ranges, with Kathryn Turner keeping the business ahead of the latest customer trends.

Own label has evolved into a preferred product range, and it clearly has a very strong future in the UK grocery market.

Emily Deer, Director at Newton Europe