Own label products are increasingly being used as a salvo in the retailer wars to gain the competitive edge. What was once a cheap, basic alternative to major brands, has progressed throughout the 1990s when three tier pricing strategies of premium, standard and economy versions were introduced, to the latest concept of these products being crowd pullers. And the pull' factor is coming at the right time. According to recent Private Label Manufacturers' Association research conducted in Europe by MORI, consumers are increasingly aware of retailer own brands and are planning to buy more of them, but they are looking to the retailers to provide better quality products. In certain product categories within the UK this is already happening, according to Hazlewood Foods, a major supplier of own label lines. The company's director of communications Jonathan Grant-Nicholas says: "Over the past 12-18 months we have seen many changes in own label requirements. Retailers are now looking for products which will give them a point of difference. Retailers' profiles are becoming much more tailored to their particular clientele." It is not only the major supermarket chains that are changing tack. Spar is repositioning its own label range. Marketing controller Susan Darbyshire says: "We have researched what our customers want. They are looking for a unique convenience offering from our sector rather than a diluted version of what the multiples provide." As a result, the company is refocusing its attention on own label to position Spar as "the convenience brand". While the products will continue to be merchandised under the Spar label, internally they will be viewed in one of three ways: as products which will have a drive', hold' or squeeze' status. Products in the drive' category are those with the most development potential: fresh food, fresh produce, off licence lines, soft drinks, crisps, snacks, confectionery and ice cream. The hold' category will require minimum action and include frozen foods, paperware and biscuits. The squeeze' category will incorporate homebaking, sauces, pickles, canned food, toiletries and household cleaners. Spar is not alone in its decision to put weight behind fresh foods, and in particular chilled ready meals. The burgeoning chilled ready meals and accompaniments sector is currently worth around £680 million and growing up to 22% annually. According to Taylor Nelson Sofres, own label accounts for 95% of this sum, and many of these products are taking on their own branding with the retailer's name taking a merchandising back step. Marks and Spencer, considered the pioneer of chilled ready meals, has been changing its approach to the category in recent months with lifestyle playing a large part in the products' development and merchandising. Last year saw the launch of the company's Café range of starters, main courses and desserts which were based on a bistro-style menu. In March this year, the concept progressed a stage further. The company brought in Italian chef Giorgio Locatelli to advise on the creation of its Italia range which stretches from restaurant-style starters, main courses and desserts, to bakery products, pizzas, wines and even accompaniments such as olive oil, sauces and sun dried tomatoes. An M&S spokesman says: "Consumers are becoming more aware about the quality of food because they are travelling more and eating out more. But they are also time conscious. They want ideas, the convenience of prepared meals, and the convenience of all the components of a meal being merchandised together." This latter point has been taken into account in the company's launch of the Count on Us range, targeted at the health conscious. The spokesman says: "We are known for healthy eating products, but until now these were displayed throughout the food section. Count on Us brings 130 healthy products together in one area of the store." Meanwhile, Waitrose is using the chilled ready meals category to build on its already strong crusading image as a supplier of organic produce. Six chilled ready meals under the Waitrose label have been launched this month based on Middle Eastern, Chinese and Indian cuisines. In developing the ready meals the company has been anxious to introduce to the category recipes that provide consumers with inspiration in terms of ingredients and flavours, while meeting the need for high quality organic alternatives. The range has been under development for 18 months and fits in with the company's ethos of offering an organic option for most grocery requirements. Waitrose currently offers around 670 organic lines and plans to increase this to 1,000 by year end. Behind the scenes, manufacturers are working in partnership with their retail customers. Among the many changing trends within the chilled ready meals sector, Hazlewood Foods has detected a significant diversification. On the one hand it has seen a move to better value, prepared ready meals in which the consumer simply heats the product, but on the other is the more premium and creative ready-to-cook meals which contain raw or semi-cooked ingredients. Grant-Nicholas says: "There is a certain amount of polarisation developing. Some consumers are turning to the standard, good quality, ready meals to serve during the week, but at the weekend they are switching to the premium, semi-prepared, high quality meals where they can impress and take part in the preparation." This cook-it-yourself' concept was initially developed in 1997 by branded manufacturer Bigham's Global Gastronomy, the name under which the range continues to sell. Retailers have been quick to recognise the high premium potential of this, but it hasn't all been plain sailing. Sainsbury launched its Fresh Creations restaurant-style semi prepared meals (£2.99-£5.99), merchandised in three-tier packs last year. In January this year it built on the concept by launching the Just Cook semi prepared range (£1.49-£4.99) comprising nine meals and nine side dishes. However, both ranges are currently under review and considered by the company to be ahead of their time'. Getting the concept of cook-it-yourself' over to consumers, in a very short shopping timespan, appears to be causing some drawbacks. Bigham's too faced similar problems in the early months of launch and had to simplify the ingredients and preparation and change the price position as a result. This could be one of the drawbacks of a predominantly own label category, which does not benefit from high levels of advertising to explain the concept. But in-store placement has also been an issue as to whether these cook-it-yourself products should be merchandised with ready meals, next to raw meals, or in their own area. But teething problems aside, there is vast potential ahead. The PLMA research found that 50% of consumers in Great Britain wanted their supermarkets to take a leading role in bringing out new products under their own label. And in the case of chilled foods these products offer more than premium pricing and pulling power. According to Spar, they are crucial. Darbyshire says: "Chilled and fresh food form the basis for consumers to judge a whole store. They are the benchmarks in measuring an outlet's success." {{FOCUS SPECIALS }}