The evolution and power of private label brands

Leslie Gordon, director of proprietary brands, Circle K, talks to CSNC about the evolution an untapped potential of store brands.
Chris Daniels
Contributor, Convenience Store News Canada + OCTANE
male writer Chris Daniels
Leslie Gordon
Leslie Gordon

When Leslie Gordon joined Circle K in 202—after more than 10 years at Suncor as category portfolio manager of convenience retail—the 2020 Star Woman in Convenience winner says, “the private label business was underdeveloped.” 

While the portfolio of proprietary brands at Circle K now numbers over 100, "there’s still a lot of room for us to grow," she says. "Fortunately, we have a corporate culture that supports growth, and we’re taking the opportunity to build our proprietary brand offering.” 

Some of Circle K’s brands are seeing bigger sales than national brands. What do you attribute the success?  The economy is, for sure, playing a part. But our private brands—and most private brands now—are very similar in quality or better than national brands. And so, when consumers try our products, they deliver the value as well as quality they’re looking for, and buy them again and again.  

How do you ensure quality control? I spend a lot of time researching vendors. Some of our vendors are national brands and they also work for us on our private brands and are great partners. We also do a lot of benchmarking to make sure we get what we’re looking for in quality. 

How do you decide which categories to get into with a proprietary product? We look at customer needs and match that up with sales data. What are the categories that are growing? What categories could provide consumers with more options?  Thirst is a big one, of course, so beverages. Confectionery is also a category where customers are looking for options, although we have healthy store brand snacks too, like nuts. We like to look at and compare ourselves to the grocery sector because they are so much further ahead in what their private label offers customers.

Do you market the private label any differently than national brands? Our private label brands are right next to the national brands to allow customers to make their choice. And so, many of the programs we do with national vendors we also do with our proprietary brands, whether it’s a window sign or gamification integration. It shows to consumers that our private label is a legitimate brand.  

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Challenges around supply chain are well-documented. What advantages does having control of that with a proprietary label give Circle K? The big advantage is that vendors make our product to order. It’s not like with national brands where products are sitting in a warehouse with a number of different customers who can pull from the inventory. We have to plan months in advance including around promotions and the increased volumes anticipated with that. Private label is also at an advantage when we’re in stock and other brands are not. 

Does having a private label create friction with national brands? Sometimes we perform a lot better than they were expecting us, too. There was a time when they would have dismissed private brands. But now we’re competing and sometimes winning. It’s healthy competition.  

How does having a strong store brand elevate the Circle K brand in other ways? It definitely differentiates our presence on social media. Five years ago, you didn’t really see c-stores on social media in a big way, but now they have much bigger presences and private label brands are a big part of that. We can also help accelerate our sustainability goals. Our corporate goal is to have all our private brands be made out of 100% recyclable packaging content by 2030. It’s something we’ve been talking to our vendors about from the beginning, and I am pleased to say we are getting to that goal post together.

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