Amazon Plans to Add Its Own Line of Food
Milk, cereal, baby food and household products would carry Elements label
By Greg Bensinger in the Wall Street Journal
Following the playbook of countless retailers, Amazon.com Inc. is preparing to broadly expand its fledgling lineup of private-label brands to include an array of grocery items such as milk, cereal, and baby food as well as household cleaners, people familiar with the matter said.
Amazon’s planned expansion in the private-label business mirrors a more traditional retail model where name-brand products are sold beside store-owned goods. Private labels have become a vital business for mass-market retailers, generating stronger margins and building loyalty with consumers who no longer view generic products as lower quality.
Earlier this month, Amazon sought trademark protection for more than two dozen categories under its Elements brand, including coffee, soup, pasta, water, vitamins, dog food and household items like razors and cleaning products. Diapers and baby wipes—the latter of which is still on the market—were Amazon’s first line of Elements, available to customers who pay $99 a year for a Prime unlimited shipping membership.
Amazon has approached some private-label food manufacturers seeking a partner, according to people familiar with the matter. Those discussions included TreeHouse Foods Inc. of Oak Brook, Ill., one of the larger private-label producers, with $3 billion in sales last year, said one of the people.
Amazon declined to comment. A spokesman for TreeHouse declined to comment on any talks with Amazon but noted the company does “business with all of the nation’s top retailers and operates in 15 grocery categories.”
The business isn’t without challenges. Amazon must rely on outside manufacturers to design the products and then vouch for the quality, as it did when it launched its Elements brand of diapers last December. The next month, Amazon pulled the diapers from its site, citing a flawed design—customers had complained about quality issues.
Many of Amazon’s coming private-label products will be ingested, making quality-control a critical issue.
The Seattle retailer has long dabbled in private labels. Besides diapers and wipes, it has offered all customers batteries, USB cables, backpacks and even ceramic plates under the Basics label, noted for its spartan black-and-white color scheme. And Amazon sells patio furniture and linens under its Strathwood and Pinzon brands.
Not all of Amazon’s private-label ventures have been winners. It discontinued a line of cookware endorsed by a Seattle chef in 2012 and a tool line, in addition to the diaper snafu.
Never before has Amazon ventured into perishable goods. By rolling out a broad portfolio of private-label products, Amazon could yield higher profit margins, while also gaining leverage with its largest suppliers to pare prices—though many of Amazon’s vendors also produce private-label goods.
Rivals ranging from Costco Wholesale Corp. to Target Corp. to Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. offer an array of store-brand products with names including Kirkland, Archer Farms and Nice, respectively. Private labels made up about a third of Target’s $73 billion in sales last year.
“It makes a lot of sense for any retailer to get into private label,” said Eddie Yoon, a principal at brand consultancy The Cambridge Group. “Private label has a lot of room to grow in terms of sales and can attract a new value-focused customer.”
Mr. Yoon said that despite their lower price tags, private label merchandise tends to have higher margins than name-brand goods for both retailers and manufacturers because of savings on marketing and brand development.
Market researcher Information Resources Inc. estimates private-label packaged goods was a $120 billion market in the U.S. in 2014, up 2.1% from a year earlier. Private-label merchandise represented about 18% of money spent on all packaged goods in the U.S. last year.
Amazon, which last year reported a $241 million loss on $89 billion in sales, has been pushing to expand sales of food online, including through its Fresh grocery delivery. And last year it rolled out Prime Pantry, which allows customers to order small items that the company generally only offered in bulk, such as a single shampoo bottle or bag of potato chips.
Private-label goods also could bolster Amazon’s reputation as a lower-cost retailer. IRI estimates that private-label products are, on average, 28% less expensive than their name-brand equivalents.
Amazon’s diapers were about 10% less per diaper than the priciest offerings from Procter & Gamble Co. or Kimberly-Clark Corp. —makers of Pampers and Huggies—but 25% more expensive than P&G’s Luvs and Target Corp.’s Up & Up brand, according to an analysis in December by Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.
It couldn’t be learned how Amazon may price its private-label food goods, when they may be released or whether they will be sold exclusively to Prime members, as the baby wipes are.
But it seems likely Amazon would sell them through its Fresh grocery delivery service, available today in a handful of U.S. cities.
It also appears Amazon will be transparent about where its Elements products come from, as it has done with the diapers and wipes. The trademark filing mentions the slogan, “Every pack has a story.” Amazon’s page for its wipes details how they are produced by manufacturer Nice-Pak Products Inc., starting with the process of moistening them with purified water from the White Lick Creek Aquifier in Mooresville, Ind.