Kroger vice president of natural foods Jill McIntosh has one main tip for brands that want to take advantage of its new We Are Local program, meant to boost the presence of local manufacturers in its stores around the country: healthy and innovative.
“We’re looking for better-for-you products with clean ingredients,” she said, with the hottest categories being beverages, snacks and fitness. Products with any of the certifications that indicate a degree of sustainability or clean ingredients, from organic to fair trade to recycled packaging, should make those known as well. “We don’t have a list of priorities as far as attributes. We’re just welcoming new innovation, we’re welcoming local partners.”
She adds that they’re always looking to partner with “diversifiers,” including women-owned and minority-owned businesses.
Kroger has long had a reputation as a natural leader in the mainstream channel, and is upping its game with a recently launched program designed to identify promising local brands. The program can potentially help those brands manage early-stage growing pains, while capturing consumers who are always looking for the next best healthy thing.
The retailer hosted its first Natural Foods Innovation Summit in the fall, and plans to continue them several times a year, with the next one scheduled for February 8. Those are invitation-only, but the retailer’s We Are Local program invites brands to submit products anytime. Once submitted, product categories are routed to the appropriate merchandising leader to review.
With snacks and beverages in particular, consumers can’t seem to get enough—there seems to be endless demand for healthy items people can squeeze in between meals, especially as more people move away from the traditional routine of three large meals a day. The trends that are doing well in snacks industry-wide are holding up in Kroger as well, such as puff snacks, plant-based recipes and products with probiotics.
One thing a brand doesn’t need to worry about is production capacity—if the product is a good fit for Kroger customers, the retailer will partner with you on a local basis, and also on scaling up if and when necessary. “The last thing we want to do is push someone beyond their limits and then have a product be out of stock for customers at the store,” said McIntosh.
Kroger also helps customers find natural products within its stores, drawing their attention using signage and other navigation tools. So while packaging and labels are important, what matters in the end is the product itself.
McIntosh noted that Kroger will have a bigger presence than ever at Natural Products Expo West 2018, where it will invite new vendors to do a Shark Tank-like pitch and also be focusing on its goals of zero hunger and zero waste.
Bottom line, she said, for any of the avenues brands want to use to connect with Kroger: “It needs to be true innovation that’s going to excite our customer.”