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Back in the 1970s when I was a stock boy at the ShopRite grocery in Peekskill, N.Y., one of my responsibilities was to maintain the oil aisle. That aisle comprised four gondolas (20 linear feet) filled with metal quart cans and cases of engine oil and transmission fluid. And in those days, a case held 24 cans.

The big sellers back then (at least at that store) were Pennzoil, Quaker State, Wolfs Head and Fox Head. Fox Head engine oil was usually priced at 39 cents a quart and Quaker State and Pennzoil were typically 69 cents. In addition, ShopRite had its own brand: ShopRite rerefined engine oil. It sold in large plastic jugs, and on a unit basis cost about 25 cents a quart. As I recall from having worked the oil aisle for nearly four years, ShopRite oil accounted for roughly one linear foot of gondola space, or about 5 percent of the territory allocated to engine oil. And although shoppers might pick up a jug of ShopRite engine oil, they often asked questions about it being rerefined and frequently returned it to the shelves before dropping a more-familiar brand in their cart.

I recently had the opportunity to go back to that store and look around. A lot has changed, particularly in my old oil aisle. First, what used to be four gondolas of engine oil is now only one. Second, there is a whole new cast of characters on the shelves. Instead of Pennzoil, Quaker State and Fox Head, the shelves are stocked with Mobil, Citgo and Castrol. But the most interesting was the ShopRite brand. Not only had this engine oil label survived some 30 years of intense competition from the majors, it had thrived. This lowly brand, once packaged in an oversize container and handicapped by the word rerefined, now occupies as much room on the ShopRite shelf as the major brands of engine oils. At my old store, it now has four more facings than Mobil and Castrol.

According to Petroleum Trends Internationals market research, what happened at my ShopRite is not unique. The size of the oil aisle at most grocery stores has shrunk significantly over the last few decades while the presence of store brands has surged. The market forces driving these changes are clear. First, the shift from Do-It-Yourself to Do-It-For-Me means fewer rings for oil at grocery stores. And if products arent selling in this class of trade, they can be sure of quick eviction from the valuable real estate they occupy on the shelves. Second, grocery stores have become increasingly aware of the higher margins they can enjoy with private-label brands. Whereas margins for branded good usually range 30 to 40 percent, the margins on store brands can run as high as 60 percent. As a result, most grocers are eagerly looking for ways to get and grow private-label business, and not just in the automotive category. There has been rapid growth of private labels in frozen foods, cleaning products and elsewhere.

Now for the part that should really concern the major brands: What happened in grocery is taking place in virtually every other class of retail trade. Fewer people are buying oil at mass merchants due to the shift to DIFM, and many retail chains are working hard to grow their private-label brands. WalMarts Supertech motor oil, for example, accounts for close to 10 percent of the categorys shelf space at some of its stores. Thats slightly more shelf space than two other major brands, and nearly as much as the category leaders. Similarly, Targets Car & Driver brand accounts for close to 10 percent of the engine oil shelf space at many stores, and in some locations significantly more – up to 50 percent.

Auto-parts chains are also integrating more private-label lubricants into their planograms. At PepBoys, for example, its not unusual to see its own Proline oil covering 15 to 20 percent or more of the category real estate. The blue and gold of NAPAs private-label brand is even more prevalent, occupying close to 30 percent of the category shelf space at its retail outlets. This is more than any leading brand (Quaker State, Castrol, Valvoline, Pennzoil, Mobil) at NAPA stores. And at R.S. Strauss, youll see a healthy supply of private-label lubricants when you first tread the engine oil aisle.

Petroleum Trends market research shows that private labels are by far the growth leader in engine oils for the retail trade. With some estimating 30 to 40 percent growth last year, this may be the only brand among the majors to have expanded in the retail class in this period. Equally impressive, when you combine the volume of all private-label PCMOs on the market, its nearly equal to that of any major brand.

So look out majors, private label has the attention of the public. And as youll see in next months column, retail may not be the only stage its dancing on.

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