Vox: Leaders & Champions: Brenda Lord, VP Product Management & Development, Staples Brand Group

This is the next in a series of interviews Christopher Durham, founder of My Private Brand, will conduct with private brand leaders around the world. Today, he discusses retail-owned brands with Brenda Lord is the VP, Product Management & Development for Staples Brand Group.

Prior to her current role, Brenda has held roles at Staples in Global Vendor Management & Merchandising Portfolio Strategy, Acquisition Management, Head of International for Staples Brands Group and Director of Business Development, Staples Brands Group.  Brenda was in development/sales/sourcing with Test Rite, a global sourcing company based in Asia, and Category Merchandising at Staples, and earlier, Ames Department Stores.

She holds a BS from Purdue University and MBA from Babson.

Christopher: What is your first memory/experience with Private Brand?
Brenda: The two private brands that I recall making an early impression on me were:

Kenmore appliances and their reputation for quality that was only available at Sears. They were my first washing machine & dryer purchases as an adult.

The Mix-it brand of junior clothing at J.C. Penney, merchandised in a boutique store-within-a-store setting with commissioned sales teams.  I worked in that boutique in high school, and loved learning about working on commission, and in selling a line that had a cohesive design presentation.  The brand was launched by JCP in the mid-80’s to compete with the success of The Limited.  Although they have evolved the use of the Mix-it brand considerably, broadening its use, I’m still impressed thinking back on what investment they put behind that boutique concept.

Christopher: How did you get into the private brand business?
The first half of my career was in buying.  When I left a buying job to go to grad school, I also joined Test Rite, a global sourcing firm based in Asia that sourced and developed private brands.  I really enjoyed that for 5 years, and re-joined Staples® when they began aggressively building the Staples product brand in 2006.

Christopher: What does the future of retailer owned brands look like?
Our Staples Brand Products combine quality with great prices.  Our own brand products are playing a role in our overall corporate strategy by helping to deliver value and the features and functionality that are important to our customers.

Christopher: Retail and the shopper has dramatically changed over the last few years (mobile, online, social media, Amazon, Google) how have your private brands responded to these changes?
Staples is ready to help our customers however and whenever they prefer to shop. Customers who prefer to shop on Staples.com will receive free shipping on orders over $14.99 for Staples Rewards members, or customers can buy online (or on their mobile device) and pick-up in store.  As one of the largest internet retailers, we offer a huge assortment for every size business from small and mid-size to enterprise.

Christopher: What private brand accomplishments are you the proudest of?
The early days of building the Staples brand were exciting, and I was involved in building both the US and the international business at different times.  The creation of the Better Binder is a highlight – developed after extensive research into what customers’ pain points were with binders – durability, ease of labeling, opening and closing the rings.  It has been very successful over the years and is still a significant portion of our business across our student and business users, with patents that keep it exclusive at Staples.  The Staples brand now extends across hundreds of categories, many thousands of SKUs, has better unaided recognition than national brands in over 50 categories, and better quality ratings than our national brands, and is growing.  It hasn’t happened overnight, and has been built by many talented team members over the years.

Christopher: What keeps you up at night?
Striking the right balance between newness and a disciplined focus on quality core products.  Our customers count on Staples brand products to deliver for them at a great price, so that they focus on their task at hand.  There are many more categories that are core today than when we started.  So there is a tension between expanding and evolving.  I think that exists in all businesses when you are focused on your customer. 

Christopher: Is private brand a strategic priority for your organization?
Brenda: Yes!  Our branded products reinforce our relationship with the customer.  Therefore, we’re highly focused on creating quality products at prices our customers want, across our broad range of categories. For example, our Staples Brand Products for the back-to-school season, provide exclusive, on-trend designs so students can personalize the essential products they need.  We put a huge emphasis on our own brand products such as Staples Arc customizable notebooks, binders, notebooks, Staples writing and other necessities that kids, moms and teachers need for the school year. We also partner with several design houses to create products that are unique to Staples. Learn more about Staples Brand here: www.staples.com/staplesbrand

Christopher: How important is strategy to the success of private brands?
Brenda: It’s very important. As a company, we understand our customers’ needs when it comes to products and services, and we must stay in tune with the technology, social and economic changes that are changing our customers’ behaviors and the way they work. Over the years, we’ve altered our strategy to expand our own brand assortment, offer more value to our customers, and stayed committed to creating products that are built and tested to last.

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Christopher Durham is the president of My Private Brand and the co-founder of The Vertex Awards. He is a strategist, author, consultant and retailer who built brands at Delhaize-owned Food Lion, and lead strategy and brand development for Lowe’s Home Improvement. He has consulted with retailers around the world on their private brand portfolios including: Family Dollar, Petco, Staples, Office Depot, Best Buy, Metro (Canada), TLW (Taiwan) and Hola (Taiwan). Durham has published five definitive books on private brands, including his first book, Fifty2: The My Private Brand Project. In 2017, he will debut his newest book, Vanguard: Vintage Originals, a visual tour of innovation and disruption in private brand going back to the mid-1800’s. Dynamic in his presentation while down to earth and frank in his opinions, he has presented at numerous conferences, including FUSE, The Dieline Conference, Packaging that Sells, Omnishopper and PLMA’a annual trade show in Chicago. Durham lives in Charlotte, NC with his wife, Laraine, and two daughters, Olivia and Sarah.