Private label is a concept in retailing, where a retailer contracts a third-party manufacturer to manufacture their products under certain specifications, and under a brand name that belongs to the retailer.
A lot of retailers who sell multi-branded products in their store sometimes opt to private label part of their product offering to realize higher margins from it.
For example, a lot of grocery stores such as Target or Costco create their own private label products after analyzing the demand on certain product categories and decide that it would be more profitable for them to sell those categories under their own label.
They usually come to this decision after analyzing their inventory metrics and realize that certain categories have high demand (sales) and yet the margins realized on them are very low, and so the return on this inventory is low.
In this article we are going to discuss the advantages and challenges of private label, and give real life examples on how to create a private label brand.
Advantages of Private Label
Is Private Label Profitable?
Private label business model can be very profitable for retailers who pick the right products, based on demand analysis, and decide to invest in creating them on their own to realize higher profit margins.
This is because the demand is already there, and the retailer is already getting traffic to his store, so just by switching to their own brand they get to sell those same products at higher margins from day one.
When you manufacture your own products you will get them at a fraction of the price that you might get for branded merchandise. This is because the branded merchandise has factored in the price all the costs of product research & developments and also the costs of building & marketing a brand from scratch.
Having complete control over the entire value chain from idea development to the successful sale of the product is of course enticing. It allows the brand owner to apply all the feedback they get on the product from the end consumer back to developing even better versions.
Scarcity simply means that something is not readily available in big quantities for everyone to grab at any time.
Whenever there is scarcity, i.e low supply/high demand, the price automatically goes up and the product and service are more profitable for the seller.
When you do your own products you have control over this dynamic, vs. if you sell other brands that are available for anyone to source & sell at lower prices.
When you develop products under your name you start also having your own customers that prefer your brand over anyone else’s.
This customer loyalty is very precious when you factor in the entire customer lifetime value (i.e. how much one customer will contribute to your business throughout his lifetime).
Customer acquisition is very costly, and to get back adequate return on your investment on marketing you probably need multiple purchases from the same customer later on. This is achieved by building loyalty around your brand.
It would be very hard to maintain such loyalty if you are merely selling other brands that they can find anywhere else, unless of course you provide great customer experience… or you are selling at lower prices, i.e lower profits.
Challenges of Private Label
The main challenge with private labeling, and why it is easy for big retailers vs small retailers, is adhering to MOQs.
MOQ stands for minimum order quantity. It is the least amount you have to order per style in order for a manufacturer to make this product for you.
Manufacturing is not cheap and runs on very low margins, so factories always demand a minimum quantity so that the operation will be feasible for them.
This also takes us to the following point.
If you have to contribute capital to huge quantities per style, then by default you will have less styles to offer your customers vs. if you were sourcing branded merchandise and only getting 200 pieces per style. In this case your budget would buy more styles and you will offer more variety.
Read Also: Depth vs. Breadth in Assortment Planning
As a small retailer you will probably start with few customers, so having more styles will allow you to sell more pieces per customer or get repeated sales from the same customer. If you only have very few styles but high quantity, the same customer will not find anything new to buy because they already bought those styles.
Product Development & Innovation
If you are going to build your own brand be prepared to be constantly developing new products. Be prepared to keep this creative machine going forever.
This is especially true if you are doing private label for clothing.
If you are going to start a fashion line, this would also mean launching a new collection every 6 months.
Be prepared to attend fashion shows and trade shows, where you find out about the latest trends in style as well as fabrics and patterns. Then you will use this information to develop new designs and get the factories to manufacture them for you.
This lengthy process takes almost 9-12 months, so you have to be 1 year ahead with your ideas and plans.
As mentioned earlier, you need to commit to high order quantities and this will require high initial capital.
It depends on the type of product you will get manufactured, but be prepared to spend at least 10,000$ and make sure to use this capital wisely to get the best variety of products to drive your sales in the coming period.
Marketing & Branding Costs
Since you are not selling popular brand names and starting from scratch, you will need to spend extra on marketing to build up the new brand name.
This could be either by spending big money from the get going and getting it outsourced to an agency or by doing it yourself from scratch and setting up all your marketing channels and then spending smaller amount on ads from time to time.
Read More: How To Actually Make Money With Ecommerce?
One of the reasons of why I run boutiques is the desire to stay agile in the retail field.
If a new trend comes up tomorrow, I find a supplier and bring those products into my stores. If a product gets out of style quickly, I simply stop ordering it and replace it with another one. If my sales show a slowdown in certain category, I quickly adjust my OTB and act on it before it is too late.
With the longer timeframe (like we said, one year on average) for developing your own products, you might not be as agile.
Agility is actually one of the ways small retailers can compete with big retailers. It can be one of your competitive advantages in this highly competitive market, so don’t lose this ability unless the payoff is really worth it.
Private Label vs White Label
To apply scarcity to private labeling we need to understand the difference between private label vs white label. There is a very thin line between them and people often confuse them together.
The main difference between private label vs white label lies in the product development. If you have developed the product yourself, even if it resembles other products, but you have added some additional functionality or different design elements, this is private label.
On the other hand, if you are sourcing a product that has already been developed by another company and you don’t add anything to it except for your logo, this is white label.
A couple of years ago there was this trend of social media influencers launching their own brands of false eyelashes. It boomed and gained traction, so I decided to source them for my stores.
I contacted one of the influencers and we made a deal to have her line at our stores with her branding and display on consignment basis.
Read Also: Consignment Store: How it really works
During that time she shared with me how she is anxious about the manufacturer possibly using her packaging/branding for someone else because “You know, Rasha? We are all using the same manufacturer in Malaysia. It’s the same products and we just put our logo on it.“
This is called white labeling.
This product worked very well at the beginning and was selling at very high prices initially. But after so many influencers started sourcing exactly the same product and “just put their logo on it” there was suddenly a glut in the market of eyelashes and customers would come to the store and ask us why this is so expensive?
This is exactly why white label does not provide any scarcity.
Private Label Examples
Here we are going to give two types of examples for private label business model. The first example is from a big retailer, Amazon, and the second example is from a small ecommerce business that we have run in the past.
Amazon Private Label
One of the best examples of using private labeling to generate more profits is Amazon’s private label brands.
Amazon has been very smart in utilizing their power of attracting many customers to their platform and selling millions of products everyday to collect and create a huge set of very useful data, that is then put into an even more profitable use.
Amazon’s private label strategy depends on determining the demand on the products through analyzing the purchasing data from millions of transactions, picking the clear winners, and then offering those products at better prices under a private label brand name that belongs to Amazon.
By analyzing data we don’t only mean what gets sold and what not. We also mean the feedback that people give on those products and the returns or refunds requested.
All this allows amazon to create a product that fits exactly what people are looking for. That’s also why many of Amazon’s private label brands have good ratings.. simply because Amazon knows “what good looks like” through their data analysis, and it has delivered just that.
However; because of all the challenges of private labeling we have listed before, Amazon started tweaking this strategy more towards Amazon Exclusive, where it shifts the heavy lifting involved in creating and maintaining private labels to the manufacturers, and then gets exclusive rights on selling those products in return for marketing support and other perks from their side.
Our Private Label T-shirt Brand
This is a private label example from our own ecommerce business for a T-shirt brand that we created back in 2008.
The reason I have chosen private labeling at that time, was that I really wanted to have my own brand.
I remember the first time my brand was on TV, the first time I saw a facebook profile picture with someone wearing my brand and the first time I was featured in a book by Wharton!!
I was very proud & it felt worth all the hard work.
I am saying “hard work” because it really is, as I am going to show through this article.
Let’s first start with reviewing the timeline highlights of the process, as it gives a brief summary of what is expected from you if you want to start your own private label brand.
Research & Education
Learned everything about e-commerce & t-shirt business
Searched for suppliers and contracted them to manufacture my t-shirts
Website Launch & Marketing
Developed and launched my website.. Started marketing it through social media and print media
Received my first order !
Started selling on Souq.com (now an Amazon company) and it boomed! My sales from the marketplace were much more than from my website
We’re on TV
Got featured on TV for the first time and was then followed by other features on TV and online media
Learned Inbound Marketing at Hubspot and applied to my website
Website Sales Surpass Marketplace
My website sales started surpassing my sales from the marketplace, thanks to inbound marketing.
How to Start Your Private Label Brand?
Now that you’ve gone through the timeline, let’s discuss some details of this process.
1. Define Your Niche
I can’t stress enough on the fact, that if you want to succeed as a small retailer you really need to be specific and highly targeted. In order to compete with all the major players in the market, you have to be smart enough to know that you cannot be everything for everyone.
This is exactly what helped me succeed with my brand. I focused on very small areas in retail that were never covered by the big retailers in my country. I talk about this in details in this article about Product sourcing.
2. Learn Marketing
I understood the niching down part, because I am essentially a marketer. I look at everything from marketing perspective, and you will notice from the above timeline that marketing played a big role in my journey.
There is a misconception about marketing that restricts it only to promotion & advertising. In fact advertising is only small part of marketing.
Marketing starts with understanding customer needs and creating a product that fills those needs. It is going to be part of your entire private label journey from the minute your start thinking about starting a brand, because you need to figure out who your customers are and what will click with them.
That’s why I recommend anyone starting their own private label brand, especially if it’s an e-commerce business, to learn marketing. My focus of course was on Digital Marketing, so beside reading basic marketing books I also joined Inbound Marketing University before it was rebranded to Hubspot Academy, and I do recommend it. I also took a Google Adwords course that was offered by Google at that time.
You really don’t need a degree in marketing to understand it. I learned everything for free online from reading a lot, and then later opted for a degree, but only because I joined the corporate world. Otherwise, you can learn on your own and apply as you go.
3. Create Your Private Label Brand Guidelines
Since you are starting the entire brand from scratch, you will have to define your brand guidelines. This includes the color scheme of your brand that will be uniform across your marketing materials and your brand logo. It also covers your brand’s persona; what this brand stands for and how it wants to come across to its customers.
This is of course closely linked to defining your target audience in the first place, as this will dictate the look & feel of your brand.
Is it a value brand? Is it premium? Is it luxury? You decide.
Read also our article on How to Start a Clothing Line? for more on the branding side.
4. Find Reliable Private Label Suppliers
Finding reliable suppliers for your private label business is key to success.
You will need to do your due diligence to make sure your suppliers are capable of delivering the right quality that you are going to put your name on. The last thing you need is a terrible product launch, filled with customer complaints or even a good launch that you cannot capitalize on, because your supplier disappeared and you are not getting replenishments (happened to me!).
Read Also: Bargaining Power of Suppliers
5. Know Your Numbers
The first time i sourced products I had no clue what an Open to Buy (OTB) or buying budget is or how to really know how much inventory to buy. I ended up buying too much products, because I thought this was the smart thing to do as I will be able to save on bulk buying from the factory.
Read Also: Open to Buy : The Complete Guide
Little did I know about cash flow management or working capital or the horrible situation of having all your capital tied to idle inventory that you are neither able to sell nor do you have enough cash to buy new ones to sell.
Read more on Retail Financials
The funny thing is: Until I closed the business I still didn’t know anything about the buying budget. I only knew about it after joining big retailers and seeing how they run their business.
However; it is really not only about buying.
You want to be familiar with retail math in general. Understanding things like gross margin, conversion rate, retail KPIs and how to generate and read all the different kinds of reports is an essential part of retailing.
6. Grow Your Business
You will find in my timeline that my business really picked up when I started selling at the marketplace. This is because they have just launched at the same time and where looking for sellers to partner with to make their own platform successful, so it was a great partnership for them and for me. I could benefit from all the free visibility and marketing I was getting through them.
Today there are numerous online tools and resources that you can leverage to grow your business. Starting from free platforms you can build your website on like WordPress, e-mail marketing tools, social media platforms,.. etc.
Of course not everything will be free, you can expect to pay a portion of your revenue on sales & marketing. If you have done the previous step of knowing your number, you will already know how much you can dedicate to that and execute accordingly.
It might also be good for you to use a marketplace initially, but in this case please read the next point.
7. Control Your Channel
You must have noticed that, despite having great success at the marketplace, I still kept working on my own website until one day it surpassed my sales from the marketplace.
That’s because you have to keep complete control over your channel. It’s a free market, and you can expect that if you achieve success at selling something and someone else has access to your data and control your customers, they can pretty much use that and by time you will no longer have the same results.
It’s not a secret.. Amazon does that all the time.
I intentionally posted the journey as a timeline to show that it takes time. It takes time for any business to start gaining traction, so please be patient and don’t get demotivated.
Of course there are going to be motivational moments here and there like “Getting your first sale“, but for the momentum to build up you need to give it more time. 24 months seem to be the magic number for most online businesses, but again, it differs from one to another. So whatever you do, please don’t give up on your business before 24 months. By that time you will be able to figure our what the real potential of your business is.
This is another reason why you need to get behind your numbers and the finances of the business, because you want to make sure not to burn your cash too soon.
Pivoting must be the most unexpected thing to happen to startups, yet it is very common, so I want you to be prepared for it. It simply means shifting to another way of doing business. This could be by changing your business model, changing your product line or changing your entire strategy.
The reason startups pivot is because we learn as we go. This is one of the best things about entrepreneurship, that we can afford to fail and get up and try again in a different way and fail again and learn from it and ultimately we find the best way to run this business.
What you don’t know about my private label journey is that it started as a custom printed service. I had an online software that let people make their own design and it gets sent to me and I print it. Very attractive for customers, right?
It turned out people don’t like much customization, and this is something I learned later on when I studied consumer behavior. When you give customers too much choice, they suffer from analysis paralysis and usually end the entire purchasing process altogether.
I noticed this when I started getting much more orders from the ready made designs that I was offering than the custom design software. So I pivoted the t-shirt business towards offering ready designs and dropped the software. It turned out to be a good move, because this is what got me onto the marketplace and it took off from there.
I tried my best to cover all the aspects of creating private label products from my own experience. I also made sure to highlight the challenges, because really every entrepreneur who is willing to put a lot of time, money and effort into an endeavor deserves to know the real challenges of any business before going in.
Creating my own private label brand was really an enjoyable experience. I learned a lot from it and most of the things I do today in retail are partially a result of the practice & experience that I had very early on, especially when it comes to learning e-commerce & online marketing.
Because I source from different private label brands, I have seen brands that were very successful and then suddenly died; and when I asked I found out that the designer left the company. For a private label, a good designer makes the biggest difference (if not all the difference), just like a good buyer for a retail business.
So I recommend asking yourself: Am I capable and willing to be constantly designing & developing new products? If not, can I afford to hire professional designers to do that?
If you do, then private label is for you!
Access our members area and read about the exact criteria that make a product a good candidate for private labeling in our advanced articles.
Retailer & Founder of Retail Dogma, Inc.
Rasha has 12 years of retail & ecommerce experience. She has started an ecommerce business in 2008, and later worked at H&M, Bath & Body Works, Victoria’s Secret and Landmark Group. She’s currently working with an omni-channel retail start-up, and scaling its retail operations in UAE.
She has lived in 4 different countries, speaks 3 different languages and holds a master’s degree in Strategic Management & Marketing.