Retail & Innovation

Stirring it up in the test kitchen

Walgreens team members are cooking up quality, value and innovation as they test owned-brand products all year round.
Tom Wall, Walgreens Stories
As you’ve browsed the aisles at your local Walgreens, you’ve no doubt noticed the wide array of owned-brand products. What you’ve also likely noticed is just how many different types there are, from Nice! Whole Cashews and Finest Nutrition Free & Pure Gummy Vitamins that meet or exceed comparisons to their national brand counterparts in terms of value and quality, to innovative items that can’t be found anywhere else.
What makes this possible? A team of dedicated Walgreens team members, and a process called product cutting: a test that evaluates the quality of a product.

And that’s why Walgreens News team ended up in a small area, tucked away at the Walgreens Support Office in Deerfield, Ill., one recent morning, thoughtfully chewing B-12 gummies and crunching on nuts. We assembled on either side of a long steel table that looked like it came straight from the set of a Gordon Ramsey show. But, instead of preparing paellas, this kitchen is all about cooking up ideas and testing out new products.
On our visit to the Walgreens Test Kitchen, we met the teams that test potential owned-brand products from snacks to beauty and household products to seasonal toys.

“There are three key areas in terms of what we do within these walls,” explains Lori Kissner, manager of technical product development for WBA owned brands sold in North and South America, as we eye the array of colorful gummies and delectable snacks on the table in front of us. “One is selecting new products, whether that’s a new supplier’s version of an existing product, or an entirely new product. We also do annual monitoring of current products to evaluate quality verses the market. We also use third-party lab testing for medicinal products to monitor ongoing quality. And finally, we work with quality concerns: listening to consumer feedback and continuously improving the products we have on our shelves.”

New, potential and existing products are all brought in by Kissner’s team, tested for their overall quality and compared to their national-brand equivalent, if there is one, to help make sure our owned brands meet (or exceed) consumer expectations.
To see how, for example, Nice! Starlight Mints measure up to a name brand, a small panel of team members will gather to rate a few key qualities of each product, such as texture, taste or appearance, on a point scale. Since the process is heavily subjective to individual taste, sometimes a team member will “recuse” themselves if they aren’t the right target audience.

“Matt might hate peppermint, but everyone else in the world loves it,” Kissner says, gesturing toward Matt Cameron, commercialization manager for food categories.

“In that case, I would exclude myself,” Cameron confirms. “If I know going in that I don't like it, then my opinion isn't going to be good.”

Once scores are tallied, Kissner and her team can analyze how well each of the potential owned-brand versions matches (or beats) the name-brand counterpart. The team then works directly with suppliers to determine what – if any – changes are needed.

Snacking like it’s their job

Product cutting can be a delicious and deliberative process. Today, the product in question is Nice! Whole Cashews. Cameron and his colleague, Wes Keyser, director of owned brands for grocery and household, are seeing how our cashews stack up against a national-brand equivalent.

In order to be considered at least comparable to the national brand by Kissner and her team, the Nice! brand must score a 3 or higher on a scale of 1 to 5. Today, members of the Walgreens News team are the guinea pigs. There are three plates of cashews on the Test Kitchen counter – one the Nice! brand, one a competitor’s owned brand, and the third a national name brand. As the testers, we’re instructed to rate each kind of cashew based on qualities we could taste – such as saltiness and texture – but also visual elements like each nut’s size, color, or whether or not too many were broken or “defective.”

“How does one define a defective nut?” asks Suzanne Barston of Walgreens News.

“Just look at the range of colors and see if it meets your expectation for what a cashew is,” explains Kissner. “Are there a lot of burnt ones, or tons of broken pieces? You should expect some, but is it excessive? That’s what we’re looking for.”

The team inspects each plate of cashews, and samples each one, giving all three options our own subjective scores. And, when the results are added up, the Nice! brand wins in a landslide.

Can’t taste this

Testing small quantities of most edible items, including vitamins and supplements, for texture and flavor is straightforward, but some of these products can’t be cut in the traditional sense because of their medicinal properties.

“Obviously we don’t do this with, like, a melatonin,” Becky Deutschmann, manager of owned brand commercialization, jokes as she pops a Finest Nutrition gummy into her mouth, provoking a chorus of “falling asleep on the job” jokes from the News team.

Deutschmann clarifies that for things that can’t be tasted for health reasons, the team will instead make sure other qualities like the size, shape, gloss and sheen of the product meet the required standard.

Beyond those basic tests, medicinal products then undergo third-party testing to help ensure that the active ingredients have the same strength and effectiveness as the leading brands in the market.
Staff Picks:

Matt CameronNice! Wasabi Soy Snack Mix & Sea Salt & Caramel Cheesecake Cookie
Becky DeutschmannWalgreens 200mg Ibuprofen
Wes KeyserComplete Home Super Soft Bath Tissue
Lori KissnerNice! Premium Dark Chocolate Almonds
Courtney ShieldsComplete Home Cozy Cashmere Candle
Peter Ren – Wal-Flu Severe Cold & Cough Packets
How the unicorn got its wings

After our stomachs are too full to taste test any more samples, we meet Santiago Kloehr, associate manager for owned brand commercialization. He recalls sitting at his workspace a few months ago, staring into the eyes of a purple plush unicorn that was in consideration to be part of Walgreens latest wave of owned-brand toys. It had everything, he thought – almost. He reached across his desk and grabbed a silvery set of wings (one of many spare toy parts he and his colleagues have within arm’s reach at any given time). In his other hand was a stapler.

And just like that, the Be Jolly Winged Unicorn was born.

Playing Dr. Frankenstein is nothing new for Santiago and his team. During their frequent international trips to visit with suppliers and assess and plan products – 12 months in advance of any given holiday or season – the team tests, tears apart and recombines roomfuls of sample products to find the most appealing combinations for customers.  

“We had a room full of 50 different types of Santa Claus toys for the holidays, and we were picking which Santa looked ideal,” Courtney Shields, senior manager of owned brands commercialization for seasonal tells us, as we squish the new slime in our toy line and cuddle an array of stuffed animals. “But there’s also an art to it where you can say, ‘I like the eyes of this one, the fabric here,’ and really work with the supplier to customize it.”

Our team left the Test Kitchen with full bellies and a much better understanding of how the sausage gets made. (Not literally, though – we don’t currently sell any owned-brand meat products.) And it was fun to see the toys we sampled – part of the Over the Moon and Rainbow Dreams lines – released into our stores just before the holidays, and feel as if we had insider knowledge of their origin.
What is SMACK-J?

No, it isn’t the DJ headlining Coachella this year, or a new Star Wars character. It’s an acronym for the most commonly sought letters on monogrammed products, such as mugs, beverage bottles and tumblers – the latter of which (below) was part of our owned-brand assortment at the holidays. Generally, an initial order will consist of just these six letters: S, M, A, C, K and J. Then, if they prove to be selling well, the team will add the next two letters: R and T.

The next time you find yourself at a Walgreens, take a moment to check out some of the owned-brand items – either counterparts to some of your favorite national brands or entirely new products altogether. Chances are, thanks to the product cutting being done every day in the Walgreens Test Kitchen, you’ll end up with something that looks, feels or tastes exactly how you’d expect – or in our humble, amateur tester opinions, even better.

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