Store brands vs. name brands

Any smart supermarket shopper knows that buying store-brand products instead of big names can save big bucks. In Consumer Reports’ latest price study, filling a shopping cart with store brands saved an average of 30 percent. If you spend $100 a week on groceries, those savings add up to more than $1,500 a year.
Yet some shoppers are still reluctant to try store-brand products. The top reasons from CR’s recent nationally representative survey included: “I prefer name brands,” “The name brand tastes better,” and “I don’t know if store brands are as high in quality.” Respondents 18 to 39 years old were particularly likely to question the quality of store brands.
Still, 84 percent of Americans purchased store brands in the past year, and 93 percent of store-brand shoppers said they would keep buying as many store brands after the economy recovers. Nationwide, store brands accounted for almost one of four products sold in supermarkets and a record $55.5 billion in sales last year.
Store-brand stigma
Shoppers are quite leery of some categories. Although they’ll snap up store-brand paper goods and plastics, at least half of the survey respondents rarely or never buy store-brand wine, pet food, soda or soup. That may be especially true when the category includes a name-brand superstar such as Coca-Cola or Campbell’s.
But CR’s trained testers found that when it came to products like soup, the name brand didn’t always reign:
— Chicken soup: Food Lion’s (36 cents per serving) Lotsa’ Noodles soup beat out Campbell’s Chicken Noodle (41 cents per serving) for having a little more intense flavor. Campbell’s had oily broth, with fatty pieces of chicken.
— Orange juice: Publix Premium won over Tropicana for having a bit less of a cooked flavor with slightly less bitter taste.
— Hot dogs: America’s Choice (A&P, $2.64 per package) beef hot dogs trumped Oscar Mayer ($3.65 per package) for their juicy and flavorful franks.
Name brands did win in seven of the 21 categories, including mayonnaise, mozzarella cheese and frozen French fries. But the majority of the matchups found that the store brand and name brand were of similar quality. A tie doesn’t mean the taste was identical. Two products may be equally fresh and flavorful, with ingredients of similar quality, but taste dissimilar because the recipe or seasonings differ.
Some products that tied include:
— Ketchup: Heinz ($2.76 per bottle) is spicier, while Target’s Market Pantry ($1.174 per bottle) brand is more tomatoey.
— Peanut butter: Tasters detected more deeply roasted nuts in Skippy (19 cents per serving), while Albertsons (15 cents per serving) has a hint of molasses flavor.
— Potato chips: Both Lays (29 cents per serving) and Wal-Mart’s Great Value (15 cents per serving) have a nice balance of real potato flavor, fat and saltiness.
Significant savings
CR’s price study evaluated five supermarket chains and compared store-and name-brand prices for 30 everyday items at five chains, collecting a total of 283 price quotes. Shoppers saved as much as 52 percent on some items.
National brands are generally pricier than store brands, not so much because of what’s in the package but because of the cost of developing the product and turning it into a household name.
There’s no reason store brands shouldn’t hold their own, since some companies manufacture both, including Sara Lee, Reynolds, 4C, McCormick, Feit, Manischewitz, Joy Cone, Stonewall Kitchen and Royal Oak.
Despite the savings, the price advantage may be narrowing. In recent years, some national-brand makers have lowered prices and stepped up promotional activities.
Bottom line. Almost any store-brand product is worth a try. There’s little risk: Most supermarkets grocers offer a money-back guarantee if their products don’t meet your expectations.

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