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Supermarket Shopping: Generics Versus “Name” Brands

By Michael Haltman

The question of whether or not it is worth saving the money buying pure generic products at the supermarket or paying more to buy the “name” brands is one that we all struggle with. Still another option is to purchase the store brand, whose price will typically fall somewhere between the other two. What is the answer?

In my house, the responsibility for going to the supermarket falls on my shoulders (my wife gets the laundry), and from growing up the way that I did my bias will typically push me towards the pure generic names. I started slowly by buying the store brands, and then moved to many of the pure generics when I saw the potential savings to my bottom line. On average I will buy some of each type, but the savings are very real.

Is The Taste and Quality Of Generics an Issue?

The question is whether the quality or taste of these products can compare to the name brands, and this is actually a question that people need to answer for themselves. While I am more of a gourmand than gourmet, I typically find the difference in the consistency or taste of generics or name brands to be very minor.

My kids complain, but I am sure that if I conducted a blind taste test they would not be able to tell the difference. Of course, among different brands and different foods there may be more or less of a difference for every consumer.

Some of My Generic Buying Experiences

Breakfast Cereal: With the increase in the price of breakfast cereals the last couple of years, I started to go with the store brands that could be $1.00 or more in savings off a single box. The quality is for the most part very good with very little difference between the taste of these versus the brand names. There was a store equivalent to Cheerios, Lucky Charms, Fruit Loops, Rice Krispies and more. At some point I tried the pure generic cereals that were available for Honey Nut Cheerios and Cocoa Krispies, and the taste was fine and the savings even better.

Laundry Detergent: When I started going to the supermarket, the prices for this item were astounding to me. I know that they advertise quite a bit, but I also know that in many cases the off brands are made in the exact same factory as the name brands. For Tide, a 100-ounce bottle could cost in the neighborhood of $12 or more. Smells great and I am sure it does whatever the commercials say that it does. The store brand is in the $9 range, and also has a pretty good smell and the same color packaging as the Tide. When I saw the generic bottle, it was white with a minimal amount of writing on it, no clean fresh smell, but a price for the same 100-ounce bottle of around $2.99. For a $10 savings over the Tide. I can do without the smell, and so far, there have been no complaints on the way that it cleans.

Fruit: On a recent trip to the supermarket, while I was walking through the produce aisle, I saw a bag of generic oranges. Other than the packaging that did not say Sunkist, what could the difference possibly be between two oranges that are grown on the same vines? Maybe it has something to do with the color or other appearance of the generic orange? Possibly the generic has some imperfections on the outside that prevents it from being called Sunkist. The bottom line is that I bought them and they tasted great for a much lower price.

These are just a few of the examples of the money that can be saved if you are willing to move away from name brands, and at the very least consider store brands. Once you have been convinced that the quality is basically the same for many products, try the generics as well.

Some you may like and some you may not like, but the bottom line is that the savings are very real.

Michael Haltman
Former fixed income analyst/trader and institutional salesman for some of the largest firms on Wall Street, some of which no longer exist. Was a proprietary equity trader for Opus Trading for fifteen years until opening my own commercial lending firm, and mortgage title insurance firm. Contribute articles to many publications including Money Crashers, and have had articles picked up by The Wall Street Journal, Chicago Sun-Times and Houston Chronicle to name a few. Also created and write The Political Commentator which examines the world from the right.

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Comments

  • http://freefrombroke.com FFB

    Know what generic we like? Whole Foods 365 Organic. Great stuff and less expensive then other products in the store.

  • http://www.artificialrobot.com Sean

    FFB, you hit the nail on the head! The Whole Foods private label stuff continues to impress me. Sure, they have some items that aren’t great, but overall the quality is excellent and the prices are great. The reason I love it most though, is that I can trust the ingredients that go into their products. I can read the label and understand what’s in the food I’m eating.

    I think that there is sometimes a bit too much obsession with cheap when it comes to food though. Americans spend less of their take home pay as a percentage than most anywhere in Europe and this race to the bottom is clearly affecting our health. Just look at the rise of obesity and diabetes. Anyway, that’s a rant for another day. The better question out of any of this shouldn’t be generics vs name brands, but home made vs prepared. Home made food, made from real whole foods (not the store the concept) will provide you better tasting and better quality every time.

    • http://freefrombroke.com FFB

      I think what’s interesting is many will stray away from generic brands but will eat fast food which, in my opinion, is much lower quality. But it also goes to your point of home made vs prepared.

  • http://grandgiveaways.wordpress.com Mami2jcn

    I think it all comes down to personal preference. I’m okay with buying generic paper towels, toilet paper, detergent, canned goods, and sometimes cereal. I’ve definitely noticed a difference in quality (absorbency) between generic and brand-name diapers so I stick with the brand names. I also can’t bring myself to buy generic baby formula. Call me a snob but I worry about the quality control on generic products, especially when they’re being consumed by my infant.

    • Symphony

      Baby formula is such a heavily regulated food product that there is no way a generic brand can differ from it’s name-brand equivalent. All baby foods. There is absolutely no difference except for the price.

  • http://www.yourfinances101.com/blog David/Yourfinances101

    Generics is defintiely the way to go, and can offer huge savings.

    9 times out of ten, there is no distinguishable difference, and you’re really just paying extra money for the “name”.

    If you’re skeptical, switch 5 things you normally buy to generics, and try it out.

    The worst that can happen is that you’ll switch back, but I have a funny feeling that won’t happen.

  • Susan

    More often than not the generic brands work/taste just as well as the name brands for me. I have only a few items I will not buy generic b/c the results were disappointing. One of those items is graham crackers. The store brands are so bland compared to the Keebler variety. But luckily, after making that mistake, I discovered that my grocery store has a “200% guarantee” on their brands. So not only did I get my money back when I returned the less than tasty crackers I also got to pick out a new box of any brand I wanted for free. Very nice!!

  • http://www.spillingbuckets.com Ryan @ SpillingBuckets

    I agree with you and think generics are the way to go 90% of the time, we have pretty much made it a habit to reach for store brand items versus name brand. The only time this is reversed is when there are manufacturers coupons (sometimes it takes at least two per item) or some super sale deal thing going on.

    We did an little different analysis on using coupons vs. buying generic coming to similar results, we also have some links to online coupon sites etc. http://www.spillingbuckets.com/2008/08/is-coupon-clipping-worth-it-when-you.html

    Its good to think about this, thanks for sharing.

  • Zach Younkin

    I find this really interesting. As a grocery store employee, I see first hand the number of times that people buy the name brand over the store or generic brand and it is depressing to think of the money that are missing on saving.

    While saving $.50 cents on a few products in a single shopping trip may not seem like a lot, it could easily add up to the hundreds of dollars saved each year.

    I’m actually in the process of gathering prices for grocery stores in my area and comparing the prices of the three stores to see which is the cheapest (Kroger, Meijer and a local chain, Buehler’s). It’s interesting to see in all three of the stores how much the store brand items differ. Be sure to look at other stores in your area to see which store brand is cheapest…

  • Lauren

    I think my purchases are evenly split. There are certain things that I prefer the name brand on like cereal and toiletries but then I buy the store brand oatmeal and produce.

    BTW, what’s the difference between generic and store brand? People seem to use the words interchangeably.

    • Zach Younkin

      At the grocery store I work at, we have four different brands of cheese:

      Kraft
      Sargento
      Our Family
      Crystal Farms

      Kraft and Sargento are the national brands.

      Our Family is our store brand.

      Crystal Farms is the generic brand.

      Hope that helps…

  • http://www.sushimustwrite.com Sushi

    I started shopping generically when I became unemployed, and sure enough, my grandmother was right: most of the time there wasn’t a difference. A good way to see if there’s a difference for food products is to look at the ingredients list. If the ingredients match up, go ahead and get the generic brand. For some things, like butter, I don’t do this because the name brand isn’t that much more and the the compositions do happen to be different (at least for the store I shop at most). Most of the time they aren’t all that different.

  • http://mrsnespysworld.blogspot.com Kaye

    I have no problems with store brands or generic brands…usually. However, often I am able to get the name brands cheaper than their store or generic equivalent because I am a super-duper-coupon-user. Stores that double coupons and have great sales to match can send you home with free name brand products easily at times.

    When there is no sale/coupon match up going on, I will usually get the generic if it is an item I need.

    Some exceptions (when I ONLY buy name brand):
    -diapers (the generic just don’t cut it with a baby who is nursed!)
    -peanut butter (you have a hard time convincing me it is as good as my name brand)
    -crackers (almost any kind…the generic and/or store brand just can’t match the flavor)

    and some others.

    Great post though.

  • Mike

    Most generics are just as good, sometimes you find ones that aren’t but they are so much cheaper it doesn’t hurt to try.

  • http://zegiquiltbug.blogspot.com Kelley

    I use a lot of generics or store brands, whichever is cheapest and available. However I now have three items I will never *EVER* buy generic again. Aluminum foil, garbage bags, and ziploc bags. The quality of the foil itself was ok, but the dispenser would either fall apart or the cardboard tube it was rolled on would be dented over the foil, causing the foil to tear and stick to the tube. Garbage bags that get big holes and ziploc bags that don’t come unzipped are not a bargain. But generic oatmeal–ahh! That’s great.

  • Karmella

    What’s funny is that I don’t even think of the Whole Foods private label as a generic – I think it’s often better quality than a national brand and I’ll buy it without hesitation. That’s it though.

    I might consider a generic for a basic item, like granulated sugar – more of something to go into something else. I don’t trust them on more complex foodstuffs though.

  • http://blog.budgetpulse.com Craig

    I try to buy a lot of store named products to get them for cheaper and they usually have discounts as well. Even things like store baked turkey are fine by me.

  • Anissa

    A couple years ago I learned that many major companies (like Heinz) actually make and sell the generic, so you often get the exact same product for less. Just a different label really.

  • Abby

    I am very careful about the foods I buy, avoiding trans fat. I find a lot of generics use trans fat or have more sodium, more sugar, less protein, less fiber, etc. So be careful of food labels.

  • http://www.chasingprosperity.com thriftygal

    Another thing to consider is comparing different store brands. I find that for certain items, the store brand at my local Market Basket is much better than store brands at other stores and even some national brands.

  • JuliaA

    agreed on the whole foods name brand being excellent. it’s priced higher than most store brands, however. i’ve found that the safeway store brand is good quality.

    aldi is a store that used to sell generics exclusively, and now has its own store brands that are really inexpensive. most everything i’ve tried from there is noticeably low quality, however. one exception is the milk. (a gallon for $1.99!)

    • Zach Younkin

      How much is a gallon of milk normal in your area?

      Many stores in my area offered milk for $1.79 if not less. One store even offered milk for $0.99 a gallon!!

  • jeccica simpson

    I have bought generic brands and named brands for years!! There are some products you cant go generic on!! Trust me, you get what you pay for sometimes, but for the most part I believe generic products are very close to the brand names. You paying for the brand name not the product its self, ingredients itself are mostly the same. I say Whoohoot for generic and saving $$$$!!!

  • http://www.gettingaheadblog.com Jennifer

    I am stuck buying specific brands most of the time due to my daughter’s food allergies, but if I can pick and choose, I just buy whatever is cheapest at the time – with a coupon if I have one. I think many people just get stuck buying a particular item and fail to analyze the cheapest option each time they shop. Sales change, which mean the lowest priced items change too.

  • http://madsaver.com Mac

    Over the last 10 years, I’ve gone from a completely name-brand buying kind-of-guy, to store-brand-is-better mindset. If the products are essentially identical, why not spend less for the less flashy box? I’m not eating the box, but the food inside. I do this for most staples, except for cereal. I have yet to find a cereal that comes close to General Mills Oatmeal Crisp (w/ raisons). Love it. Though every blue moon it does go on sale, and that’s when I stock up.

  • Anne G

    I find it varies a lot from product to product, but it is worth trying the store brands. For example for oatmeal I prefer the store brand to the name brand, but the store brand raisin bran is not as good. So I always try the store brands, and then go back to the name brand if I’m not happy with the product.

  • gina

    You really need to do your research on the product. I find that I can often time sales and use coupons for brand name items and get them for cheaper than the store brands.

  • DG

    I think it depends on what you’re buying. Clothes – who cares unless it’s shoes because let’s face it comfortable footwear is important. In terms of medicine, even though I know generic is fine, I go for brand name. Food, I don’t worry that much and neither with some electronics (not laptops though)

    • Karmella

      My doctor friends have absolute fits at the thought of buying brand name medicines – ibuprofin, etc… so I am more than happy to save the money by getting store brands.

  • http://www.moneymakingsense.com Ken

    I think generics sounds like a great idea. My wife’s first thought when shopping is “do I have a coupon for that?” If generics have coupons we might see some at our house. I’ll talk to her about this topic.

    • Karmella

      I’ve seen coupons for the Whole Foods brands – usually in booklets at the store and sometimes on the website.

      • http://www.artificialrobot.com Sean

        They actually just recently added a whole coupon section to their website: http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/coupons/ They also have the Whole Deal flyer they put out. I have to say that in the last couple years they have really done a lot to appeal to more value oriented shoppers.

        • Zach Younkin

          Looks like I have a new reason to shop at Whole Foods!

        • http://madsaver.com Mac

          I’ve never been to whole foods as I always thought they were too expensive…but you guys have me re-thinking this. I’ve always thought of them as healthy but pricey, but if if they’re now offering coupons for their store-brand products, count me in.

        • Elizabeth I

          Whole foods has the most expensive organic milk (surprise, surprise). There are two other grocery stores in Madison, WI that have cheaper organic milk.

          Also, the Whole Foods private label is not necessarily organic. You have to read the label. Thus, some of their items are really quite expensive.

        • http://madsaver.com Mac

          Thanks Elizabeth. That’s good to know. Guess I’ll stick to SuperTarget after all. We’re more price-conscious than we are organically-minded. Sometimes it’s hard to balance both our health and our budget!

  • http://lolmybloglol.blogspot.com/ anthy

    Agreed with everyone else re: food – in most cases, there’s pretty much no difference. Especially if you’re going to use the product for cooking or baking.

    One of the things I’ve had to be careful of is soda. Some generic soda is just really bad.

  • Kim

    If it’s cheaper I will usually go generic most of the time. I have never really noticed much of a difference. However, since I really started cutting coupons and scouring the sale ads, in a lot of cases I can get the name brands now for cheaper than the generic!

  • chris

    There have been very few times where I have been disappointed by the generic product over the name brande item.

  • Skirnir Hamilton

    Depends on the food as to how much difference that I have noticed. WE have a favorite name brand peanut butter (and yes, I can tell the difference) and pasta sauce. We have tried others, but we stick to the name brand. We have a favorite name brand chicken patti (less breading more real meat). But I use a lot of generic. Aldi’s has some great fresh salsa. Some good sliced cheeses, etc. But bought some generic gouda and my husband found it a bit milder than the regular name brand, so sometimes you can tell the difference. But anyone notice how used to the generic was $.75 to $1 cheaper and now it seems to be $.30 to $.50 cheaper. IE a good sale or coupon, and the name brand is cheaper. I have been couponing more regularly once I saw that. Even Aldi’s prices don’t beat couponing. Now it depends one what you buy. Do read the labels though. I tried generic low fat salad dressing and they just added sugar to it. Yuck! I prefer my name brand on that one. I could save more sometimes by going generic, but not always.

    Here is a question for you all. I buy generic medications all the time. But my husband is a bit uncomfortable with dollar store generics for pain killers. They don’t have much in my Dollar Tree store. Any opinions? He will say okay to Walgreens, CVS, Target, etc. But not to Dollar Tree.

  • http://makingcentsoutoflife.com Kristin @ Making Cents Out of Life

    The savings between the generics and the name brand can be astounding but as a die hard couponer I have a hard time buying generics when I can put a little work into it and buy the name brand sometimes even cheaper than generics. When there’s no coupons that’s when the name brand vs. generic fight starts in my head. My problem is on the few,, and I do mean very few, brands we’re quite loyal to. My cheese must be kraft, my dogs’ food must be Purina Little Bites else they starve, and my bagels must be Lenders. I don’t have any other brand preferences that I can think of, and usually if I can’t find a sale with a coupon I can substitute or just do without until a sale. I guess I’m just cheap to the core. If I have to pay for toothpaste it makes me mad!

  • Winston

    Since I am a poor student, I don’t really care about the taste as opposed to price. I tend to buy whatever is the cheapest. Obviously name brands taste a little bitter than store or generic brands. But the taste is only fleeting; they all end up in the same place afterward.

  • Elizabeth I

    I really look at what is in the product, if there is high fructose corn syrup, count me out. Thus, I do not opt for many generics in the store. I am a budget hitter. I make my budget each month, but as I save more, I try to convert more food items to organic. I find that our family is really healthy which is amazing since we have a child that is medically fragile.

    How do I do this? 1) I know what items should cost… ground beef, chicken breasts, milk, yada…yada…yada…. Thus, I know if the “special” is actually a special. (For example, last week one grocery store had kiwis on sale for .40 each…sounds good, the other grocery store had a bag of 8 organic kiwis for 2.79…the generic “on sale” kiwis are 3.20/

    2) I buy in bulk at the grocery store. I really like coffee and I purchase Starbucks coffee for $5.80 a bag. One grocery store carries it for over $8 a bag. My other grocery store carries it for $7.30, but every other month, has tons of $1.50 coupons taped to the bags. I buy 8 bags…that’s $12 in savings…

    3) I make food from scratch. I have some kitchen gadgets–a yogurt maker and a bread maker. I have made enough yogurt and bread to cover the cost the appliances. These items are easy to make and super cheap too.

    4) Double coupons. I accidentally found out that one of my grocery stores has double coupons on Wednesday (only 5 though, only up to $1). Now I look for all of the $1 off coupons I can find on items in categories that I would normally buy. This week, I have $1 Nutella coupons and that $3.15 jar is going to cost $1.15. I have three of these coupons.

    5) I base my meals on what is on sale, and also like I said, I stock up when items are on sale. It isn’t uncommon for me to grab 7 packages of Purdue chicken breasts when they are $2.50 a package. Then I make lots of chicken dishes. Also, when meat isn’t on sale, I normally have a couple of things to choose from so I don’t have to buy meat that is not on sale.

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  • DALE wYRICK

    I have changed the way I eat and saved money doing it. i only buy whole foods and avoid anything packaged and processed. My grocery trips are more simple and less expensive. I dont have to compare brands and generics when buying an apple

  • Audrey H.

    We use generics & store brands a lot. I agree it really does save money to do so. I also find great sales when a new generic is introduced in my store.

    Two items that I do notice the difference in quality are corn flakes. I’ve tried several generic & store brand corn flakes & so far I still like Kelloggs best.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dustinwiese Dustin Wiese

    I never knew there was a difference between generic & store brands?

  • Texastrucker

    I like Brand names, however I buy what we can afford which is usually generics. I get ridiculed for doing so. If there is a certain amount in our budget I can’t make sense of knowing this and purposely spending more to get the brand names therefore making it harder to keep food on the table. Sometimes generic might not taste as good, but the object is to have more money for the things we need in this tough economy. It boils down to how much self discipline we have or how spoiled we are. When gas is $3.89-$4.30 and milk is $3.99- $6.00 and $300.00-$600.00 light bills. I really don’t have a craving for brand names.

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