Name Brands vs. Store BrandsThe October 2009 issue of Consumer Reports contains an article extolling the virtues of generic store-brand products. While shoppers used to sacrifice quality when choosing generic, that’s no longer the case. From the article:

If concern about taste has kept you from trying store-brand foods, hesitate no more. In blind tests, our trained tasters compared a big national brand with a store brand in 29 food categories. Store and national brands tasted about equally good 19 times. Four times, the store brand won; six times, the national brand won.

In other words, store brands offer roughly the same quality as national brands, but at a much-reduced cost. How much reduced? Consumer Reports says that the store brands they tested cost an average of 27 percent less than the name brand equivalents.

How much can you save?
Sometimes theory is one thing and reality another. It’s nice that Consumer Reports can score great deals on store brands. But could I? Last week, I walked to two local grocery stores to do my own research. First I looked at Safeway, where Kris and I shop most often. Next, I walked across the street to Fred Meyer, a store we usually try to avoid. (The store is huge and its layout makes little sense to me.)

I spent an hour in each store, roaming the aisles, looking for representative prices on a variety of items. I tried to pick one item at random from every section of the store. When I’d finished, I had a list of 25 products for which each store carried the same name brand and their own store-brand equivalent.

The results actually surprised me. You can save a lot of money with store-brand products — far more than I suspected. Here’s the raw data from my research:


Click to open larger image in new window

The first column lists the name-brand item I used as a basis for comparison. I’ve given each store two columns, one for the price of the name-brand item, and one for the generic item. On each line, red text indicates the highest-priced option and green text indicates the least expensive option.

Here’s a closer look at some of these comparisons:

  • I’m out of my Head and Shoulders shampoo. I just threw away the bottle this morning. Normally I buy actual Head and Shoulders at Safeway, which costs me $5.99 if it’s not on sale. If I were to instead buy the Fred Meyer store brand, I’d only pay $2.49 — a savings of nearly 60%!
  • At Safeway, standard Charmin two-ply toilet paper costs $10.99 for 12 rolls. At $9.49, the store brand isn’t much cheaper. But if I were to go across the street to Fred Meyer, I’d pay just $4.89 for the store brand. (Actually, Kris and I get our toilet paper at Costco, and I have no idea what we pay.)
  • Hungry? For $2.17, you could buy a can of generic chicken noodle soup, a box of generic saltine crackers, and a bottle of generic root beer at Fred Meyer. To buy name-brand equivalents at Safeway would cost you $6.18. (You could eat three of those meals using generic Fred Meyer food for the price of one meal from Safeway.)

You get the idea. Buying store brands at Safeway would save nearly 22% for the items on this list. At Fred Meyer, I could save over 36%. And Fred Meyer store brands cost 44% less than name brands at Safeway — without the need for a “loyalty card”.

A note on methodology: While conducting this survey, I faced a tough choice. Which price should I list? The non-sale price for each item? Or the sale price? Of the 25 name-brand items listed, 15 were on sale at Safeway and 14 were on sale at Fred Meyer. (There was a lot of overlap on the sales, too.) At Safeway, 20 of the generics were on sale; 10 were on sale at Fred Meyer. I chose to list non-sale prices because it’s impossible to know which items are on sale when.

Running the numbers
I learned a number of things from this project. First off, we’re shopping at the wrong grocery store. Buying name-brand products at Safeway is the most expensive way to go. Based on this list, shopping at Fred Meyer instead would save us nearly 12%, even without moving to generics.

Second, generics are not always a bargain. On 10 out of the 25 items, the Safeway generic cost as much (or more!) than the name-brand equivalent at Fred Meyer. On the other hand, Fred Meyer store-brand items offer fantastic savings, especially when compared to Safeway’s name-brand selections. (The items on this list were 44% less expensive!)

Another factor to consider is that some stores have a better selection of store brands than others. Subjectively speaking, Fred Meyer seemed to have about double the number of generic items that Safeway had — and often had multiple sizes or varieties. They carried several types of store brand salsa, for example, while Safeway’s selection was more limited. At both stores, the generics were generally staple items: rice, toilet paper, tomato sauce, etc.

Conclusions
“We should buy more generics,” I told Kris after collating my data.

“We do buy generics,” she said.

“We do? Like what?”

“…” she said (proving for once that Kris is not always right!).

Though Kris and I do a lot of things to save money, we don’t actually buy a lot of store brands. We’re not opposed to them — we just stick to brands we trust. This brand loyalty costs us money. Here’s how Consumer Reports put it in the article that inspired my research: “Switching to store brands can be a painless way to cut your grocery bill.” They’re right.

After conducting this experiment, I realize there are four key steps to saving big bucks on groceries. More than anything else, these actions can help struggling families cut costs:

  1. Grow whatever produce you are able. The more you grow, the more you save.
  2. Buy store brands whenever possible.
  3. For everything else, do your best to purchase items only when they’re on sale. (This may mean developing a grocery price book.)
  4. Learn to clip coupons, especially for processed foods.

This exercise was eye-opening in another way. I discovered that shopping at Safeway costs us money. If the data here is representative, then switching to Fred Meyer could save us over 10% on our grocery bill. That’s enough to let us dine out one extra time per month. Or it’s more money we can save for our trip to France next year.

Kris and I are both wary of switching from Safeway to Fred Meyer — as I mentioned, there’s more to this decision than price — but I suspect that if we give it a chance, we’ll find ways to deal with Fred Meyer’s annoyances and save money in the process.

136 Comments