Remember when buying generic goods meant sacrificing quality for the sake of savings? Well, times have changed. Not all off-brand items will compare with the original, but savvy shoppers can get quality products and still save a bundle if they know what to buy.
“When I was a kid, when you would buy off-brand or generic, the cereal was in a big plastic bag, and it was like eating Styrofoam,” says Toni House, author of “Save Your Money, Save Your Family.”
Nowadays, those unmarked bags and inedible wares have largely given way to store brands that are often just as good as the name brands they’re approximating. And consumers are responding positively: In one survey, approximately two-thirds of shoppers said they would choose the store brand over the name brand if there’s a cost advantage.
But that’s not to say store brands have completely bridged the gap. While store-brand pharmaceutical items have identical active ingredients and are, therefore, a close equivalent to the name brand, food and other household consumer products sometimes miss the mark. We spoke to shopping experts who regularly buy store-brand items to find out when they fall short.
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Coca-Cola famously guards the “secret formula” for its flagship beverage so competitors can’t produce an identical drink. So it’s perhaps no surprise store-brand sodas tend to fall short of that Coke taste.
“I don’t know if you’ve tried Wal-Mart cola or any other store brand, but there is nothing that compares to Coca-Cola,” House says. “The difference in price isn’t worth it.”
It’s not the only junk food she insists on buying name-brand.
“Potato chips, I have yet to find a non-name brand that (is) as good,” she says. “They seem to have a more greasy, oily, rancid taste.”
Teri Gault, a shopping expert who runs couponing site The Grocery Game, chimes in with another snack food that doesn’t stack up.
“I haven’t really tasted a store brand that tastes like Oreos,” she says.
Monica Knight, co-founder of couponing site FabulesslyFrugal.com, likewise steers clear of the store brand when shopping for dessert, saying she never buys generic cookies or ice cream. She does make an exception, though, for the freshly baked cookies you can get from your supermarket’s bakery, which she says beat any packaged treats.
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Paper and plastic products
It can be tempting to go cheap on nonfood items that get used once and thrown away, such as plastic wrap or paper towels. But store-brand paper-and-plastic items might not be as durable as the name-brand items.
Jeff Yeager, author of “The Ultimate Cheapskate’s Road Map to True Riches,” says he almost always buys the store brand if there’s a price advantage. But he refuses to buy store-brand plastic products.
“I’ve never been happy with plastic wrap that’s store brand, or tinfoil to a lesser extent,” he says. “The inexpensive, off-brand plastic wrap just doesn’t stick. And what good is a garbage bag if it’s going to break?”
Meanwhile, Gault says she finds store-brand paper products to be a bad deal.
“The toilet paper can be flimsy and coarse, and sometimes the rolls are smaller,” she says. “And the paper towels may not be as durable.”
As always, it’s important to balance quality and sticker price. If you have to use twice as many sheets of paper towel or toilet paper because the quality doesn’t compare, then you could wind up spending more money in the long run.
For toilet paper, some store brands aren’t much cheaper than name brands, so why not go higher-end for them? Brand names are better quality and more absorbent.
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Spreads and condiments
Yeager says that when he’s making cheesecake, his brand loyalty overrides his desire to save money. He refuses to buy anything other than Philadelphia cream cheese, as he finds the store brand inferior.
The same goes for peanut butter.
“I eat an inordinate amount of peanut butter, and a lot of store-brand peanut butter I find to be gritty,” he says. Still, he says he recently found a store brand that seems to have cracked the peanut butter code. “A few months ago I tried the Wal-Mart store brand, and I have to say, it’s different (from) Peter Pan, but I like it a lot.”
House says she has trouble finding store-brand salad dressing that can compare to the established brand names, finding that zesty Italian and ranch dressing, in particular, have proven hard for stores brands to duplicate.
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One might expect that store-brand soaps and detergents, like generic drugs, would have the same active ingredients and thus be close approximations of the genuine article. But expert savers found them to be less effective than the name brand.
“For cleaning products, I typically won’t buy the store brand,” says Knight, pointing to generic laundry detergent, in particular, as falling short in quality.
“I will not buy any off-brand or generic laundry soap,” agrees House, who says she generally sticks with brand names. She does make one exception, though, noting that Costco’s Kirkland brand seems to have figured out how to make good laundry soap.
Why the store brands fall short in the cleaning department isn’t clear. Gault suggests that some store brands she’s come across seem to be watered-down. Whatever the case may be, these deal-hunters are willing to pay extra for the real thing.
When there’s a coupon
Quality isn’t the only reason you might want to stick with a name brand. Sometimes, the genuine article can be cheaper than the imitation, especially when coupons are included.
Name-brand items can be cheaper than store brands when there is a sale or coupon for the product. But there are times when you can double those savings, or stack them, to really come out ahead.
Gault says stacking manufacturer’s coupons with sales can sometimes get you name-brand grocery items for free (for instance, if you have a $1-off coupon for an item that’s been marked down to $1). That’s a situation you’re likely never to find with a store-brand item, as it’s hard to imagine a grocery chain would deliberately offer a sale/coupon combination that would make one of its products free.
That means if you’re willing to take the time to hunt down such coupons and sales, you’ll be able to find prices on big-name brands that blow the store-brand prices out of the water.
These kinds of deals have Knight buying more name brands than she used to. “I used to just buy generic, but since I started using coupons, I’ve found I can get some of the name brands for less,” she says.