Where Going Generic Works... And Where It Doesn't

Here at Casual Kitchen we are always seeking painless ways to save money. And one of the most painless of all is to drop higher-priced branded products in favor of store-brand products.

It's may not true for every product, but there is a surprisingly broad range of products out there where the store brand or generic product is equivalent--or even superior--to the branded product. And of course in almost every instance, that unbranded product often sells at an enormous discount.

And thanks to the "miracle" of outsourced manufacturing, which many food companies use with reckless abandon (see my popular post The Do-Nothing Brand to see what I mean) you'll find many instances where both the branded and store-brand products are produced at the very same production facility. In these cases, the branded and unbranded product are essentially identical... uh, except for a fancy label and a 20-100% higher price.

Obviously in cases like these, an empowered consumer should drop the higher-priced branded product and run screaming from the store. Listen: if there's one iron-clad money-saving lesson I can offer readers, it's that habituated buying patterns of branded products needlessly separates you from your money.

If you are a flexible buyer, and you don't have an attachment to brands (or worse, an attachment to the status you think you get from buying certain brands), there's no easier way to save money. Heck, you hardly even have to move--after all, the lower priced product is usually right there within a few inches of your regular product.

Okay. This anti-brand philosophy makes tons of sense, but with what types of products does it really work?

Well, that's where you come in, my dear readers. What I'd like to with this post is identify a list of products where:

a) the store-brand products are worth trying, and
b) where there's equivalent or better value available to consumers if they ditch the branded product.

One quick final word: there is no accounting for taste. If you have a favorite branded pasta sauce or favorite brand of canned mushrooms and are happy paying a meaningful price premium for this product, by all means continue to do so. Opinions differ, and that's okay. (After all, you'll never catch me buying generic dark chocolate). The goal here is simply to identify ideas for other readers to save easy money--if they want to--by trying a much cheaper version of products that we aren't all that particular about. This way, we can all find easy and obvious savings on our grocery bills.

With that, here are some of the products where the store brand product, in CK's view, is equal (or even better) than the branded product. Below that, I have a list of products where I've found going generic has not worked well for us.

Where Going Generic Works:
Pasta Sauce
Dried Pasta
Brown Rice
Split Peas
Dried beans
Almost all types of canned beans
Canned mushrooms
Canned vegetables, tomatoes, canned fruits
Canned stewed tomatoes
Tomato paste, tomato sauce, other processed tomato products
Canned olives
Some canned specialty foods: artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, etc.
Commodity juices, like apple, grape and grapefruit juices
Commodity oils, excluding olive oil
Some dairy products: cottage cheese, packaged cheddar cheese, etc.
Some commodity cleaning products: Bleach, liquid handwashing soap, sponges
Pain-relievers, aspirin, over-the-counter meds

Where Going Generic Doesn't Work:
Cleaning products: window cleaners, dish detergents, etc.
Bar Soap
Branded ice cream

Certain cookies and candy

As you can see, our list of products where we are particular about the specific brand we buy is a lot shorter than the list of products where we don't care. That, to me, is the definition of a flexible, empowered consumer. What's your take?

Readers, now it's your turn: how do you think about this issue? And when do you buy generic, and when do you find more value sticking with a higher priced branded product? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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The Calico Cat said...

for me some of it "depends on the use/recipe"

Canned tomatoes - I'll stick with Muir Glen if I am going to want to taste tomatoes.

Pasta Sauce - if I am not making my own, I'll stick with Newman's Own (family taste test, we prefer this brand.)

Cleaning products - I almost exclusively use Charlie's Soap (not sure about whether or not that is a brand - like "Tide" or not.) for laundry & all purpose cleaner.

I find generic vanilla ice cream to be just fine (Once upon a time ago before mergers, etc. my local grocery brand won a taste test - that store no longer has an ice cream plant) especially since I tend to drizzle it with Bailey's Irish Cream. (We eat other generic flavors too.)

On other things, I prefer to look at the label/ingredient list & make an informed decision based on that rather than brand/cost.

K said...

I don't eat a lot of processed foods, but I do tend to go generic when I do. I agree with you on shampoo though - I found I needed to use more of the cheaper ones, reducing the supposed "savings".

And yes, many companies do pack for more than one customer. I work for a company that makes the same processed food for all of the large grocery chains. And guess what? The EXACT same product sells for over 30% more in the "good" chain as compared to the "discount" chain.

Two more hints to save money when buying processed foods:

1. Meat products (at least in Canada) have to have the establishment number on them, showing where they were produced. While you can use this information to look up the manufacturer, you can also use it to see if the same company makes more than one "brand".

2. By law, products must make both declared weight *and* piece count. So, if the piece count is too low (for whatever reason), companies will increase the weight to ensure the count is met. This increase can be fairly significant (I've seen 5-10% increases), so it can be worth your while to heft more than one package, trying to find a heavier one.

Julia said...

Gosh, I'm not sure I agree with you on many items on this list... I've tried generic dried pasta, for example, and it was gummy and nasty. But to your point if you notice a difference, then buy the brand you like better.

Lately, I've been thinking about local vs. generic, specifically in regards to milk. I can't really taste a difference, and the generic brand is decidedly cheaper, but I want to support the local dairy on principal. I have the idea that more of my dollars stays in the local economy when I support the local producer.

Stuart Carter said...

things where generic don't work for me:

Cheese. Vermont Cabot or a British cheddar. The stuff Kraft and the stores sell is a travesty.

Beer. If I can't afford craft, I won't buy it.

Ketchup. I used to be loyal to Heinz for the flavour till I discovered that Hunts uses sugar instead of HFCS and, oh yeah, is sold in the Dollar Tree :D

Jenna said...

Like K, I don't use a lot of processed foods anymore, and when I do... I'll admit most are generic. But for the few exceptions I'd say it breaks down into 2 categories: Taste & Safety.

Taste is simple - I like a specific brand of tea, my husband (after trying dozens) only likes one kind of coffee. So for those, and a few other rare items, I'll go brand specific and budget accordingly.

Safety... whole other ballpark. Because of allergies and celiac - I HAVE to have certain name brands over others. Can't eat generic oats - gotta buy the 3x pricier Bob's Red Mill. Can't get the unlabeled bulk items - have to go with a name brand that I can trust is contaminant free. I buy Rice Chex instead of the store brand, and stick close to the few processed food companies I can trust. Sadly, a LOT of generic foods default to wheat starch, barley malt, etc as bulkers, fillers, and sweeteners - another reason I end up cooking from scratch for about 95% of our food.

Melissa said...

I love this post!! When my broken foot prevented me from driving last month, Steve had to haul me around to do all the shopping and we got into discussions a couple of times about what I buy generic and what I don't and why and what I've learned over the years since he used to shop with me before. Your name may have been mentioned. ;)

The only things I shop for at the "regular" grocery store are the items you listed. I mean, you covered it for me entirely, and I agree with your entire list. I would never buy generic chocolate or ice cream, but beans and tomatoes? You better believe it.

Funny story. I recently made my homemade barbecue sauce for the 20th time and this time I bought all the bottled ingredients store brand instead of name brand. It was my best batch ever.

And the pain relievers: I only recently started buying the Target brand (Up) ibuprofen. Saves me $5 every time. What a "duh" moment I had when I realized what I had been doing.

chacha1 said...

Dan, *is* there a generic dark chocolate?? LOL I mean, I'm pretty indiscriminate and a regular consumer, and I don't think I've ever seen such a thing. :-) btw World Market sells quite the toothsome selection, right next to the cheap-and-good international wines.

I agree with most of your list. Store brands probably save me a good 20% on a given grocery bill.

My must-have's are Classico sauce and Newman's Own frozen pizza. Honestly can't think of anything else I choose strictly by brand. Ingredients first (+ is it organic, if produce, meat, or dairy), then price.

Jen said...

I agree with the idea of trying generic--it often is just as good. Two products I'd add to your "not as good" list would be toilet paper and facial tissues. The generic versions of those are generally not as good and you tend to need much more of them, negating any savings. You do need to shop around with generics too though. I find some generic brands are consistently better than others, so if you have multiple stores to choose from it might be worth comparing. I don't think I agree with your entire list though. Generic canned beans for instance taste radically different. We eat lots of beans so we did a taste comparison recently of 3 different store brands of beans. The generics were ALL mealy, mushy, and flavorless compared to the name brands. (Of course, homemade is the best but for convenience you can't beat cans.) I'll stick to Trader Joe's brand! And actually Trader Joes is an interesting other category. Their house brand items are basically their equivalent of generic and similar in price, and often they're produced by the same name-brand producers you find in the grocery store. Of course, TJs also has tons of processed and packaged junk food. I find that if I go there with a list and can stick to it, the TJs brand items are much better quality than the generics.

Anonymous said...

Food wise, it's Coke zero, Heinz ketchup, Land o lakes cottage cheese, and triscuits. And no generic ice cream or booze. Worst hangover EVER from store brand vodka. Personal grooming, ditto on the branded TP and tissues, plus feminine hygiene products and band aids.

Most other things I have preferences but I will wait for a sale to buy the branded thing if it is something we prefer. The above I will reluctantly pay full price for if I messed up my planning and ran out

Anonymous said...

I am always willing to try store brand, especially since so much of what I buy are just ingredients and not the end product. However, now that I have a little one running around, I'm reading more labels and looking for products with less "bad stuff," which sometimes means spending more on more natural name-brand products.

What really surprised me was the day I discovered I needed to go name-brand for flour. I bake a lot of bread and with the few ingredients that are in bread, the flavor of the flour really shines through. Store brand doesn't cut it for me, unfortunately.

Like another commenter, I also buy name brand cheese--Tillamook specifically--store brand is gross.

Thanks for another good post!

Carol Cripps said...

I buy generic laundry products, finding them quite adequate, but not dish detergent. The extra amount I have to use negates any saving on the price. Generic ice cream, yeah, that's fine. I buy the store brand vegetables, both tinned and frozen, and they're just as good as the name brand stuff. Where I won't skimp is tea - I have a favourite, and a "back up" brand that's nearly as good, but generics are just tasteless and nasty. Otherwise, your list is pretty much mine, much to the chagrin of my flatmate. I'll buy store brand bacon, too, which she won't touch with a barge pole. She says she's not sure of the quality of the generics, and has been disappointed in the past. Sure, thirty years ago, private label products may not have been up to the standard of "Brand X" but things really have changed, and stores are much more anxious for you to buy their private label goods than they may have been then - so the generics are of better quality.

Also, in Canada, generic flour is milled by one or the other of the two main brands here, and the quality is identical to those.

I can't tell her that, though. She maintains that there is a difference in quality, but I think it's because she expects the generics to be of lower quality, and so, when she tastes them, they are.

That being said, some generics *are* better than others. You do need to do some taste-testing to find which you prefer, but in so doing, you're saving money.

Barbara | Creative Culinary said...

I buy most of the products I use at Costco and even there I often use their generic brand Kirkland. TP and cleaning products included.

And the one item you put on your non branded list that I buy generic at Costco is coffee. It even says on the bag, 'Roasted by Starbucks' so I don't think you could get much closer to the real deal.

Which confirms what's been said before; often store brands are made by the very companies making the same exact products for more expensive brands. I'm not a name brand shopper typically...I want good quality at the best price. Period.

Daniel said...

GREAT insights so far. It looks like it might be a good idea to run a summary of the insights we're getting both here in the comments as well as emails and other thoughts from other readers.

Keep the good ideas coming!


Janet C said...

Well, I will admit to only buying Best Foods Mayo and Heinz ketchup...but I've tried others and don't like them.

As for other pre-packaged foods out there, my choice is often based on the ingredient label rather than anything else. If the generic version has no high-fructose corn syrup, I'll happily buy it. Certain items (especially sweet pickles/relish) are hard to find without a lot of added junk. Del Monte is one brand of relish without the HFCS, for example. One of the few, actually.....

Brittany said...

99 cent store cleaning products are awesome. No problems with generics there. Also, generic v. branded ice cream depends on the brand. The best store-bought ice cream I ever had cost me 1.40 euro for two liters in France, some ridiculously no brand generic. Generic shampoo also works just fine for me. But generic conditioner just doesn't do it for me. I also buy name-brand toothpaste. I think that's about it. Oh, and TUMS. I hate the texture of the generics.

Karen said...

This is interesting from a supply chain point of view. At what point does value get added? Is it the quality of the raw materials (grade A vs C tomatoes), of the processing (longer fermentation times), or packaging and branding? If I were able to determine at what step the branded process diverged from the generic process, my decision might change based on that.
And then what about variation between house brands? Is the Whole Foods house brand the same as the Safeway house brand?
Add this to the thesis list.
And @Anonymous Brandon Cheese is also made in the Tillamook plant so next time by, I'll ask what the differences are.