Generics are a great way to save money in lots of cases, but there are some clear exceptions. When shopping for these items, the brand matters.
What’s in a name? Well, mostly marketing costs in the case of many brand-name products, like bleach. We consumers are easily swayed by ads that portray products as somehow more effective, more prestigious or higher quality when in fact there are store-brand or no-name products that essentially identical and cheaper.
We recently published an article helping you identify “22 Things You Should Always Buy Generic.”
But there are exceptions, times when going upmarket or with a good brand does make sense, even at extra cost.
Using our own expertise and drawing on reviewers who make their business to test and compare products, we have pulled together a list of products that we think shouldn’t be purchased as generics.
In these cases, spending a little more means better flavor, higher quality, less hassle or less risk.
1. Liquid dish soap
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If you’ve washed many dishes, you know that suds matter and that wimpy, watery dish soaps may be cheap but they don’t do the job.
TheSweetHome, a site that tests household products, assigned the task of testing dish soaps to a chemistry Ph.D. who confesses to “a weird obsession with soap.” She devised an elaborate trial and ran dozens of popular dish soaps through it. The winner: Seventh Generation Dish Liquid. According to the tester:
You can’t beat the cleaning power of Seventh Generation. Bonus: It’s cheap, skips the fragrances, and isn’t tested on animals.
Two runners-up performed equally well, though: Clorox Green Works, which “might be a little harder to find in stores,” and Dawn Ultra Original Scent Dishwashing Liquid, which lost points for testing on animals and the lack of a fragrance-free version.
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When you’re sinking hundreds or thousands of dollars into a TV, spending on a low-end brand is a risk many of us would not want to take. The three brands that rise to the top of Consumer Reports’ 2015 recommendations (subscription required, but many public libraries subscribe so patrons can look up articles online or in print) are Samsung, LG and Sony, although certain models get better reviews than others.
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Home-built computers are best if you know what you’re doing. For the rest of us, Consumer Reports tests and recommends (subscription required) top models in each of several categories (10- to 11-inch laptops, 12- to 13-inch laptops, 14-inch laptops, etc.) All of CR’s most-recent recommendations were top brands, including Apple, Vaio, Dell, Lenovo, Microsoft and Samsung.
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It’s not always true that you get what you pay for, but chocolate may be one of the best proofs of the adage. Like good wine and whiskey, the best chocolate is made by connoisseurs who devote artistry and expertise to their products. The proof is on your taste buds.
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You may decide that coffee is one product you are just not going to splurge on and feel perfectly happy with your local store brand. But that’s not to say that your store brand coffee is as good as, say, Starbucks, which invests a great deal of money in, yes, branding and marketing, but also in product development and the acquisition of superior flavor. Or a local roasting company that spends a great deal of effort in getting it fresh and right. Is it worth the cost? Only you can say. But is there a difference? Yes.
6. Ice cream
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Store brand ice cream? Good for saving money. Often good for reducing calories. If you’re in pursuit of the best flavor, though, don’t veer from premium brands, whether big ones, like Häagen-Dazs, Ben & Jerry’s, Talenti,Tillamook or Blue Bell (to name a few) or your local creamery’s finest products. A peek at the label should reveal just a few ingredients: milk, cream, sugar and maybe eggs, plus the natural flavorings, crunchies and crumbles you love.
7. Pet food
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Federal guidelines — and state ones, too, in some cases — establish a baseline for safety. The Food and Drug Administration says:
Pet food, including dry and canned food and pet treats, is considered to be animal feed. Like other animal feed, FDA regulates pet food and establishes standards for labeling.
And yet, problems slip through the cracks. You’ll probably remember the recalls, in 2007, of pet foods and treats contaminated by melamine, a chemical waste product linked to illness and death in animals. Familiar brands were among those pulled off the shelves by the FDA.
The source of the contamination apparently was nutritional supplements manufactured overseas and used in the production of a number of dog foods and treats. (Wikipedia recaps the scandal.)
Pet food safety, sadly, seems difficult to establish. A look at the FDA’s recalls of pet foods shows the importance of finding brands you trust through careful investigation and sticking with them. Look for products with ingredients that originate in the United States and that are recognizable foods and supplements you’d consume yourself. Or make your own dog food. In any case, keep an eye on the FDA’s pet food recall updates.
Learn more about pet food from DogFoodAdvisor, whose founder and editorial director is a former dentist.
8. House paint
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“You get what you pay for” with interior house paint, professional painters told researchers at The Sweethome. The best paints require fewer coats to cover, last longer and simply look better than cheaper paints, the testing site found. Half of its panel of eight experts named Benjamin Moore Regal Select as their top choice.
Or, as Consumer Reports puts it:
You can choose the most beautiful shade, but if the paint itself is mediocre the end result is likely to disappoint. Our tests find that economy grades of paint don’t perform well overall. A top-quality interior paint can cover the darkest colors in two coats, while lower-quality paints might need three or four.
CR’s top recommendation is Behr Marquee interior paint. Behr is sold exclusively at Home Depot.
9. Garbage bags
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Make the mistake of filling up a cheap, generic plastic garbage bag just once, and you’ll know you have a problem on your hands when you try lifting it out of its container. Cheap garbage bags split, break and tear easily. Spend a bit more for the industry leading brands on this purchase.
10. Spaghetti sauce
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Using an undistinguished spaghetti sauce is like dumping catsup on your pasta, one reviewer says.
It’s telling that if you search the internet for “best spaghetti sauce,” you’ll find recipes, not product reviews, landing at the top of your search results. A good marinara is one of the easiest, quickest dishes to master (here’s a simple recipe).
Sometimes, though, you don’t feel like cooking, or there’s no time. Then, it pays to have a jar of good sauce on hand. One that tastes as great as homemade. Few sauces are up to that level.
Opinions vary but here are recommendations from three sources:
- SeriousEats recommends Rao’s Homemade Marinara Sauce
- Epicurious likes Rao’s Homemade Marinara Sauce
- Consumer Reports deems three marinaras worth the money: Giada De Laurentiis Tomato Basil Pasta Sauce, Mario Batali Marinara Pasta Sauce and Victoria Marinara. “Don’t assume that all sauces by a particular manufacturer will be of similar quality,” CR cautions, meaning that these brands’ other sauces may not be as terrific.
What brand-name products do you buy loyally? How do they align with these recommendations? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.