Store Brand or Name Brand? 5 Tips to Help You Choose

Photo (cc) by Paul Jerry

I’ll admit it: I can be cheap.

If I see three prices on the shelf, I’m normally going to pick the lowest – more often than not, the generic or store brand. I’ve got plenty of company. With store brands about 25 percent cheaper than name brands, two-thirds of Americans are choosing them, says Consumer Reports.

But store brands and generics come with risk attached. While they’re often just as good, that’s not always the case, and you don’t want to get short-changed when it comes to quality or taste.

Through trial and error, here are five things I always buy generic:

  1. Alkaline batteries – As we discussed in Are Brand-Name Batteries Better Than Generics?, the major difference between name brand and store brand is cost. Don’t bother shelling out the extra few bucks; in many cases, you’ll end up getting the same amount of energy for less.
  2. Eggs – If you cook at home a lot, you should always have eggs in your fridge. And if you’re not concerned with buying organic eggs, use the store brand.
  3. Sugar – It seems store brands tend to clump together more, but since it dissolves anyway, buying the store brand is the smart move.
  4. Plates and bowls – As long as the plates look decent, are dishwasher-safe, and don’t blow up in the microwave, there’s no reason to pay top dollar for plates and bowls. You can pay $75 for this single Ralph Lauren dinner plate or you can pay $23.49 for 12 regular ones at Amazon.
  5. Pasta – Pasta goes for about $1.35 a pound, according to the BLS. But I get it cheaper when I buy store brands. Locally, pasta goes on sale for $1 per 1-pound box. The main ingredients are the same: durum wheat and semolina.

Now, being cheap doesn’t always result in a win. Sometimes I buy something and realize I’d have been better off with a name brand. Here are five from my never-again list:

  1. Flour – If you’re using flour for basic cooking, such as breading chicken or making waffles, store-brand flour is fine. But if you bake your own bread or make your own pasta, buy the name-brand, unbleached stuff. It has a silkier-feeling, finer grain that bakes into a tasty texture.
  2. Light bulbs – One or two store-brand incandescent light bulbs will do in a pinch, but if you’re buying a bunch, you’re better off buying an energy-efficient bulb. They last about six times longer and can save about $6 a year in energy cost compared to a traditional light bulb, according to EnergyStar.gov.
  3. Juice – This is a toss-up, so check the ingredients. For example, quality orange juice should have one ingredient: orange juice. Watch for brands with high-fructose corn syrup or list a water ingredient before the juice ingredient.
  4. Silverware – I’ll pay more for silverware that’s dishwasher-safe. Check it for a grade of 18/10. It has a better corrosion rate, according to the Cutlery and Allied Trade Research Association.
  5. Socks – I don’t mind paying more for socks. Store-brand socks tend to unravel and wear away more quickly than name brands. Name brands also offer more options, such as odor absorption and thicker padding, which could be important if you have an active lifestyle. And in winter, my feet freeze, so I’ll opt for thicker, name-brand socks.

How to decide…

The lists above work for me, but your priorities and tastes may differ. Follow these generic tips and you’ll walk out of the store with the best values…

  1. Compare and contrast – The best way to tell if you’re buying a good value? Compare the ingredients. As we found out in 7 Things You Should Always Buy Generic, over-the-counters like store-brand acetaminophen share identical ingredients with name brands like Tylenol. If you’re comparing something like clothing, feel them side by side. Look at the stitching. While it’s not always possible for the untrained eye to spot the difference, it often is.
  2. Stick to trusted ingredients – I avoid foods with high-fructose corn syrup, mechanically separated meats, and hydrogenated oils. Compare nutritional value labels and see if the two match up. You don’t want to buy a high-fat product loaded with sugar when the name brand is more nutritious.
  3. Ask your friends – You’re not limited to one store. Ask your friends what generic brands they like and why.
  4. Compare unit price – Make sure you’re comparing apples to apples. Look at both brands’ unit price, not the overall price. Sometimes container size distorts the cost.
  5. Try before you buy (a lot) – Generics and store brands aren’t cheaper if they’re not as good and as a result, go unused. Don’t be tempted by super-sized discounted generic packaging until you’re sure you’re going to be happy. Start small. And when you find something that works, or doesn’t, make a note of it.

And speaking of making notes of what works and what doesn’t, how about you? Share your generic successes and failures below or on our Facebook page.

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