Back when we were flush with cash, I had an easy relationship with brand name products—I bought them. In the few cases where there was an easily discernable choice, e.g. some basic food item like frozen corn or canned tomatoes, I would do a comparison between the brand name and generic product. Sometimes there was no difference, and I’d start buying the cheaper version. But often there was a difference, if just a slight one, and I generally didn’t bother trying to quantify its worth; the extra expense wasn’t significant, and so I’d buy the brand name.
And this only covered a miniscule portion of the items we bought. More often it wasn’t feasible to do a thorough comparison of the brand name and generic products—baby food? car seats? garden tools? DVD players? laundry detergents? clothing? tires?—and a brand name is, well, a brand name. Some company had poured lots of money into creating an aura of quality for its products in my mind, usually not based on any tangible facts. So when it came to choosing between a brand name product and its generic equivalent, saving money was usually less important in my mind than the feeling, often baseless, that the brand name product was somehow better. Often it was, at least in subtle ways, and that reinforced my preference for brand names. But rarely did I sit down and think through whether the difference was worth the price.
The preference I’m describing here is different than a preference among brand names. I’ve been unplugged from the media long enough that I can barely distinguish between the different brands in most categories. The only loyalty that occurs to me offhand is a nostalgic one, a preference for Japanese cars over American, and for Hondas over the rest. I’m sure if my first car had been a Toyota or a Nissan, or even a Ford or Chevy, that preference would have endured as well. But still what matters is that it be some sort of brand name—I wouldn’t have hesitated much to take any of the brands mentioned above, but I would have probably hesitated about a Kia or Hyundai, and probably still would since those brands aren’t established in my mind.
As cash becomes more precious to us, my behavior is changing. When I buy food now I will almost always buy the house brand except when it has been established that we just don’t like it. Sometimes our dislike of a particular house brand will lead us to not buy the product at all; nobody seems to make a palatable generic Triscuit, but since real Triscuits are more than double the price of the generic, we either buy Triscuits when they are deeply discounted, or not at all. Some house brands are better than others; Kroger club crackers are much better than the Wal-Mart version, and since both are less than half the price of the Keebler kind we make sure they are on the list when enough Kroger-specific needs have accumulated to make a trip to Kroger worthwhile.
We use disposable diapers, and until recently we bought Pampers because they seemed to fit our kids better than Huggies; house brands were not even in the running when we first started diapering. The prices of brand name diapers are both high and variable; I always made a special trip if needed to K-Mart or Wal-Mart, where I could get a box for around $20, while in the grocery store they run $25-28. Then a couple of months ago I happened to check the prices at Wal-Mart and was unpleasantly surprised—the higher-priced house brand (White Cloud) was only $13, and the lower-priced one (Parents’ Choice) $11. I bought small packages of each, and after a few uses we decided that the White Cloud diapers were significantly better than the Parents’ Choice, well worth another $2, and while not quite as good as Pampers we could live with their shortcomings in order to save 35%.
Even more shocking was when I priced baby formula. Peter wasn’t getting enough calories from nursing alone, so we decided to supplement with formula, something we’ve done with at least one other child. Initially I bought Similac for $25-28 per can because, well, that’s what we had always bought. Then I happened to notice the house brand (Parents’ Choice) was less than half the price, about $13. Same size. Same ingredients. Can’t testify about the taste, but Peter didn’t complain about it. I suppose they aren’t completely identical—but how can I even begin to compare the differences, much less judge whether they are worth the difference in price to me?