Folk economics: brand names

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?


7 thoughts on “Folk economics: brand names

  1. I just wanted to stop in and recommend a book to you, Pagan Christianity? by Frank Viola and George Barna. It is a very good read and I was thinking I would love to read your review of it, since you normally give such detailed reviews. You can find out more about the book at

  2. Excellent blog entry! We have discovered that some brands really are better — completely destroying my theory that store brand products are made/packaged in the same factory (using the same recipe) as brand name products. I discovered the difference with flour… I purchase unbleached organic flour — usually King Arthur or White Lily but decided to try the Commissary’s off-brand unbleached organic flour. Dreadful stuff! The texture was all wrong — the flavor chalky — and I regretted giving in to the urge to save a buck.

    Of course, buying organic foods (or all-natural, etc) means that the selection can be limited and generic labels may not even appear.

    It is very interesting to note the difference.


  3. We ditched the disposables two kids ago and I will probably spend less than another $100 for the coming baby, just to replace a few worn out cloth ones.

    About the formula… you might check the recipes at WAPF and see if they might lower your cost at all. I think you mentioned your cow was dry right now but if she starts producing again it would probably save you alot if he can drink it.

    We shop at the WFM because I have to buy alot of stuff there anyway and I almost always stick with the store brand there and haven’t found much that we don’t like. The prices are probably a bit higher than Wal-Mart but from comparison at Krogers/King Soopers and other stores they are cheaper.

    Lacy, your belief wasn’t totally unfounded. I know that WFM gets their private label spices from a well-known brand name. Also, my sil who works for a big grocery store said they made the brand names of soda, with a bit of a different recipe than their own, for some other big stores.

  4. I had to supplement some babies, too. I don’t know if it was getting older or something else, but I kept nursing as well as giving bottles. We had goats so used that milk. If you know anyone with goats, you might look into that and ask a midwife if you should add anything to it.

  5. I am in complete agreement with you on this – and generally always go with the generic unless there is an obvious difference in the quality. Had one of those lately though. My Sears Craftsman socket set was missing a 13mm socket that I needed to change brakes on the car. I happend by a peddlers/flea mall that had a set of sockets for less then the one socket was going to run me in Craftsman and I didn’t have to drive out of my way to get it. I was horribly dismayed when the cheap thin walled, likely pot metal sock, cracked and broke out the edge on the very first bolt head I put it on. Lesson learned and I will be heading to Sears sometime later this week for sure.

  6. My hubby has been in the sales end of the food industry for years. All store brands are not created equal. Lacy was actually correct in her original theory … some of the time. Many companies produce “private labels” (store brand) for their more popular items. However not all store brands are produced as a private label by the makers of a well known brand. So while Store A’s mac-n-cheese may taste just like Kraft (and is in fact privately made by Kraft), Store B’s mac-n-cheese may taste like chalk (and be made in some hole-in-wall factory). It’s one of those things a consumer just has to experiment with. Personally, I’ve never found a good substitute for Cherrios nor Oreos. Sometimes you just gotta have the real thing. :o)

    Re: diapers – we’ve always had excellent results with Kroger, White Cloud or Luvs until our last baby. For some reason his skin always reacted (literally overnight – every time) to anything but Pampers. Yikes — working that change in the other direction — store brand to name brand — was sticker shock indeed!

    [And I apologize for jumping in out of the blue since I rarely, *rarely* comment, but you caught me with a smidgen of time and on a topic I knew a tiny bit about. :o)]

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