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The story is a familiar one. Consumer Reports magazine, in its October issue that hit shelves in early September, did a comparison of 19 grocery staples, pitting private label products against national-brand items.
The results? Giant Eagle’s chicken broth beat out Swanson, private label tied in nine categories, name brands won in eight.
That, however, isn’t really the point, according to Consumer Reports Senior Project Editor Tod Marks.
“Pretty much sometimes private label wins a few more, but more often than not, it’s a tie,” Marks said.
He went on to explain that the general public often did not understand how the taste tests could yield so many ties despite different flavors between national brand and private label products in food categories.
The difference, Marks said, was the objective standards that each product was held to by the rigorous taste testing panel. Rather than comparing the products against each other, he said, the products are compared with objective standards of excellence. So a Heinz ketchup and Archer Farms ketchup from Target might taste different from each other – one with more of a tomato flavor and one with more of a spicy flavor – but they met the standards of quality and excellence equally.
“As someone who follows this, and looks at the results across the spectrum, we see that the store brands, the private label brands, have really ramped up their specifications on the whole,” Marks said. “They’re giving customers a cost-effective alternative that can be just as good. Different in some instances, but just as good in terms of quality, the lack of off-notes and defects. They may have a different flavor profile, but it’s still pretty darn good.”
Marks said he has taken those lessons to heart at home. Having recalled the days of generic products in the 1970s, he said the industry as a whole has come far since its misunderstood early rise.
“Generics were a specific class of private label products, an offshoot of double-digit inflation, and the products were put out there to get people an economical alternative in very bad times,” he recalled. “When we did the last story, the economy was worse than now, but retailers don’t want to be associated with products that might hurt their brand.
“One of my favorite things to do when I’m not working is to go to the supermarket and see for myself. If I like it I say, ‘Wow!’ More often than not I’m very impressed with the store brands. I know that retailers take great pride in what they put out to the public today. You often see retailers making a very strong point of it, not only giving money back offers, but in some places giving double their money back. That’s something.”
Marks said the contest this time around did try to branch out. Rather than focusing entirely on national retailers to help broaden its scope to readers, the company checked out regional chains such as Giant Eagle, Wegman’s, H-E-B, and Meijer. But at the end of the day, the conversation he had with experts about the results remained a similar one.
“Are they here to stay or is it a fad, where sales of private label spike in an economic downturn?” he recalled. “While that’s still true, the fact seems obviously clear that private label is here to stay. The quality is good enough – and sometimes better in many categories, depending on the retailer. (Customers) don’t ask the question much anymore, ‘Is this any good?’ And we’ve seen savings of as much as 60 percent! Even if it’s 25-30 percent, for groceries, something you buy every week or even every day, that’s day-in, day-out savings. It’s hard to beat those kind of savings.”