Taste Tests Find Private Label Holds its Own Against the Big Boys

September 13, 2010
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Professional tasters find store brand products competitive with their name-brand counterparts, a Consumer Reports study finds. What’s more, its price study finds private labels save shoppers more than $1,000 a year on grocery bills.
"For a family that spends $100 a week on groceries, savings could add up to more than $1,500 a year,” says Tod Marks, senior projects editor for Consumer Reports.
The study evaluates five supermarket chains and compares store- and name-brand prices for 30 everyday items, collecting a total of 283 price quotes. Consumer Reports finds 30 percent average savings with store brands, but shoppers save as much as 52 percent on some items.
At least 84 percent of Americans purchased store brands in the past year, and 93 percent of store-brand shoppers say they would keep buying as many store brands after the economy recovers. Nationwide, store brands account for almost one of four products sold in supermarkets and a record $55.5 billion in sales last year.
Consumer Reports finds nutrition similar for most tested products, despite a perception among 17 percent of survey respondents who say that "name-brand foods are more nutritious." The most notable differences: Mott's applesauce has more sugar than Publix, Ore-Ida fries have more sodium than Jewel and Kellogg's Froot Loops have three grams of fiber versus one gram in Stop & Shop Fruit Swirls.
Although shoppers say they purchase store-brand paper goods and plastics, at least half of respondents rarely or never buy store-brand wine, pet food, soda or soup. But Consumer Reports trained testers find that for something like soup, a name brand didn't always reign:
  •  Chicken soup: Food Lion's (36 cents per serving) Lotsa' Noodles soup beats Campbell's Chicken Noodle (41 cents per serving) for its more intense flavor.
  • Orange juice: Publix Premium wins over Tropicana for a bit less of a cooked flavor with slightly less bitter taste.
  • Hot dogs: America's Choice (A&P, $2.64 per package) beef hot dogs trumps Oscar Mayer ($3.65 per package) for its juicy and flavorful franks.

In 21 head-to-head taste match-ups, national brands won seven times, the store brand came out on top in three instances and the remainder were ties. Name brands wins include mayonnaise, mozzarella cheese and frozen French fries, but most the match-ups find store brand and name brand of similar quality. A tie doesn't mean identical tastes. Two products may be equally fresh and flavorful, with ingredients of similar quality, but taste dissimilar because the recipe or seasonings differ. Some products that tied include:

  •  Ketchup: Heinz ($2.76 per bottle) is spicier, while Target's Market Pantry ($1.17 per bottle) brand more tomatoey.
  • Peanut butter: Tasters detect more deeply roasted nuts in Skippy (19 cents per serving), while Albertsons (15 cents per serving) hints of a molasses flavor.
  • Potato chips: Both Lays (29 cents per serving) and Walmart's Great Value (15 cents per serving) balance real potato flavor, fat and saltiness.

Consumer Reports notes the private label price advantage may be narrowing and that national-brand makers have lowered prices and stepped up promotional activities.

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