It's hard to deny that eating out has become ingrained in American culture in recent years. But while checking into a hip restaurant and snapping pictures of your food from every angle certainly feels cool, there are more than a handful of benefits to deciding to stay in instead. Your family is likely to be healthier, and you'll save a fair bit of cash, to name a couple.
Grocery shopping isn't exactly cheap, however. According to the USDA, the average American family puts 33 percent of its income toward groceries every month – an average of $290 to $323. Of course, there's a way to help mitigate some of that cost and still take advantage of the perks of eating in: buying generic.
You can buy generic products over brand names for everything from food and condiments to sunscreen and seasoning, and sometimes the cost difference can be more than just a few pennies on the dollar. But with so many savings to be had in opting for store brands over the big labels, how many people are really buying generic products, and how much money is it really keeping in their pockets?
We surveyed more than 500 shoppers to learn which generic brands they trusted the most, who had the best prices and quality, and which brands they preferred for products from body wash to ice cream. Read on as we break down the real value of generic products and their savings.
Dependable Store Brands
When asked to rank store-brand products by a variety of factors (including cost, quality, and, in some cases, taste), we found one retailer reigned supreme in terms of overall average ratings: Costco.
Even though shopping at Costco requires a paid membership to access its low-cost (and often bulk-sized) products, the company still ranks as one of the largest retailers in America, coming in just behind Walmart. Wholesale club shopping has its perks, but there are certain Kirkland products (Costco's in-home generic brand) shoppers tend to swear by.
Just behind Costco, grocery store chains Trader Joe's and Kroger tied. It probably doesn't hurt that Cookie Butter, the No. 1 best-selling product at Trader Joe's, happens to count as a generic product and is largely considered as delicious as it is versatile. Following the top three stores, Walmart and Publix tied for third place, and Target and Wegmans were deemed even for the fourth-place spot in terms of the best store-brand products.
Aces in Their Places
For most shoppers, there are two major considerations when it comes to buying almost anything: cost and quality. The same thought process goes into how consumers decide whether to buy store-brand products over mainstream offerings, although the retailers who offer the best value may not always stack up in terms of their overall quality.
Only one retailer, Costco, earned the same ranking position for both cost and product quality. Others, like Walmart, generally earned high marks for one component but not the other. While Walmart tied with Costco for the most competitive price point on its Great Value-branded items, it earned a much lower score for quality. Still, certain Great Value products are actually manufactured in the same factories as their big-brand equivalents. Conversely, Whole Foods, which was recently acquired by Amazon and immediately started rolling out savings programs to Amazon Prime members, earned the second highest rating for the quality of its generic-branded products but the lowest rating for price.
Best of the Best
Beyond their label preferences, consumers had specific ideas about which products (and generic labels) they preferred when it came to everything from bottled water to paper towels.
Compared to some food items, shoppers almost always opted for generic medication over name-brand products. In practically every case, both generic and brand-name drugs tend to have the same dosage, side effects, intended use, and overall strength. For buyers, this can be very good news, since brand-name drugs tend to come with far higher price tags. Walmart's Equate and Great Value brands earned the top spot for both cold medicine, followed by CVS Health and Well at Walgreens.
Except for milk and bottled water (both Great Value), people preferred the brand-name product as their first choice on coffee, ice cream, peanut butter, and cheese. Coffee and dish soap were the only two products where participants didn't vote a single generic brand into their top three selections. In terms of coffee, Starbucks isn't just the cream of the crop when it comes to getting your caffeine fix – it also ranks as the fast-food chain Americans are the most loyal to, beating out McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts.
The Anatomy of a Buying Decision
Not everyone approaches purchasing store-brand products the same way. While price and quality often rank as the two most pressing concerns for any household item or grocery store purchase, it isn't the only thing that factors into buying one item over another, particularly when it comes to customers' demographics.
While Gen Xers paid the most attention to price, and baby boomers did the same for quality, millennials often ranked very different factors as key considerations. Unlike older generations, millennial shoppers had the highest regard for criteria including positive online reviews, brand-name recognition, and packaging. Millennials are often classified as a different kind of shopper in contrast to Gen Xers or Baby Boomers, and while roughly a third of all their consumer spending happens online, millennials are also far more likely to follow big brands on social media, which could influence their preference for high-quality packaging and trendy flavors.
Asian or Asian-American shoppers also rated price and quality as more important considerations than any other race or ethnicity, although performance mattered more, on average, to shoppers identifying as Hispanic and familiarity with the product to an African-American audience.
Paying for the Name
With so much talk about the value of store-brand products over their mainstream equivalents, you might wonder how much in savings are really at stake, especially if so many of the products are similar or even identical in terms of ingredients and taste. As it happens, you could be forking over serious cash when you opt for the big-name brands over their generic twins.
With peanut butter, picking between Walmart's Great Value products and a brand-name equivalent like Peter Pan might not seem all that different when you get to the cash register. At 11 cents an ounce compared to 13 cents, buying a 40-ounce jar of one brand over the other adds up to just a $1 difference. Of course, if you decide to buy Smucker's instead, you could be paying nearly three times as much for a similar product. At 30 cents per ounce, a 16-ounce jar of Smucker's could cost you $4.69 on average compared to $4.37 for more than twice as much product.
While coffee, cheese, and milk fell into similar cost discrepancies between generic labels and big-brand options, we found only one product had a price increase of five times from generic to brand name: ice cream. Buying a 48-ounce tub of ice cream might only set you back $2.50 at Kroger, or 5 cents per ounce. If you decide to reach for Ben & Jerry's instead, expect to pay for it. A 16-ounce tub of "Chunky Monkey" or "Stephen Colbert's Americone Dream" will set you back $6.99 on average, or 44 cents per ounce.
No matter how you slice it, buying food is one of biggest drains on any family budget. And while eating out tends to have the biggest negative effect on your wallet, the amount of money you'll save through grocery shopping and eating in depends entirely on the brands and products you decide to buy.
As we found, certain generic brands like the ones found at Costco and Trader Joe's have earned a reputation as being both less expensive than their brand-name equivalent and of a quality consumers trust enough to bring into their home. While the difference between big-name products and their generic equivalents can be a few cents here or there, buying generic on pantry staples like peanut butter and ice cream could save you major dough.
Methodology and Limitations
We collected 514 survey responses that make up the data represented in the study above. Of these respondents, 227 identified as female, and 287 identified as male; 52 were baby boomers, 118 were Gen Xers, 337 were millennials, and seven belonged to generations outside those listed. The national average for the price per ounce of various items came from the Consumer Price Index provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics from their 2016 data. The name brands mentioned in the study were gathered by first compiling a list of the top-selling brands for each category before questioning respondents on which they actively purchased. Brands were excluded if they didn't have a sample size of at least 25 respondents who purchased them.
The generic or store brands featured in this study were chosen from a list of major national and regional grocery stores and then narrowed down by which store brands our respondents actually bought. For this study, we did not factor in that buying in bulk can result in a lower price. Price per ounce for each item was calculated by converting all weights into ounces, and dividing the price of the item by its weight in ounces (item price/weight in ounces = price per ounce).The slides that do not contain a national average do not have one because the Consumer Price Index did not contain data on those items.
Fair Use Statement
Want to help your readers save at the checkout aisle? The results of this study and all the related graphics found on this page are available for any noncommercial republication with a link back to this page included on your site.
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