It's one thing to save money by buying store-brand paper towels or trash bags, but do you dare replace a name-brand favorite—Heinz ketchup, say—with a store brand? Sure. Our expert tasters judged 33 of 57 store-brand foods as good as or better than the national brand. (Check our supermarket buying guide for details on ways to save at the store.)
In categories such as ice cream, trail mix, mozzarella, mixed vegetables, and more, we found at least one store brand from the national grocers Costco, Kmart, Sam's Club, Target, Trader Joe's, Walmart, and Whole Foods that was equal in quality to the big name. Every store-brand jar of cashews was better than the national brand, for example; and among frozen shrimp, every store brand was at least as good. To be sure that our results weren't an anomaly, we tested two samples of each brand. (Note that products that are equal in quality don't necessarily taste the same: They may have different seasonings or a different mix of ingredients.)
When we pitted store brands against Heinz ketchup and Hellmann's mayonnaise, we found at least one near-twin for each: Market Pantry (Target) ketchup and Market Pantry, Great Value (Walmart), and Kirkland Signature (Costco) mayos. All are more than one-third cheaper than the name brand. Watch the video below for more details.
Moreover, when we had about 50 staffers who usually use Heinz or Hellmann's do a blind taste-off of their brand against the two Market Pantry brands, 45 percent of staffers preferred Market Pantry ketchup (13 percent had no preference) and 41 percent preferred Market Pantry mayo (4 percent had no preference).
Store brands account for about one of every four products in a supermarket— and they're branching into niches that lack national-brand competition: balsamic vinegar, for instance, or chocolate-covered raisins. Their popularity is understandable, considering that they typically cost 15 to 30 percent less than name-brand counterparts, according to an industry expert. As the table below shows, some of the store brands we tested were more than 30 percent cheaper. The name-brand premium is largely the result of advertising and promotional costs that are passed on to consumers.
Costco, Sam's Club, Target, or Walmart were among the low-price winners in every category. Most of the Sam's Club products were 50 percent or even 60 percent cheaper than the name brands, but you'll need to buy warehouse-size packages.
However, store brands aren't always a bargain. Trader Joe's and Whole Foods usually contended for most-expensive store brand. In fact, five of the 10 tested Whole Foods products—cranberry juice, trail mix, ice cream, shrimp, and nuts— actually cost more than the national brand. That's no surprise to Consumer Reports survey respondents, who have told us that Whole Foods has some of the highest prices of any major chain.
Rising commodity costs may ultimately lead to a narrowing of price gaps between store and name brands, says Neil Stern, senior partner with Chicago-based retail experts McMillanDoolittle. In the meantime, take advantage of the lower prices. After all, if you're not satisfied with a store brand, most supermarket chains will return your money. Based on our tests, though, that shouldn't be necessary.