Best everyday products

Our testing will help you decide what to buy at the supermarket and big-box stores

Published: November 2014

Photo: Jeremy Liebman

The American supermarket may be having a midlife crisis. Gone are the days when a weekly outing to one store for all household needs was the norm. Not surprisingly, supermarket sales have plunged about 13 percent over the past 20 years, according to Mintel, a research company in Chicago.

Where are all of the shoppers going? To discount megastores, warehouse clubs, organic groceries, and the like. In fact, big-box shops have more than gobbled up the gap, with their food-retail sales jumping almost 14 percent in the same time frame.

With that smorgasbord of options, shoppers are taking advantage of the full buffet: hitting one store for bread and milk, another for produce, and a third for paper products. Roughly 50 percent of American shoppers say they visit at least five types of retailers, according to a 2014 report from Information Resources, a research firm in Chicago.

While you’re at the megastore, it may be tempting to throw a few rolls of the house-brand toilet paper into the cart along with the pint of Ben & Jerry’s—after all, store brands are an average 22 percent cheaper than national lines. But is that the smartest choice? That’s where Consumer Reports comes in.

We decided to create the ultimate shopping list of the products you use most. We tested hundreds of everyday items, including food, paper goods, cleaners, and more. Quite often, store brands proved almost as good as, if not better than, their name-brand counterparts.

To find out the winners and losers, download a PDF of our must-have shopping guide and this breakdown of store brands vs. name brands.

What to get and what to forget

Check our past coverage of what to get and what to forget at WalmartCostcoHome DepotLowe'sSears, and Target.

Insider Tips From Savvy Shoppers

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If you have a beloved product, know that it might not be there the next time you shop. Indeed, one common complaint about Costco is that favorite items suddenly disappear. “If the item has an asterisk above the Costco price, it’s being replaced by different stock,” writes our Facebook friend Gary Kulak. Also pay attention to the price itself. If it ends in “.97,” the item has been marked down and could move quickly.

Split bulk orders

You might not be able to get through that 10-pound bag of carrots on your own, but there’s no reason you can’t split it, along with the cost, with a friend or relative. Warehouse-club shoppers also report big savings by upgrading to premium membership plans with cash-back rewards. “I love my annual rebate check that more than pays for my yearly membership,” says Facebook friend Susan Dunlap.

Balance out your spending

“I do most of my shopping at Whole Foods and Costco,” writes Edward Zelnis, another Facebook friend. “ The extra money I spend on fresh food at Whole Foods is more than offset by the money I save on everything else at Costco.”

Know where the deals are

Our latest Consumer Reports supermarket survey of more than 27,000 readers found that certain chains have consistently lower prices. They include warehouse clubs Costco and Sam’s Club; and supermarkets Aldi, Fareway Stores, Market Basket (Northeast), Save-A-Lot, ShopRite, Stater Bros., Trader Joe’s, and WinCo.

Compare unit prices

The shelf tags below products let you know which package size—by ounce, quart, or sheet—is the best deal, our experts say. Bigger tends to be cheaper, but not always.

Beat retailers at their own game

Stores try lure customers with weekly specials on staples, such as soda and paper towels, and raise prices on other goods to offset these “loss leaders.” Stock up on the discounted items and pass on the overpriced stuff. Another store trick is quantity-based promotions, for example “Five cans for $5.” You can usually just buy the one can for $1.

Check the return policy

“I love Costco’s return policy,” says Face­book friend Elizabeth Nieves. Many items can be returned at any time. Sam’s Club has the same policy, and it goes one better on fresh meat, seafood, bakery items, and produce, offering a 200 percent money-back guarantee if you’re not fully satisfied. Certain supermarket chains, including Bi-Lo, do the same; Hannaford backs its store brands with a twice-your-money-back guarantee—proof that retailers are putting more stock in their store brands.

Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the January 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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