FIRE Savings – Store Brand vs. National Brand Products

Readers that know me know that I spent my career working for MegaCorps and largely running branded food businesses. My job was leading a team to figure out the best way to get consumers to choose our soup, yogurt, granola bars, or frozen pizza over our competitors – which included the low priced store brand. With TV advertising, cents-off coupons, new flavors, sponsorships, “new & improved” recipes, and in-store price promotions, we did everything we could to fight store brand products and maintain consumer preference.

Despite that (and still having a fair amount of MegaCorp stock options yet to be exercised), I am today suggesting that you get to know store brand packaged goods as a modest way to cut your spending.  I may lose a few MegaCorp colleagues that are subscribers by saying that, but managing your spending is key to reaching financial independence and early retirement (FIRE) and food is the third highest annual budget category for most households after housing and transportation.

Store brand or private label products aren’t anything new. They represent a growing share of total consumer packaged goods sales (almost 18%) and the majority of Americans (70%) say that they are a good alternative to branded products. As a brand marketer, I fought hard to ensure that our products delivered higher quality, better features, and more value than store brand competitors, but not all brands take the challenge seriously.  They should, because consumers are increasingly switching to store brand products and retailers are getting more savvy in how they market them.

Here are a four reasons people may have ignored store brand products and why they shouldn’t:

1. Store Brand Savings Seem Small – Yes, the savings on an individual private label purchase comparison seems small. It may be just a couple quarters more for a box of brand name cereal like the Kellogg’s Raisin Bran in the photo above versus the Target Market Pantry knock-off next to it. But this savings multiplied across 20-30 items in your grocery cart can mean $10-15 of savings each shopping trip. Trip after trip, year after year, the savings add up.

2. Quality Is Better Than You Think – Retailers make higher margins on the products that have their names on it than they do on the national brands. They also want you to be loyal to their store, so that motivates them to get the quality right. I attended the Private Label Manufacturers Association show in suburban Chicago a few years ago and was very impressed with the quality of the store brand products in most categories.

I can tell you that I n numerous blind taste tests of MegaCorp branded products relative to store brand competitors I was regularly surprised at how well they could knock off our flavors, textures, and claims. When tastes are slightly different, preference is often only a result of conditioning – the more you eat something, the more you get used to it, and that becomes what you prefer.

3. Store Brand Goods Are Amazing Investments – When you buy a store brand product you may not think about it’s investment return, but a $2.54 box of Raisin Bran offers the equivalent of a 19.1% immediate return on your investment versus buying the $3.14 branded alternative. Where in this world could you get an immediate, guaranteed return on your investment approaching twenty percent? At that level of return, you should be looking for as many store brand products to work into your weekly spending as possible.

4. Think Store Brand Beyond Grocery – Store brand products are most widely accepted in high-frequency, commodity categories like milk, bread, laundry detergent, and paper products. That said, some of the biggest savings are available in categories that people consider a big or extra important purchase – medications, vitamins, and beauty products. While these products are generally no more difficult to engineer, consumers seem to avoid them because they are big buck purchases with higher potential consequences. I would suggest trying them and you might be surprised how similar they are. A two-pack of Target Brand multipurpose contact solution is over $5 cheaper than than the Opti-Free version at my store ($11.29 vs $16.99).

Clothing is another area where store brands make a huge difference.  My father worked as a JCPenney manager when I was a kid and they built a massive business in store brand, private label apparel including Arizona Jeans, Stafford Shirts, and St. John’s Bay casual wear.  It is said that a century ago, founder James Cash Penney was frustrated by vendors who would not sell him their products, so he started marketing his own merchandise in 1914, starting with Marathon Hats for men.

Given the amount of branded products people consume every day and the amount they can save from private label, I’m surprised that store brand products are still relatively small in the US.  Store brand consumer packaged goods products are much more developed in Europe, where they are typically purchased by a third of consumers – more than 40% in the United Kingdom.

I did some fun with math to see how much someone could save by switching 15 brand name grocery products a week for store brand products and I was surprised it wasn’t higher. It added up to only $11K over 25 years.  That would be $17K dollars if all of the saving would be invested at 8% a year. That would probably only get folks to early retirement a few months early, but it’s something, I guess.   Combined with non-food products and house brand clothing options, maybe you could shave a half-a-year or even a full year of working off your FIRE escape plan.

What are your views on store brand products – critical for your FIRE journey, or not worth the bother?

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13 thoughts on “FIRE Savings – Store Brand vs. National Brand Products

  1. We were actually talking about that this morning when my 6-year old daughter was eating cereal and I said “oh, lucky you – that’s a special treat getting to eat Cocoa Pebbles!”

    She corrected me and said, “no, this is Cocoa Rice!”

    We then had a whole conversation about knock-offs and generics. We do the bulk of our shopping at Aldi – the food tastes great and the prices are ridiculously cheaper. The few exceptions that we find out there that we don’t like, we just get from another grocery store.

    — Jim

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great comment about Aldi – they are huge in Europe and a big driver of the store brand trends there. About 85% of their products are store brand. The same applies for their “sister” banner – Trader Joe’s – and their key competitors, Sav-A-Lot and Lidl. Experts predict these small format store brand outlets will almost triple their locations from 1,600 to 4.000 in the next 5 years.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have to agree with Route to Retire about Aldi. I recently started shopping there and it’s awesome! I can wipe out most of my grocery list and I’ve never spent over $20 somehow. The only negative thing about Aldi is that it’s always a zoo! So many people, especially in the produce area. I wish they had wider aisles.
    Your math on switching 15 products to the store brand is really interesting. $11,000 over 25 years for only 15 products. That’s pretty good!


    1. Yes, Aldi really does a lot of business out of such a small location don’t they? You can definitely see why they are growing locations as fast as they can!


  3. We recently began shopping at Aldi and we also find their store brands comparable to name brands with the great benefit of lower prices. Also I love the idea of Aldi’s refundable 25 cents for a shopping cart, cuts down on those annoying carts left in the parking lots!
    Your comment about thinking of the investment return when we purchase store brands is something I had not thought about and I plan to bring this to my husband’s attention the next time we go shopping.


    1. The first time I went shopping at an Aldi was more than 30 years ago in Quincy, Illinois (with my Mom). We thought the 25c shopping cart idea was really odd, but I do remember the store being quite busy, even then!


  4. There will never be a store branded Holiday Shape Cookie!!
    Fun times Eric! I like to think I helped make you such a tremendous success. After managing me, everything else was a cakewalk!


    1. We did great work on that business, Michael – and I still have the Holiday Shape (TM) cookie pictures and wonderful framed prose you put together on my home office wall. Good times together!!


  5. We actually pick the products depending on the ingredients. if there is too much crap in it, cheap or not, it’s not coming into the house. We therefore buy very few brand/no-name brands, most of our foods comes out of the produce section. Cheaper and healthier, win-win. But it does take more time to prepare food as you start from scratch.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes – many are finding that fresher, less processed food are the right way. The food industry is changing quickly to respond!


      1. They are, but once you realize that plain and simple whole foods are always the best option (financially and health wise). You don’t really get impressed/interested anymore 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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