Generic vs. name brand: Which one do you shop for?

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Generic vs. name brand: Which one do you shop for?

You’re at the supermarket and faced with an all-too-common dilemma that stops you right in your tracks down Aisle 7: Do you choose the brand name of a given product, or the cheaper generic version?

Or you’re driving down the road and the gas light on your dash tells you you’re almost out of fuel, but you can’t decide: do you save money and fill up at the no-name station on the right, or go across the street and spend a bit more at the more well-known major fuel brand?

At this point, the price discrepancy may be enough to reach for the generic version and save some dough. But you hesitate because of a long-lasting consumer stereotype: Generic is cheaper; therefore, its quality must be inferior. Then there are other considerations: are those generic over-the-counter medications or baby products safe?

Here’s the thing: some generic substitutes are inferior copies to the national brand. Taste, texture and consistency are sometimes just a bit off when it comes to food; build quality may seem flimsier when it comes to appliances; and packaging may look and feel cheap all around. They’re not heavily marketed like the brand name product. But then, better advertising is often the only thing setting apart brand name vs. generic.

With all this in mind, there’s never really an instance when you should choose only a store brand or only a name brand. Here’s how to choose for some of your favorite products, from food to electronics:

  • Check ingredients. Start reading labels, side by side, of a name-brand product and its generic version. In most cases, the ingredients will be almost identical. (Many generic products are manufactured in the same facilities as the name brand.) In the case of medicine, check to see if both products carry the same active ingredient; if so, generic may be the better choice. Also look for ingredients you may be allergic to; the brand name may offer a gluten-free or sensitive skin variety that the generic label won’t.
  • Base your purchase by priority. Products you may tend to use more infrequently, or ones that have a longer shelf life (like certain condiments or energy-saving light bulbs) may be worth buying name brand for the quality. Likewise, if your household goes through paper products, bottled water or regular food staples like bread, eggs or milk like there’s no tomorrow, you may want to consider generic to avoid costs adding up.
  • Try before you decide. You might be surprised that the store brand salad dressing tastes exactly the same as the name brand -- or it could be a salty, flavorless mess. Let your taste buds decide. Does buying the triple-ply, aloe-infused, organic harvested cotton toilet paper justify the higher cost, or will the simple store brand TP do just fine? Trial and error might be necessary before deciding which products you like generic and which ones you swear by name brand. Go for generic if quality or taste isn’t important to you, but saving is.

If you’re still in doubt after a shopping excursion yields you all the wrong products, here are some cases when you should absolutely go for the store brand, and other times when name brand is your best bet.

When to buy generic and save your pennies

Medications

You’re unlikely to see much difference at all between the generic and store brand for over-the-counter medications. That’s because the Food and Drug Administration mandates that similar products carry the same active ingredients, which will be listed on the box. So, if you pick up a box of Tylenol and compare it to the generic version, you’ll see that acetaminophen is the main ingredient in both.

Generic prescription drugs must also meet the same federal guidelines; they’re also noted by the FDA to be up to 85 percent cheaper than the name brand. (Example: At Walgreens, a 100-count box of Extra Strength Tylenol costs $9.79; the generic acetaminophen, $6.79.) Next time your doctor prescribes you medication, ask them if taking the generic is OK, since it can save you money both out of pocket and on your health insurance premiums.

Cereal and staple foods

Professional chefs are said to buy name brand staple foods like salt, sugar and flour only 20 percent of the time, debunking the theory that they only buy the best and most expensive ingredients. Add in other items, like spices and seasonings, and you’d be best served going generic, since it’s hard to taste the difference between it and the name brand. You can include breakfast cereal, too. (Take two competing types of corn flakes at Target. Name brand: $3.19 Kellogg’s. Generic: $1.99 Target brand.) If you’re undecided, go for generic, especially for simple, basic varieties like corn or bran flakes.

Milk

If you picked some generic cereal, does that mean you should buy generic milk? Yes, but not for the sake of being clever and matchy. Some store brand milk is produced locally compared to national brands, so it’s probably fresher and higher quality since it hasn’t been shipped in like the national brand. But that’s not always the case: some generic and store-branded milk are actually produced in the same farm or facility. It’s the same product, but the name brand costs more.

Water

It’s only water, but think about how much we get suckered into advertising for simple H2O. Water sourced from an artesian spring in Norway sounds like it tastes a lot purer and clearer, but how much better is it than what comes out of the tap? If you must buy your water, always buy the store brand. It’s cheaper, and cheaper still since supermarkets often apply discounts if you buy in bulk. The same goes for seltzer fanatics like me; while Perrier and San Pellegrino may be nice to buy once in awhile (they actually do taste imported), stocking up on a few weeks’ worth of 2-liter store brand bottles at 75 cents each can’t be beat.

Gasoline

If name brand and generic were in a drag race to see who wins, what kind of gas would they fuel up with? Naturally, name brand would go with Shell or BP, generic would go with a local, no-name brand -- and generic would win. How so? Fuel is also a regulated commodity that needs to have the same additives and octane levels across the board, so you’ll find few discrepancies between brands at the pump except price per gallon. (And don’t believe what people say about watered down generic gas. If it was, it would be store brand.) Here’s a price comparison for all the friendly motorists in Pittsburgh: according to GasBuddy.com, a gallon of brand-name BP costs $2.49; at gas/service station TasteBuds, $2.38 is the current rate per gallon.

HDMI cables

These high-def-enabling cables for your TV also fall into the store brand vs. generic debate. At Best Buy, a 9.8-foot HDMI cable from AudioQuest costs $459.99. Compare that to a similar 9-foot offering from Dynex at $6.99. (And that’s only at Best Buy. There are even cheaper options at Amazon and the like.) Does that mean the premium brand is better? Of course; it’s silver-plated and housed with copper conductors, and the overall build is more durable. But not enough to justify a $450 price difference. Experts say that even if the better cables improve picture quality, it would be imperceptible to the human eye.

When to buy brand name and splurge a bit

Paper goods

Though it’ll only get flushed, recycled or discarded right after use, paper towels, toilet paper, paper plates, and cosmetic accessories like cotton pads, balls and swabs are worth paying more for the store brand. Be extra discriminating when shopping for these products, since quality can vary from brand to brand, or from generic to mainstream label. For products that you use daily, like toilet paper, paper towels, etc., it might be best to go name brand in almost all cases, since cheaper generic brands are made with just one ply, and rougher in texture.

For products that you use infrequently, like paper plates, it could be better to go generic, since quality isn’t a priority.

Baby care products

It’s ultimately up to you if your baby deserves new, used or hand-me-down items, and shopping for infant formula, baby food, diapers and other infant gear is worth saving money on generic versions. Our adult stomachs and skin might be able to weather the hit-or-miss quality of generic food and products, but you might not want to take a chance on your child. Until they get a bit older, you may want to buy only the best name brand products for them.

Major Electronics

With big-ticket purchases like TVs, refrigerators, washing machines and mobile devices, too, you get what you pay for. Name brand manufacturers like Sony, Samsung, LG and even Apple are head and shoulders above their generic counterparts, not only in build quality, but in features, too. We’re not really a fan of extended warranties on such products (they’re a waste of money), so it may be worth paying more money for an electronic device with a respected label that will last and won’t need a warranty to begin with. Consumer Reports notes that for HDTVs, trusted, major mass market brands, like Sony, Samsung and Panasonic consistently rate higher in picture quality and reliability. On the other hand, those with lesser HD quality and higher incidence of repairs include cheaper off-brands like Insignia, Magnavox and TCL.

Generic or name brand -- sometimes it’s just a label, but sometimes it’s not. No matter what it is you’re shopping for, take several considerations and needs into account, like price, quality, how often you’ll make use of the product, and your own personal preferences (or experiences with a certain brand).

Take an overview of what you’ve bought over the last several months, and you may find that buying a mix of name brand and generic products is the smart way to shop.

Image: Brian Talbot