Mastercheap: Why House Brands Matter So Much

Just how much difference would it have made to the Mastercheap project if I hadn’t relied almost entirely on store brand products? An enormous amount, it turns out.

Of the 18 items which I bought on the Mastercheap shopping list, only two weren’t Home Brand items: the cucumber and the bread. (It turns out that I apparently could have purchased Home Brand bread as well, though it’s a rare sight in my local Woolworths.)

I’ve already explained at some length how I could have bought the same shopping list at virtually any major Australian supermarket for the same overall cost. In the world of house brands, price competition is keen. But there’s a related issue I haven’t yet addressed: just how much money would I have spent if I’d decided not to go with house brands?

While this clearly isn’t an option if you choose to shop at Aldi, it’s eminently possible in many other supermarkets. One study earlier this year suggested that nearly one in ten Australians refuse to buy house brands as a matter of principle, either because they don’t believe the quality is adequate or because they prefer to support independent brands.

Whatever the reasoning, this can prove to be a very expensive decision. As a research exercise, I priced how much it would have cost me to purchase the Mastercheap shopping list at the same Woolworths supermarket while shunning any Home Brand items. I didn’t automatically select the most expensive item on offer: I opted for the one I’d buy myself if price wasn’t an issue. (In a couple of cases, that still meant a store-brand product, albeit a premium-branded one.)

The difference was quite staggering. A shopping list that cost me $24.83 rocketed upwards to $55.03. Remember that this was to purchase exactly the same foodstuffs in practical terms: I wouldn’t have been eating any differently in terms of number of meals or snacks or additional flavourings. I’d just have paid more than twice as much.

That figure ought to give you pause the next time you automatically reach for a “name brand” product. But there’s another important element, of course: the question of whether you get the same quality for the money. (For the sake of this discussion, I’m ignoring questions relating to country of origin, organic status or the like: people who plan their shopping on that basis aren’t looking at it in terms of dollars in their pocket.)

When this issue was last discussed on Lifehacker, the general consensus was that house brand products needed to be judged on a case-by-case basis: some were fine, others were unpleasant, and the only way to learn was to try them. On that basis, I figure it’s worth talking about how the generic products I’ve sampled so far this week stack up against name-brand products I’m familiar with. Here’s my take:

  • Margarine: I like the flavour of olive oil-based spreads better, but actually didn’t find anything to object to with table spread.
  • Tinned tomatoes: My step-aunt told me she shunned Home Brand tomatoes as they were a bit too “green” and “endy”, but I didn’t find that myself.
  • Tinned kidney beans: No difference.
  • Eggs: I normally buy free-range eggs, and I do think they taste a little better — but quite honestly they don’t taste twice as good, which is what they cost.
  • UHT skim milk: No difference to the name brand (and no difference to fresh milk for my purposes, though I know some people say they can taste a difference).
  • Unsalted peanuts: No difference.
  • Packet cake: It’s so long since I purchased a branded packet cake I can’t really compare, but I can note that conventional brands (White Wings, Greens et al) are three to four times the price and generally aim for rather more complex cakes.
  • Jelly: No difference
  • Dry pasta: No difference.
  • Mixed vegetables: I don’t buy frozen mixed vegetables enough to have a basis for comparison. Haven’t found them at all objectionable though.
  • Mustard: No difference.
  • Pasta sauce: As I’ve noted elsewhere, it’s pretty salty. Given a free hand, for once I’d rather make my own.
  • Tuna: No difference.
  • Tropical muesli: No difference.
  • Tea bags: A bit hard to compare as I normally don’t drink tea black, but they taste fine.

For the record, there are definitely house brand products outside this list that I shun at all times (not all of them food), and plenty of items where you’ve got no choice but to plump for a brand item anyway (Vegemite, exotic spices). However, on these kinds of staples, it seems evident to me that going with the store brand will save you a bundle and won’t make a difference to the quality of what you eat.

Which house brand items do you find particularly good value? Share your finds in the comments.

Lifehacker’s weekly Loaded column looks at better ways to manage (and stop worrying about) your money. The Mastercheap experiment sees editor Angus Kidman trying to survive with a weekly food budget of just $25.

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