Ask LH: Which House Brand Goods Should I Avoid?

Ask LH: Which House Brand Goods Should I Avoid?

Dear Lifehacker, After a recent argument with the rest of my family over the purchase of various no-name groceries from supermarkets, I wondered: What are the off-limit items where house brand goods just doesn’t cut it? Any advice? Thanks, Smarting Shopper

Picture: MOles

Dear SS,

Lifehacker has always taken a simple and consistent approach to house brand products: the only way to know if they meet your needs is to give them a try. Whether it’s Home Brand at Woolworths, Smart Buy at Coles, No Frills at IGA or various in-store brandings at ALDI, flat-out refusing to even sample a house brand doesn’t make sense.

Buying house brand goods can make a huge difference to your shopping budget. Back in 2010, I conducted the Mastercheap experiment, where I had to live for a week on a $25 food budget. House brand goods were a vital part of that experiment; if I had purchased equivalent big-brand items, my cost would have jumped to $55. In other words, I’d have paid twice as much for an essentially identical diet.

It certainly isn’t the case that higher-priced goods will always taste better or produce better results. Blind taste testing by CHOICE a few years ago found that in some categories (baked beans and cheese amongst them), house brand goods rated higher with consumers.

With that said, there’s an equally important point to make: your reactions may not be the same as someone else, so you need to judge for yourself rather than relying on advice from others. As a result of Mastercheap, I concluded that Home Brand meat pies are intolerably awful, for instance, and I wouldn’t purchase them — in that case I think spending the extra money is worthwhile. However, Woolworths still sells them, so clearly there is enough demand to continue producing them. I have made my choice; others have made theirs

Note that the issue of whether the products are any good is also separate from where those items originate. If part of your shopping philosophy is to buy Australian-made whenever possible, then there will be some house brand goods you will almost always avoid, since imports are very common in some categories. That’s your choice, but it isn’t really a reflection of how good the overseas items might be.

Current sales figures suggest that around a quarter of supermarket sales are for house brand goods (though obviously that figure is much higher at ALDI). If you don’t want to buy those products, you still have name-brand choices. But we’d always advise making those choices after sampling what’s on offer at your most convenient local supermarket. If you approach the issue with an unbiased mind, you’ll find options that work for you, and identify the ones that don’t.

If readers have particular house brand goods they favour or shun, we’d love to hear about it in the comments. But remember — individual experience varies. What you like doesn’t represent a universal truth.

Cheers Lifehacker

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  • I think its important to look at the ‘level’ of private label you are buying. Smart Buy and Homebrand are the entry level in Coles and WW, they are designed to a price and the quality hurdles seem lower, while there is still some good product i find it is hit and miss. ‘Coles’ and WW Select are higher and are general an attempt at being a substitutable (or better) product for the name brand, these should generally be safe.

  • I especially avoid the one’s made in China… (unless it’s “appropriate” that it come from there) – I want to minimise my exposure to the next food scare that will inevitably come out of China.
    And generally avoid the ones made overseas. – I want to keep Australians employed.

    • Err… You might want to re-check a lot of the big name brands you buy then because although they might be Aussie companies, most are made from ingredients imported from China.

  • Never buy their canned tuna, it taste like crap and Serena or John West are always on sale somewhere. Bread is good if your making toast but I switched to Burgen rye bread now, pretty much the only thing I buy that I don’t bother looking at the price.

  • Ask LH: Which House Brand Goods Should I Avoid?All of ’em..!!
    Look this has been done to death but it does bare continual reminding, when these guys create their own version of a name brand product they are degrading the competition. Competition that is desperately important to the economy. They’re also getting sneakier about it, some of their packages are becoming indistinguishable from the products they are undercutting, and right in your face on the shelf. Sooner or later, the other producers will be unable to afford to stay viable, and we’ll be stuck with the cheap and nasty crap the big two import from overseas..! For those of you who say you are happy with the quality of these products, well… each to their own, but when the competition is finally killed of you will really be seeing some nasty crap being sold.! The only thing they care about is how much profit they can get for the share holders, their customers are basically money trees that need to be picked clean on a regular basis. Do not buy the home brand products if you value your jobs or your tastebuds…!

    • So it’s so nasty and crap that everyone is buying it and making the others go out of business. Then it’s going to become even nastier and crappier. Correct?

      • Sooner or later, the other producers will be unable to afford to stay viable, and we’ll be stuck with the cheap and nasty crap the big two import from overseas..!Would have thought this was self explanatory, but I’ll see if I can elucidate. Once they remove all viable competition, they will buy in the cheapest stuff they can get and you will have no say in the matter…!

        • I don’t see the connection you are making.

          You say – the house brand stuff is shit. The name brand stuff isn’t.

          Do you really think that so many people will buy the “shitty” product that name brands will not be viable anymore?

          If that is in fact what you are saying, then OK. But I can’t see that happening.

          • It’s a matter of economics. They are in the process of making as much money as possible and they don’t care if it kills off the competition. People, particularly those who have been marginalised, will go for the cheapest product they can afford. That’s not a problem if the product has enough competition to keep the quality up, but if there is no competition then the quality goes down. If this process is allowed to continue the competition will either have to drop it standards or leave the market. This isn’t an opinion, it’s just the way the market works, big fish eat the little fish, except that in this case, because there is very poor regulation of the big two, they are getting greedier and greedier. So in the end they have the market to themselves and we end up with the end product of their greed. Right now we are at the beginning of this downward spiral, and we need to stop it now. Hey we can always start growing fruit and veg in our back yards and barter for the rest, but frankly my yard isn’t big enough and I rather like the variety we have at the moment. So in the end, it’s in my best interest to speak up and try and inhibit the situation before it gets out of hand…!

          • That’s the thing though. The marginalised make up a small subset of the population, and have an even smaller ‘buying footprint’ to WW and Coles. Most people buy a mixture of the two (name brand, house brand).

            If it is shit, people will buy it once, realise and then buy name brand. Where are these people that have a choice, but keep buying something that tastes shit?

          • I think people don’t realise that some of the house-brand products are actually manufactured by the name-branded producers under license. They run the production at a lower acceptable quality standard, and therefore at a lower production cost which translates to a lower supermarket retail price point.

        • I know you said elucidate to be smart but in this context clarify is a better choice of verb. If people continue to use elaborate words when simple ones would suffice pretty soon all we’ll have is elaborate words forced on us by the big two companies (oxford and webster). We should keep it in Australian, maybe something like “let me make this fair dinkum for you”.

          • yeah grammar trolls are always well loved and respected here… so for your information
            Make (something) clear; explain
            seems quite appropriate to me…!

          • I know you said elucidate to be smartActually I used that word because it was appropriate.. (another big word) not because I was trying to be smart. So, Yeah… you started out as a troll, then ended up somewhere else that wasn’t actually funny enough to counter it… 🙂 Not sure why someone using the full extent of their vocabulary is such an issue with some of you guys though…

    • I see this in Woolies all the time. Products I used to be able to buy are no longer on the shelves which are now choc full of WW Select branded products in similar packaging. In some cases the only option is a WW brand with no other brands stocked on the shelves any more. Now I’ve got to go and hunt for certain products elsewhere if I want them. They are sly and are slowly taking away the choice we used to have and eventually will stock only in-house products. We probably don’t help the cause because we like the convenience of getting everything in one place and want to pay as little as possible!

      • You will find that coles woolies etc have a volume policy, if a certain brand isn’t moving stock at the rate they specify, it gets replaced. They don’t remove choice, they remove low sellers.

        • And they replace them with their own rubbish. Those items aren’t being removed because no one wants them btw they just got too expensive, another way to ditch products they want to replace with their own…!

          • I’m with you! I don’t understand how the other’s arent getting it.

    • Have to point it out: ‘bear’, not ‘bare’. (Timmahh is a veteran commenter who doesn’t worry about this stuff but I’d like others to know.)

      • Really… is it really that important to point out a simple error in someone’s comment..? This just confirms my stand on this nonsense. This is not a bloody school room. This just makes you as big a Troll as any other idiot with a Grammar fetish.! I also note that I’ve never seen you personally correct a commenters Grammar before, so why now and on an old post..?

  • Don’t really purchase any homebranded items. Usually tastes like cardboard or is full of chemicals. Except WW Select biscuits or Baked In-Store bread. Most of my purchases are fresh and things are made from fresh not processed / tinned.

  • Homebrand Taco Seasoning is rubbish and devoid of flavour.
    Black and Gold Dishwashing detergent does not clean anything.

    I’ll try homebrand anything. Agree with the Tuna’s for the most part, although the woolworths mild red thai currry has a decent amount of flavour to cover up the crappy tuna.

  • Last week I was sent to the supermarket to buy frozen prawns. I was told “Coles brand” are ok.
    I read the label – product of China. Then under that was the statement “For human consumption only. Not to be used for pets, or as bait.” [paraphrased]
    Umm…WTF? These prawns are not safe to be used as bait, or for pets, but humans are ok?!?!? Needless to say, I went to the deli and bought fresh Aussie prawns.

  • I buy house brand basics like salt and sugar (I mean, salt is salt and sugar is sugar, right?), and some tinned and jarred stuff like diced tomatoes, beans, garlic, ginger, chilli, etc.
    House brand breakfast cereals are hideous.

    • If we wanted to get pedantic about it, some bakers would say that sugar does vary in quality and it is worth splashing out on the CSR, but other than that, yeah 😉

      I think the key point to make here is that the stakes are so very low when it comes to trying home-brand items. You want to know if it’s good but you don’t want to spend $2 figuring it out? Where’s your sense of adventure?! Live a little! If it sucks, throw it out and buy the branded item. Or if you absolutely need it not to suck, buy both at the same time. I mean, this is among the least important decisions you’ll make this week, right?

  • Woolies was out of Old El Paso refried beans the other day, so I bought a can of their Woolworths Select Refried Beans. I slathered it on my burrito and took a bite, and OH MY GOOD GOD it was foul. I literally plucked the empty can from the trash double check I didn’t buy dog food by accident. Thinking about it now make me gag.

  • For me the house brands are usually crappier mostly for the number of ingredients they include and the quality of those ingredients – both which will have an impact on your health in the long run. Do a side by side comparison of a few items and you’ll begin to see that you’re consuming a lot more preservatives and other God forsaken crap that shouldn’t be touched with a ten foot pole. The only house brand stuff I buy is milk, bread (unless one of the better brands are on special) and sugar.

  • Please people read carefully and think about your decisions in the super markets. Choosing house brands can damage competition and Australian business. Where possible choose Australian made branded products. I also see products I used to buy disappearing off the shelves and replaced by house brand. I also keep reading of growers, farmers and producers going out of business. At the very least read the labels and don’t buy Chinese sourced food for God’s sake. Buy Australian where you can. Garlic from China and Mexico only? I grow garlic in my garden so it’s not like it doesn’t grow here….

  • I like to buy a mix of named and home brand goods. If something is good, regardless of the brand, I’ll buy it again. If it’s crap, I won’t buy it again. Although as people have already mentioned, I’ve noticed that home brands are starting to multiply, and now each major supermarket doesn’t just have one home brand, but are bringing out more home brands. I get that the newer ones are supposed to be of a higher quality, or something, but I really wouldn’t be surprised if it was made in the same factory as the cheaper stuff. :/ As for the home brands being placed in more prominent locations, if people are silly enough to buy the first thing they see, rather than looking for their preferred brand (assuming it’s still stocked), then they kinda deserve whatever they get.

    One thing I certainly won’t be buying in home brand again (other than toilet paper D: ) is tomato sauce. Coles brand tomato sauce is so bland and watery. D: I suspect the only thing “tomato-y” about it is the colour, and even that’s dull when compared to named brands.

  • My wife used to do the shopping, spend hundreds and come home with bugger all. I took over and went in with the rule of “I will try the coles brand of everything, then decide”
    Well a year or so later the only things i rule out are;
    chicken nuggets are terrible,
    toilet paper is crap
    literally everything else on the shopping list is now coles brand. i’m feeding a family of 4 on about 150 a week.
    I don’t care where its made or how many caged chickens have a shitty life. If you need to squeeze a good chunk of money from your weekly shopping budget at least try the home brand stuff before ruling it out.

  • Each commodity should be looked at in isolation – no rule to cover ‘All home brand is ok or all home brand is awful’.

    Generally: the salt content in homebranded goods can be higher and unhealthily so, water content is also high and where did that water come from?
    Sugar levels generally higher, ‘filler’ material also higher ie: chocolate sauce with no cocoa in it all all but colouring and sugar to simulate chocolate.
    Tuna is a classic: Australia closed it’s last Tuna Canning facility in SA earlier this year and now the catch the Tuna here, ship it to Thailand where it gets mixed in with every other nations Tuna and we get 6-8 brands of Tuna all from the same facility in Thailand with no way of knowing the origin of the Tuna – not to mention the cost to ship our fish to Thailand and back again…stupid environmentally destructive for economic purposes only and we get mystery Tuna which is of lower quality than the previously Aussie-Canned Tuna. ( I now buy salmon instead as I know its origin).
    Heinz Baked Beans ‘packed in New Zealand’ but they imported the beans from … who knows where? SPC is now the only Baked Beans I will touch as they are aus grown, tasty and travel less kilometres to get to me aswell as supporting the workers of SPC in Victoria.

    Know where you’re ‘product’ originates, take into account the waste of energy used to transport it to you and cosider the benefits of paying a little more to support local produce, local canning, local delivery, less energy waste on triple handling items as they travel the world to where the labour is cheapest and regulations lowest on workers rights and environmental standards.

  • I’d argue that you should avoid all house brands and thereby contributing to the rapidly increasing homogenisation of our shelves. Unless you want to walk into a supermarket in ten years time and see single lines for every product – or, at best, a ‘premium’ and and ‘economy’ generic – that is.

    But hey, gotta save that twenty three cents on Weet Bix.

    (I’d also argue that you should shop elsewhere, but that’s another story.)

  • Something that 99% of consumers and an equal percentage of politicians reacting to the latest supermarket pricing kerfuffle of the week don’t realise. Coles & Woolies (and to a lesser extent IGA who rely on Metcash Group for most of their wholesaling) DON’T ACTUALLY MAKE THEIR BIGGEST REVENUE FROM SELLING GROCERIES (AKA ‘lumpy goods’) to you and me. You know where the biggest bottom line is for them ? Selling shelf-space to the manufactures !!! Why do you think Coca-Cola is always at eye-level, along with Heinz baked beans, Lean Cuisine frozen dinners etc ? And the ‘own branded’ / generics are too high or too low to reach without bending / stretching ? So what you and I do as consumers doesn’t actually matter at all to them. As long as the BIG players are prepared to keep paying for premium ‘Gondola Space’ and other shelf-spacing, they don’t care. It’s not like own-branding is likely to effect the ‘big players’ anyway – it’s only the smaller manufacturers going under. Less manufacturers mean a concentration of ownership and a smaller supply chain – which makes everyone on the ‘selling side’ happy, it just screws you and me ! 🙂

    FYI – This is one of the insane things about the Australian retail / supermarket landscape – they don’t put up with this kind of rubbish overseas.

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