Is it worth it to splurge on name brands?

The Taste Test

In a taste test, some generic chips tied with name brands, and they cost only half as much.
In a taste test, some generic chips tied with name brands, and they cost only half as much.

Consumer Reports did a blind test, with trained tasters, to find out once and for all whether brand identification was really related to quality or taste. The results are surprising. Of 21 tests, national name brands won seven, store brands won three and the rest were tied. Not necessarily because they were identical, but because they were equally enjoyable in different ways: Heinz ketchup was judged spicier, but Target's Market Pantry private label was more "tomatoey." Skippy peanut butter had a deeper "roasted" taste, while tasters enjoyed equally the "hint of molasses" in the Albertsons house brand.

Walmart's potato chips tied with Lays, at half the price. A Food Lion noodle soup actually beat out Campbell's chicken noodle. The panel preferred hot dogs from A&P's America's Choice label over Oscar Mayer. And there seemed to be no real rhyme or reason to the losses: Name brands won for mayonnaise, mozzarella cheese, frozen French fries and more.

And then, of course, there's the truth about repackaging: Sara Lee does a brisk business making baked goods that sell under store-brand names, Reynolds makes house-brand wraps and containers, and Royal Oak even makes store-brand charcoal. Same manufacturer, same product, just 25 percent cheaper on average.

However, that's not to say that all generics, or store brands, are equal. Most large chain supermarkets carry what's called a "second tier" brand in which the margins of quality are a little bit more damaging. Kroger Value, Albertsons Shoppers Value, A&P's Savings Plus and Smart Price, and Food Lion's Smart Option are second-tier lines that may be slightly lower quality.

In general, the rule of thumb is to look for the top-tier store brands, generally located on lower shelves, and compare price per serving and nutritional value to the brand you think you want. It's not worth sacrificing quality for a few pennies when you're already saving so much by looking into generics at all.

But what about non-food items? What should we keep in mind when we're visiting the rest of the store? Read on to find out.