Are more expensive brands really worth the extra money or do we just buy them for the sake of the name?
Phillip Hodson, fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, says: “When you go for Jamaican blue mountain coffee rather than a generic blend, or quilted Andrex instead of cheap loo roll, you’re pampering yourself. It makes you feel a bit superior.”
Advertising used to be about buying what you needed. Now, the focus has shifted to promoting consumer choice. But, ironically, as Hodson points out, by following brands we’re simply buying into the marketing spin: “We want to keep an image of ourselves as ‘discerning’.”
However, with the economic downturn affecting most households, opting for the economy ranges at the supermarket should not be a cause of embarrassment; frugal is cool these days, and thrift is chic.
According to research by brand specialist Kyp Systems, 39% of shoppers would ditch a brand they had previously been loyal to if they could get a bargain elsewhere. And recent Yougov statistics show 43% of consumers would be happy to switch to supermarket own-brands.
But exactly how much difference does it make if, for example, instead of buying a packet of McVities chocolate digestives costing £1.26, you buy the Asda ‘smart price’ version for 33p a packet?
Your initial saving is 93p – significant, but nothing to get too excited about. But if you buy a packet every week it would cost you £65.52 a year to stick with McVities, compared with £17.16 for the budget alternative. Now, imagine you drop a brand on all the items in your weekly shop – think what you could save in a year, a month or even over just a week.
Moneywise 'drop of brand' challenge
With this in mind, I thought my parents would be the perfect case study for the Moneywise ‘drop a brand’ challenge. My dad, Peter Bonney, doesn’t visit the supermarket as much as my mum, and when he does he doesn’t keep much of an eye on the prices. My mum Chris, however, is a pretty savvy shopper and better at comparing prices.
The ‘drop a brand’ challenge entails opting for the next brand down for all your usual items when you do your regular supermarket shop. That doesn’t mean you always have to buy the cheapest brand – if you normally buy Tropicana orange juice, for example, you might try the Morrison’s own-brand version, or you could drop from a luxury pack of cookies to an everyday range. As well as saving money, the challenge is to see if you can notice any difference in the quality of the goods.
The closest supermarket to my parents is Sainsbury’s in Pinner, North London, but they also shop at their local Tesco and Morrisons. For the purpose of the challenge, however, they stuck to Sainsbury’s in order to be consistent when comparing prices and goods.
The bill from their first shop, buying all their usual choices, came to £73.89 and included pricier items from Sainsbury’s ‘Taste the Difference’ range, such as its salmon fillets and shortbread; branded products such as Heinz soup and baked beans, and Persil and Weetabix cereal; plus a fair amount of own-brand items, such as Sainsbury’s orange juice, butter and hummous.
Although Chris doesn’t pick a lot of economy brands, she still keeps an eye on what makes it into her trolley. “I try to look out for special offers and reduced items,” she says. But Peter adds: “Basically, the brands are more expensive because they’re nearly always better. There’s a reason why economy brands are cheaper – they’re not as good.”
However, Marek Vaygelt, head of consumer consulting at YouGov, says this is a common misconception. He explains: “As consumers drop brands or go for discount items, they often find that they like these different items.”
On their ‘drop a brand’ shop, Chris and Peter replaced their usual items with cheaper versions. Buying Sainsbury’s ‘basics’ range where possible saved them £4.93 for all their fruit and vegetables – and the ‘basic’ bananas were still Fair Trade.
The most significant savings, however, were made on items such as meat and detergent. Opting to forego organic chicken breasts at £9.71 and buying a Sainsbury’s pack of chicken breasts at £6.74 instead shaved £2.97 off the price. Sainsbury’s ‘basic’ beef mince also cost just 98p compared with £2.89 for the supermarket’s lean steak mince, while switching from Persil Bio (£4.28) to Sainsbury’s detergent (£2.62) saved £1.66.
The overall saving was the most impressive: the total ‘drop-a-brand’ trolley was worth £48.70, shaving £25.19 off the previous week’s bill. That’s a saving of £1,309.88 a year.
Saving money was the easy bit though – the real test was to see if Chris and Peter were happy with the different products.
“Where there is a genuine non-branded alternative that is pretty close to the original item, or is to all intents and purposes the same product, then shoppers are usually happy to drop a brand,” says Vaygelt. “However, people won’t switch when there’s a difference in the standard of product – dropping from Heinz baked beans to ‘value’ beans, for example.”
The Bonneys didn’t drop from Heinz baked beans to the Sainsbury’s ‘basic’ range, but they did buy Sainsbury’s mid-range version, which cost 41p compared with 64p for Heinz. Peter wasn’t overly impressed: “You can taste the difference, and you get less beans and more juice.”
Likewise, he was unhappy with Sainsbury’s tinned tomatoes, priced at 56p, even though they were the supermarket’s ‘premium’ version. However, he had no problems with them when they were stirred into a bolognese sauce, and despite his apparently hot brand-radar, didn’t spot the difference between Sainsbury’s ‘basic’ pork pies that cost 98p and Pork Farm’s Melton pork pies for £1.99. “I’ve put them in his lunch all week and he hasn’t noticed,” says Chris.
From Chris’s perspective, although she didn’t mind buying slightly cheaper chicken, she didn’t like dropping to economy mince and lamb chops. “The mince had lots of gristle and the pork chops were smaller and not as nice,” she says.
Other products managed to pass the taste test more successfully: neither Peter nor Chris noticed any difference with the ‘basic’ chocolate digestives or ‘mid-range’ shortbread, suggesting that sometimes it’s only the packaging that costs extra. “If you put the two chocolate digestives on my plate, I wouldn’t be able to choose,” says Chris. Sainsbury’s ‘Taste the Difference’ shortbread costs £1.19 compared with Sainsbury’s own version for 60p.
Likewise, they are both happy to switch permanently from the supermarket’s 98p butter to its ‘basic’ butter for 84p; from 97p orange juice to the fresh ‘basic’ orange juice for 56p; from fresh hummous for £1.01 to ‘basic’ hummous for 75p; and even to ‘basic’ Camembert, which is 66p cheaper than Sainsbury’s £1.74 Normandy Camembert.
The point of the ‘drop a brand’ challenge is not only to see how much you can save, but also to find out if the alternatives are viable as a permanent switch.
Even though the Bonneys say they will revert back to certain products from their original shopping list, they have still managed to find cheaper alternatives in a lot of categories.
And in some instances, they found the cheaper version even tastier than its more expensive rival – for example, Chris found that she preferred Sainsbury’s own Weetabix and packet soups.