MY MOMENT OF enlightenment came in the form of a Jo Jo.
This is Trader Joe's store-brand sandwich cookie, which I recently bought on a whim for my husband, a loyal Oreo eater. I was startled when he said he preferred them to his favorite national brand.
Like most shoppers, I've used store brands for years when I thought it wouldn't matter - items like milk, canned peaches, frozen peas. But it never occurred to me that any of them might be better than a bigname product.
I know, I know. Consumer Reports frequently reports that the store brand of something is just as good. I didn't believe it. You get what you pay for in life, but it hadn't occurred to me that sometimes all you're paying for is a national advertising campaign.
I feel like a whole trend in grocery shopping has passed me by.
In fact it has, James Piekarski tells me. He's a trend analyst for Mintel, an international market research firm. In March, Mintel released a study on the 20 best-selling categories of store-brand food - items like cheese, frozen vegetables and cookies. Sales of these store brands in 2004 were up 23 percent from 1999 sales. (In comparison, sales of all items in these categories were up 14 percent.)
And experts say their popularity will continue to increase unless the economy gets better fast. Even then, consumers probably will stick with the store brands they've come to love and take a chance on trying new ones.
"These products are much more profitable for the store," Piekarski says, "so they work hard to promote them."
But profit isn't the only reason stores like their own brands. It's a great way to build customer loyalty. Even with so many choices for where you spend your food dollar, you'll go to Trader Joe's if that's where you can get your favorite sandwich cookie. While you're there, you'll probably buy other things as well.
Four years ago, the Private Label Manufacturers Association commissioned a Gallup Poll called "Store Brands Come of Age." Of those interviewed, 41 percent the supermarket where they usually shopped were better than those at other supermarkets. Seven out of 10 thought they were as good or better than national brands.
Before my husband ate his first Jo Jo, I called these foods "generic brands." That's exactly what they aren't. Good or bad, they are exclusive to one chain (at least in a particular area) and sold under the store's own name or one created by the retailer.
Remember the products with plain white labels and black lettering introduced in the 1970s? Those were generic; and in spite of bad economic times, they didn't sell very well.
Long before the black-andwhites, the supermarket giant A&P had its Ann Page label; but store brands weren't really on consumers' radar until toward the end of the 20th century. No one seems to be quite sure when or why they took off.
A large part of it, says Barry Scher, Giant Food's vice president for public affairs, was that customers simply got used to the idea over time. When they bought products to save money, they found the quality was OK - or better than OK. Although Giant first introduced private labels in the mid-'60s, "They didn't meet with a lot of success because they were so new, and shoppers were extremely supportive of national brands."
Peter Berlinski, editor-in-chief of Private Label Magazine (not related to PLMA), points to the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990.
"It may be simplistic," he says, "but I think it was one key point. It triggered a tremendous upgrading in ingredients [in store brands] and improved graphics."
In other words, consumers for the first time were going to see what they were getting compared to big-name brands.
And while retailers were redesigning labels to accommodate the new information, they also made them look more appealing.
When I told Berlinski that my idea for this story came from my Jo Jo's experience, he said to me, "You started at a good point."
According to him, specialty chains like Trader Joe's, Wegmans and Whole Foods are cutting edge when it comes to store brands. They have been among the first to take the concept one step further by offering premium private labels.
These are designed to be either better than national brands or something consumers can't get elsewhere, like Wegmans Organic Potato Chips With Cracked Pepper. Traditional supermarkets have followed suit. (Safeway, for instance, has its Safeway Select products.) The main draw of these premium store brands is supposed to be quality, not price.
The three-tiered system is one of the newest trends in private-label products: the premium products; then first quality, which are supposed to be the equivalent of national brands but cost less; and finally the economy brands, basic commodities for those looking for the lowest price. Not every grocery store has all three.