This article was written in 2011 and may contain out of date information. Browse more recent articles.
The National Consumer Agency just did a pile of research on shopping and pricing. As exciting as that sounds, it actually created quite a stir in the press and on the radio because it showed that we’re just not shopping around as much as we though we were.*
But there were other fascinating sections in the report - gems in the rough if you will – and they just needed someone to come along, tease them out and throw some unscientific opinion on top. Sure, people are suckers for special offers (and I count myself as one), price is the biggie in deciding where the shopping is done and everybody finds it really hard to compare the prices of prescription drugs from pharmacies.
But the section of the report I found the most interesting is this: apparently more than a third of the stuff we put into our shopping baskets these days is own-brand.
For persons of a certain vintage this is an amazing statistic. Us relics from the dark ages well remember the face-burning embarrassment of being seen with Yellow Pack tea or Thrift biscuits in our homes. Back in the wet and gray 80s, own-brand produce was considered to be vastly inferior and no cost savings could put that right. It didn’t help that the packaging was truly horrible and the names like Thrift and Yellow Pack were desperate too.**
But if the NCA is right, we’ve come a long, long way since the 80s. We’re turning our backs on the big brands and trusting the Tescos and SuperValus of this world to give us decent stuff at a decent price under their own brands.
According to their research, we are now prepared to fill a third of our cupboards, a third of our fridge and a third of our bathroom with own-brand products... Or so survey respondents have said.
So the question is, are we really all chugging away on generic beer, eating own-brand cereal, and when our friends pop in for a cuppa, feeding them nameless biscuits and Tesco Tea?
Well... not really. When was the last time you showed up at a party with a six pack of own-brand beer or a bottle of Tesco wine?
And that’s just it. The NCA has shown that we are very selective about the products we’ll buy from the own-brand shelves - and beer most certainly is not one of them. In fact, social products like beer and products that say something about us are the ones we mostly buy with a well known brand name.
It seems that what goes into our shopping trolleys has a lot to do with appearances. For the most part, if it’s going to be seen by or shared with people we know, we’ll probably buy branded. If it isn’t, then it’s own-brand all the way.
According to the NCA, 89% of us always buy branded beer, 84% of us always buy branded tea and 70% or us buy branded soft drinks.
On the flip side, 74% of us buy own-brand toilet roll! 67% buy own-brand cleaning products and 56% of us buy own-brand milk. In fact, of the 19 products surveyed, only these three - toilet roll, cleaning products and milk - were regularly bought by more than half of respondents as own-brand. For everything else we tended towards the brand names.
Cheap and nasty?
What wasn’t mentioned by the NCA survey is just how far own-brand products have really come. I’ve been having a bit of fun with this so far, but this is huge business, and the very clever trick of repackaging own-brand products has really worked. Rather than calling stuff “Yellow-Pack” and “Thrift” and wrapping them up in horrendous packets that just screams cheap & nasty, supermarkets are now calling their own brands “Superior Quality” and “Finest” and putting them into nice subtle packaging. This is marketing genius and we’ve swallowed it hook, line and sinker.
This incredible shift in perception has meant that it’s now perfectly ok to buy own-brand products and comfortably feel like you’ve just picked up some fine quality superior groceries. We’re even paying more for them. The “finest” revolution in own-brand products has allowed supermarkets to charge more for some of their products under the guise that they are actually “superior quality”.
Because of this huge shift in perception, it would have been interesting if the NCA had asked their questions differently. If they had asked whether consumers were buying own-brand ravioli or pizza, or own brand prepared meals I think they would have seen a lot more products tip past the 50% mark.
Prepared meals is where the supermarkets have really taken over with their own-brands. Their success in this area has given them the confidence to pop their superior finest quality labels on all sorts of other products - even traditionally snobby stuff like wine and posh cheese. While considering this piece, I necked a few glasses of own-brand wine and it’s not at all bad. But 20 years ago I wouldn’t have gone near the stuff for shame.
And on that thought, I’m off to grab a trolley full of Tesco toilet roll and a good clutch of their finest wine. My goodness, maybe I’ll even give the beer a go!… or maybe not. I just can’t imagine my Guinness by any other name.
The NCA Market Research Findings on Shopping and Pricing can be seen here
*The shopping around angle of the NCA report was very well covered by Niamh Hennessy in the Examiner.
**For those born in the 80s or later, Thrift and Yellow Pack were once the own-brand labels of leading supermarkets operating in Ireland. Yellow Pack became an all encompassing phrase used to describe generic, cheap and sometimes poor quality products and services.