It's Personal: Big brands in a store-brand world

Paper towels at Wegmans in Collegeville. Grocery chains are replacing big brands with private-label products at a stunning clip. MARIA PANARITIS / Staff
Paper towels at Wegmans in Collegeville. Grocery chains are replacing big brands with private-label products at a stunning clip. MARIA PANARITIS / Staff
Posted: April 06, 2012

Ah, the TV jingles and catchphrases that once lured us into buying big-name breakfast cereals, deodorants, and other essentials. How those Pied Pipers of marketing coaxed cash from our wallets, leading us to snatch the stuff off supermarket shelves, week after week, with little thought of anything but, "I want it. I need it."

I'm cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs! (Cocoa Puffs cereal).

All right, Bubbles! Get ready to hit the dirt! (Dow Scrubbing Bubbles).

Please don't squeeze the Charmin (Charmin toilet paper).

There were not many no-frills offerings back in the big-brand heyday, and the few shoppers who bought them did so at the risk of mild social ridicule - or the disappointment of their taste buds - even if to the benefit of their personal finances.

Had the latchkey generation of the '70s been told that one day, Cheerios, Frosted Flakes, and the other ballyhooed brands fed to us during TV-saturated childhoods would one day be challenged by store brands, we might have responded with the dazed confusion of the late Phil Hartman's "Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer" character from Saturday Night Live:

My primitive mind can't grasp these concepts.

And yet, here we are, in a postrecession, high-unemployment age that has done exactly that, spurring the proliferation of what the industry terms private-brand, or private-label, groceries. They've been around for years, but never have they been so in the limelight, muscling their way onto shelves like a late-blooming diva on a crowded stage of A-listers.

Supermarket chains have been replacing big brands with their own products at a stunning clip since the stock market crash of 2008 and the low-grade economic recovery that has made many shoppers permanently judicious at the register. Gone are aisle after aisle of Madison Avenue-marketed goods. Those high-profile stalwarts now stand side by side with lower-price competitors commissioned by the very stores themselves.

The trend is so hot, so profitable to supermarkets, and so on-target with shoppers, that just this week, the Food Marketing Institute announced its first-ever "Private Brands Summit" for industry insiders.

And Consumer Reports said this week 72 percent of people it questioned in a survey said they bought store brands - and 89 percent of that group believed store brands "are as good as or better than national brands," according to the magazine.

That's right - in this nostalgic era of Mad Men, no-frills has become the cool commodity.

How cool? Well, considering that supermarkets make higher profit off these products than they do with national brands - and they can sell them at lower prices - big companies have been rushing to redesign packaging, introduce new products, and flood the market, literally, with them.

Giant Food Stores in May redesigned the packaging and labels of the roughly 2,000 Giant brand products it sells at its supermarkets.

A month later, the corporation that owns Acme Markets and several other chains, Supervalu Inc., renamed its own brand products Essential Everyday. And earlier this year, the company announced those goods would be sold at independent grocery stores, too.

Even big-box retailer Target, which has aggressively expanded its grocery offerings to include fresh produce, has been heavily promoting its brands, including in a mailer not too long ago coupon discounts on its Up & Up brand baby wipes, hand sanitizer, even vitamins.

The trend was in-your-face evident during a stroll through Wegmans this week in Collegeville. At virtually every turn, it seemed, the grocer based in Rochester, N.Y., had set up hard-to-miss displays of its own products, or loaded shelves with its brands.

Wegmans panty liners: $2.19 for a box of 56 ($3.91 per 100), compared to a box of 48 Kotex liners selling for $2.79 ($5.81 per 100). At the end of an aisle was a towering display of Wegmans and Bounty 12-pack paper towels. Wegmans brand: $12.99. Bounty: $17.49.

Nearly half the shelf space in the pasta aisle was devoted to 16-ounce boxes of Wegmans, selling for 89 cents. Right next to it, same-size Barilla was selling for $1.29, and DeCecco for $1.99. San Giorgio, with its signature red boxes, was barely noticeable.

Giant spokesman Christopher Brand said customers shifted away from national brands after the economic downturn, so Giant responded by doing in-store taste tests and reformulating hundreds of its own products accordingly.

Consumer Reports' own tasters are testament to the improved quality of what's offered by some grocers. They've given top marks to store brands sold by Whole Foods, Wegmans, Trader Joe's, and Costco.

The whole trend is quite a shift for a country whose real Mad Men made spending and branding a national pastime.

You know, Tony the Tiger used to sell us on Kellogg's Frosted Flakes by roaring through his cartoon mouth that they were, "Grrrrrreat!"

These days, even a cartoon tiger would be out of a job. All it takes to sell us on sugarcoated gluttony is a label on a shelf that shows that the price, above all else, is right.

Contact Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431, or follow @panaritism on Twitter.

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