Could knowing when to buy generic save American consumers billions of dollars a year? That's the estimate of a recent study by economists at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and Tilburg University in the Netherlands. The researchers found, for instance, that healthcare professionals are more likely than other consumers to buy cheaper private-label headache remedies, although oddly there is a preference for name-brand alkalizing effervescent. The study suggests that if everyone bought store-brand alternatives to big-name consumer packaged goods, the savings would amount to approximately $44 billion dollars a year.
What other brand-name products are consumers buying when generic will do? We zoomed in on several categories and turned to expert opinion and consumer reviews to determine when "going generic" is a penny-wise decision.
Over-the-Counter Medicine: Go Generic.
The FDA mandates that generic versions of over-the-counter medication contain ingredients identical to their name-brand counterparts. Consumers often can save several dollars or more, depending on the item, by choosing store-brand or lesser-known options. According to the study cited above, the medications that doctors most often buy in their generic form include naproxen sodium (Aleve), Epsom salts, sleeping pills, ibuprofen, and laxative caplets. A word of caution, however: Some people react differently to the generic version of prescription medications, so speak with your doctor about the pros and cons before deciding whether to switch.
Pantry Staples: Go Generic.
In addition to headache remedies, the study examined kitchen essentials. Here, too, people who had worked in the industry were more likely to snatch up cheaper private-label products. The fact that chefs elect to cook with generic ingredients at home suggests there's no noticeable difference in quality. The most common off-brand products chefs tend to buy include baking supplies, tea, baking soda, powdered sugar, and brown sugar. Many prefer name-brand ice cream, though, as well as name-brand grains, juice, frozen baked goods, cereal, and yogurt.
Sunscreen: Go Generic.
In a Consumer Reports test of sunscreens, store-brand items from Walmart, Walgreens, and Target earned among the highest scores overall. Some of the more expensive sunscreens turned out to be less effective at shielding against UVA and UVB rays. With sunscreen, it's more important that the product be labeled "broad spectrum" and "water resistant" than bear any particular brand name.
Batteries: Go Generic.
Duracell, Energizer, or no-name AA -- it doesn't make much difference, according to a test commissioned by DealNews. Five out of six batteries (including one generic) performed almost the same despite large variations in price. The exception was a far more expensive battery with a higher initial voltage.
Infant Formula: Go Generic.
It may sound a little risky to pick a generic baby formula, but this is a highly regulated product that must meet nutritional requirements set by the Food and Drug Administration. The differences show up in texture, flavor, and, of course, price.
Bottled Water: Go Generic (or Go Tap).
A name-brand bottle of water may purport to come from an exclusive spring on a Pacific island, but it takes a truly discerning palate to tell the difference between that and a store-brand bottle. Plus, some bottled water actually just comes from treatment facilities near major cities. Clearly, the cheapest and most environmentally responsible way to get bottled water is to fill up the bottle yourself.
Window Cleaner and Laundry Detergent: Go Name-Brand.
With these two cleaning products it's usually worth spending a little more to buy the brand name. Generic window cleaners often don't work as well, leaving streaks instead of clear windows. (Many at-home experimenters swear by a mixture of vinegar, liquid soap, and water.) The cheapest no-name laundry detergents are also underperformers. They may have trouble dissolving and leave clumps of detergent in your clothing. One outlier appears to be Costco's Kirkland Signature Ultra detergent, which cleans up in consumer reviews.
Packaged Foods: Go Item by Item.
As the Associated Press reported earlier this year, store-brand packaged, canned, and processed food often comes from the same sources as brand-name products. Determining exactly which are merely sprinkled with different seasoning and wrapped in different packaging is next to impossible for consumers. But the simpler the product, one industry executive told the AP, the more likely it is to be nearly identical. A somewhat dated Consumer Reports test recommended store-brand soup, orange juice, and hot dogs and concluded that the quality of generic ketchup, peanut butter, and potato chips was the same as their name-brand counterparts.