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Battle of the brands: are generic products a good buy?

On one shelf, Bounty paper towels -- "the quicker picker upper" -- beckon to prospective window washers and stove cleaners. On another, generic paper towels -- rather drab looking with no zippy slogan to boast of their prowess -- vie for the same buyers.

In the arena of America's supermarkets, brand names and generics are competing for the money of inflation-dizzy consumers. And consumers are beginning to clap loudly for the challenger -- mostly because "no names" cost from 5 to 30 percent less than brand name equivalents. But does the generic contender really deserve the cheers? Is the value- price trade-off from brand names to no names really worth it?

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When the only difference between a generic and a brand name product is the cost of advertising, promotion, and fancy packaging (generics virtually have none of all three), it is worth it. But sometimes generics may be so poor in quality that the brand name proves the better buy.

Actually, there is no one generic contender. Hundreds of manufacturers, whether Scott Paper Company or a small Midwest canning company, supply the generic market. And a grocer doesn't necessarily stock from the same supplier every week (this is true about many store brands also). The generic fruit cocktail on this week's shelf may not come from the same manufacturer as the generic fruit cocktail on last month's shelf.

This game of generic musical chairs can be disconcerting to the consumer who consistently experiments with products to determine which ones are good enough to buy on a regular basis.

Because so many manufacturers produce generics, it's difficult to pinpoint which items deserve the most praise. But the following guide gives an idea of possible quality differences between categories of generic and name brands.

* Household products: Concerning dishwashing liquids, Consumer Reports magazine recently suggested computing their "real cost." CR researchers developed an efficiency factor -- based on how well a given amount of detergent cleans -- for a number of leading detergents and some generic brands. Multiplying this factory by the product's price gives the real cost of the detergent. According to the magazine's February 1981 issue, the real cost of the generic detergent it sampled was $9.75 for 32 fluid ounces. The real cost for the same amount of Ivory (one of the better rated) was $2.15.

The generic brand tested by Consumer Reports needed frequent replenishing to keep suds (which trap dirt) from disappearing.

S. Schachter, controller for generic-producing Sanford Chemical Company, describes top-quality liquid detergent as containing 30-35 percent solids. "A generic detergent usually has 15-20 percent. Sometimes it takes double the amount of generic to do the same job."

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Mr. Schacter adds that "increasing the amount used does increase the solids; but this in turn increases the abrasives which could be damaging to sensitive items."

* Paper products: Generic items often have a lower wet strength and weight than brand names. They may also have little or no color and softness. To the bargain-seeking consumer, however, this may not matter.

Depending on the job to be done, wet strength (the amount of strain paper can take when wet) and weight (absorbency) can make a difference. For someone who just wants to use a towel for wiping a knife, it doesn't matter if that one sheet can't wipe up a milk spill. On the other hand, no one likes disintegrating tissue paper.

* Canned food: "Generic brands are perfectly safe," says Helen Horton, director of consumer services for Miles Laboratories Inc.'s protein nutritional division. "The nutritional value of standard [generic] and extra standard [ private label] canned goods is equal to fancy grade [brand name]," says Robert Harris, president of Alliance Associates, which acts as a broker for private label and generic producers.

Mr. Harris explains that the US Department of Agriculture gives these grades based on maturity of product, workmanship, clearness of packing liquid, and size uniformity.

Generic canned fruit then might be a little over or under ripe. Jams might originate from Mexican strawberries (less costly but not as sweet) or bruised fruit (this could affect taste). Peas might be harder. Beans might be oddly shaped. Canned fruit might be packed in light instead of heavy syrup (many consumers actually prefer this). Pasta might be a little darker and take longer to cook. Cake mixes might substitute shortening made of animal fat and vegetable shortening for pure vegetable shortening.

Harris also points out that there is absolutely no content difference between many generic and name brands. "Regardless if bleach is Clorox, Stop and Shop, or generic, they are chemically identical. . . ." While chemically identical, however, the strength of bleach can be different according to the concentration of chlorine (the active ingredient), which can vary from 3 to 7 percent.

In some cases though, the consumers who buy generics are really buying name-brand quality. Roy Kaplan, a head buyer for Shaw's Supermarket Inc. in New England says that often if producers of brand names overproduce, "they slap a white label on what's left and ship it out as generic."

In all, canned food items seem to be good, quality products; paper and household goods seem more prone to quality cutbacks. Ironically, a 1980 Burgoyne Inc. survey shows consumers rate generic paper products far below name brands, but buy them more than any other generic product.

Saving with generic groceries Item National Store Generic brand brand brand Cut green beans (15 oz.) $0.57 $0.35 $0.29 Cream style corn (16 1/2 oz.) $0.47 $0.36 $0.33 Macaroni and cheese (7 1/2 oz.) $0.33 $0.36 $0.27 Tomato sauce (8 oz.) $0.20 $0.18 $0.18 Tomato paste (6 oz.) $0.28 $0.20 $0.24 Spaghetti (16 oz.) $0.83 $0.63 $0.43 Apple juice (64 oz.) $1.29 $0.89 $0.93 Facial tissues $0.69 $0.46 $0.45 (2-ply, 200 sheets) Trash bags (20 count) $2.69 $2.49 $1.89 Paper towels (85 sq. ft. roll) $0.72 $0.57 $0.50 Landry detergent (49 oz. box) $2.25 $1.49 $1.25 Dog food (beef, 15 1/2 oz. can) $0.47 $0.29 $0.24 White dish detergent (32 oz.) $1.87 $0.99 $0.48 Low-fat milk (half gallon) $1.19 $1.05 $0.89 Frozen orange juice (12 oz.) $1.37 $0.85 $0.67 Mayonnaise (32 oz.) $1.69 $1.09 $0.99 Chocolate morsels (12 oz. pkg.) $2.15 $1.69 $0.89 Corn oil (48 oz.) $2.17 $2.29 $1.89 All purpose flour (5 lbs.) $1.07 $0.97 $0.79 Chunk light tuna (6 1/2 oz.) $0.97 $0.88 $0.83 Margarine (veg. oil, 16 oz.) $0.65 $0.37 $0.35 Applesauce (25 oz.) $0.57 $0.50 $0.57 White bread (16 oz. loaf) $0.71 $0.59 $0.40 English muffins (12 oz.) $0.95 $0.53 $0.33 Cat food, chicken (6 1/2 oz.) $0.25 $0.25 $0.21 Bleach (1 gallon) $0.90 $0.70 $0.63 Total $27.30 $21.02 $16.92 Based on prices at Star Market, Boston -- July 1981

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