Brian Jacobson
Deep-Fried Romantic

Just don’t call it Generic

By - Mar 24th, 2010 04:00 am

offbrandsBack in the mid-1970s, when doing cost-conscious things during a recession was popular, a former businessman for the Albertsons Company started up a ‘private label’ line inspired to sell no-frills products, featuring simple white labels with black lettering describing what it was. For those that need a cultural reference backwards, think of what packages of Army K-Rations looked like. For those that need a modern reference, think of what the Dharma Initiative dry and canned goods look like on Lost.

By the 1980s, the “Generic” concept became a staple at groceries stores everywhere but were commonly considered sub-par products to a brand name. Why would you get “Laundry Soap” when you could get the bright red “Tide” box. You think beer coolies were invented to keep the beverage chilly? No! It was to hide the fact that you couldn’t afford Budweiser or Miller.

So how has this low-culture item come into vogue again? For many years, grocery store retailers have offered name brands from private-label co-ops near lesser-knowns to show variety; boxes of Fruit Loops are next to Rice Krispies and so on until eventually the cereal becomes bagged Fruit Rings and Puffed Rice.

But now, the knock-off is often being distributed by the company store itself and then highly advertised right next to its counterpart. At the local Pick ‘n Save, V8 Splash Berry Blend is right next to Roundy’s version, only the latter juice has a big sale advertisement hanging from it spouting a $2 difference. Pick both up and examine the ingredients. They are virtually the same, except carrot juice comes third in V8’s listing and second in Roundy’s.

As if to take it up a notch, certain retailers have welcomed or even re-branded their own line with hip but simple labels. At Target, this would be the “Up and Up” label. Bright colored arrows and future fonts against a white background denote the packaging. Like the products found at other locations, there is a limited range of what is available — usually for specialty items or products that feature a special delivery system. To compete, for example, you can get ‘off-brand’ eggs by the dozen but Egg Beaters Cheese & Chive in a little milk carton with a screw cap container is going to come from Con-Agra.

One of my favorite items that wrings me with guilt is the Cafe Steamers line from Healthy Choice. These meals have two new technologies working for it but the entire green movement working against it. In its favor is a new process of “flash freezing” already cooked foods so the microwave is more or less a way of reheating. Also in its favor is a new delivery system in which the sauce is in the bottom dish and the solids are in a colander. Fives minutes after nuking, rip off the plastic cover. Slide the top contents on the sauce and stir.

The problem with this object is the packaging. For my one office lunch meal, I’ve just created an environmental disaster of plastic and cardboard recycling. I sob openly looking at the overflowing blue box full of convenience containers at my house.

Part of the experience shopping for an article is in the packaging. I used to shop at my small-town neighborhood grocery store which was 1/10th the size of modern-day outlets. The lights were low and the prices rung up by a friendly grocer everyone knew by name. Nowadays, I can’t bring myself to shop at the Aldi even though it’s the same nostalgic experience. I’ve gotten used to shiny, big, bright, clean, and plentiful.

It’s a strange inner conflict between brand loyalty and economic necessity. I need my raviolis to be Franco-American; even though my Littermaid says “use quality clumping litter” the pet store brand works fine; there are generic nasal strips that do the job yet I find that Breathe Right works best. It all comes down to a war of basic needs versus the desire for quality of life and a sense of belonging to a system.

0 thoughts on “Deep-Fried Romantic: Just don’t call it Generic”

  1. Anonymous says:

    You should revisit your Aldi perception – it’s not the same as when we were kids. The stores are bright and clean, with a decent selection of basic produce, dairy and basic grocery items. Their cleaning products aren’t very good, though, and their cat litter is horrible. But for milk, cereal, cookies, etc., it’s not bad!

  2. Anonymous says:

    I disagree on the Aldi cat litter. It works for my kitties, JA. Also, Aldi is owned by the same company as Trader Joes, so I can feel hip without the Bayshore Town Center prices. For staples – canned tomatoes, chicken stock (when I don’t have time to make my own), frozen veggies, butter, etc. the generics are great. But woe to me if I bring home something other than Kraft Mac n’ Cheese, Welch’s Grape Jelly or Jif. And I would never purchase natural peanut butter! 😉

  3. Anonymous says:

    Wait, are you married to Michael Gull? This all sounds so familiar!

  4. Anonymous says:

    ya know, it’s funny about Aldi. There are just so many associations that make me not want to shop there. The grocery carts are locked up. Before there were recyclable bags, the durable plastic bags of Aldi were the standard pack of homeless folk standing on the corner. My friend who is on WIC shops there because you don’t have to hunt for what’s allowed — almost everything is allowed!

    I guess the issue is how I want to perceive myself in a class system. I know that I’m broke, but I like to deny that perception every chance I get.

  5. Anonymous says:

    As an avid Grocery Outlet shopper (think Aldi, but west coast), I have to say that although, I dearly miss the bright and beautiful health food stores of Portland. I have really come to appreciate the ability to save money. And when I look at my GO cart full of kitchen staples, organic goods, nitrate-free products and new and interesting things to try, I feel a sense of peace. And then when the cashier circles my savings amount and it is usually equal to the amount I have spent. Saving cash feels good.

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