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    Comparing house brands at local supermarkets

    Shopping the cookie aisle at Whole Foods in Arlington.
    Shopping the cookie aisle at Whole Foods in Arlington.

    They all want your money and your loyalty. Supermarkets are vying for your business and do a lot to lure you in: big bargains on some items, customer cards with impressive specials, cafes to settle into if the whole mission is exhausting, enough made-to-order items to rival a food court, pharmacies, and more.

    We’re spending nearly 6 percent of the monthly income on groceries — more than $675 billion, according to the US Department of Agriculture. When a new chain muscles its way into the area, as Wegmans did three years ago, there’s fanfare. Now with a new Wegmans location in Chestnut Hill (Burlington will follow in the fall), we decided to see what’s going on there and at other chains.

    With an ordinary shopping list in hand, we visited nine supermarkets within a 12-mile radius of the Chestnut Hill Wegmans: Star Market, almost across the way in Chestnut Hill, Stop & Shop in Watertown, Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe’s in Cambridge, Roche Bros. in West Roxbury, Hannaford in Waltham, and Aldi in Medford. On our list were eight items anyone might buy week after week, house brands only: eggs, orange juice, bananas, salsa, spaghetti, tomato sauce, cannellini beans, and frozen peas. We were shopping for price comparison only, not taste.


    House brands, also known as private labels, are a good way for the budget-conscious consumer to save money. Heather Garlich of the Food Marketing Institute says these products have been increasing since the recession. John L. Stanton, professor of food marketing at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, writes in an e-mail that house brands “have, in general, become as good as any national brand.”

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    The entrance to the Chestnut Hill Wegmans has a European market vibe and bustles with prepared foods and produce. But the rest of its space has the cavernous feel of a big box store. At Star Market on the other side of Route 9, you and your shopping cart glide up an escalator into soft lighting and classical music, but the light is plenty bright as you cruise the aisles.

    Although most supermarkets have done away with loyalty cards that generate discounts at checkout, Stop & Shop, owned by the Dutch company Ahold, still offers them. Spokesperson Jenny Krupski says 80 percent of shoppers use them and cashiers often volunteer one for those who don’t. Market Basket now takes 4 percent off your bill at checkout, with no card.

    Aldi, new to the region, is a no-frills German discount market with US headquarters in Batavia, Ill. The first Massachusetts store opened in 2009 in Raynham, and today there are eight in the Commonwealth (the company is opening 80 stores a year in the United States). At Aldi, as in Europe, you bag your own groceries and pay for plastic bags if you come empty-handed. Choices are limited, staff is scarce, and only debit cards or cash are accepted. You can also buy auto care products, patio umbrellas, and such. “More than 90 percent of the products in our stores are Aldi exclusive brands,” Bruce Persohn, a vice president, writes in an e-mail.

    Trader Joe’s, a palace of house brands and plenty of shtick from the cheerful Hawaiian shirt-clad employees, is owned by Aldi Nord. According to Persohn, “Aldi and Trader Joe’s are independent companies and have no operating relationship.”


    People choose stores for all sorts of reasons. Some go to a local farm stand for produce and shop elsewhere for staples. Not everyone chases specials. “I’m too busy and tired working every day to shop around, I just go to the store that’s convenient for me when I have the time,” says Jessica Nguyen of Quincy.

    Others are more deliberate, like Jason Young, and his fiancée Tameika Jones, of Hyde Park, who are on a budget, and shop from the weekly flier at Roche Bros. with a calculator in hand. “We save about $20 on our bill here compared to other markets,” says Jones, who also likes the old-fashioned amenities. “They even take the groceries to the car for you,” she says.

    Now there’s an ageless service that still hits the target.

    Graphic: Comparing house brands at local supermarkets


    Related coverage:

    The least expensive items on our grocery list


    Supermarket house-brand loyalty

    ‘We save about $20 on our bill here compared to other markets. They even take the groceries to the car for you.’

    Supermarkets’ new motto: Be prepared

    Debra Samuels can be reached at