When generic products are just as capable of doing the job, is it worth ditching brand-name products?
When it comes to the everyday products we use, we know that generic or house brands are capable of doing the job. After all, we only need them to reliably fulfill their function. It’s not like a lack of patterned toilet paper will degrade your quality of life.
Yet, we still happily shell out extra for branded products. Just ask the supermarkets, who gladly charge a premium on shelf-space that’s at eye level. What’s going on here?
Distinction Bias Exaggerates Minor Differences
Turns out, our willingness to pay a dollar or two extra to purchase a branded alternative is driven by the Distinction Bias.
When presented with two products with minor differences that are indiscernible or which don’t actually do anything, researchers found that we tend to exaggerate the difference between the two.
This tendency to nitpick often results in us spending more, because minor differences (or ‘features’) are often included by manufacturers as a way to charge a higher price.
You can easily see for yourself how distinction bias works the next time you step into an electronics megastore. Head for the section where they’re selling TVs, and look at the difference (in quality) between the most expensive model, and the next model down the price list.
Then, walk away for 15 minutes (go look at vacuum cleaners or something), and come back to look at the lower priced TV once more. Chances are, you’ll find the cheaper model just as satisfying to look at.
So, by removing the side-by-side comparison (in this case, by looking at the TVs separately), you’ve countered the influence of Distinction Bias, leaving you free to make a rational purchasing decision.
Here are some more everyday items that Singaporeans are better off (financially speaking) buying generic.
Paper Products (Tissues, Kitchen Towels, Toilet Rolls, etc)
Brand-name paper products spend on design, packaging and other marketing trappings in a bid to stand out from competitors. But a more attractive design doesn’t guarantee a better experience.
Instead of choosing brands, pay attention instead to the total weight of the package you are buying. That will give you a much better indicator of the paper’s ability to do its job, and its likelihood of lasting longer.
Toilet rolls, especially, are guilty of this. Check for how densely the rolls are spooled (look for gaps between the sheets on the roll) - the looser the spool, the lighter the package is, and the faster it’ll run out.
However, if you’re allergic or have sensitive skin, it may be worthwhile to pay more for allergen-free products.
Another justifiable reason to pay more for paper products is when you’re trying to cut down your carbon footprint. Try paper products made from bamboo, which is a more renewable resource than trees. From personal experience, bamboo paper products are just as pleasant and effective to use.
Electronics and Technology
Besides TV monitors, which we discussed earlier, there are many other electronic products on which we can overspend, if we let Distinction Bias hold sway.
Should you find yourself needing an HDMI TV cable, go ahead and buy the cheapest one that fits. All your cable needs to do is to transfer electrons from one device to another, and no, whether there is gold plating or not doesn’t make a difference.
Next, headphones. You’re probably savvy enough to avoid buying anything from Beats (aka overpriced headphones that put out too much low-quality bass), but you may not be any wiser when the choice comes down to either a pair of Bose or Sony.
In this, defer to your ears. Go round to the audio shops and sample everything until you find a pair that sounds best to you with the type of music you enjoy.
If you’re tempted to go for a more expensive model, remember that you literally won’t be able to hear the difference once you leave the shop.
Eyewear and Optical Products
What’s the difference between a pair of Oakleys, and a pair of sunglasses from a brand you’ve never heard of? Besides the ridiculous price? Nothing.
That’s right - any old pair of sunglasses can give your eyes 100% protection against UV rays, as long as they’re marked ‘100% UV Protection’ or has a ‘UV 400’ rating. If that is the case, then why are Oakleys and Ray-Bans so expensive?
The reason is because almost every major brand of eyewear you’ve come across is owned by one single company - Italian firm Luxottica.
Being the sole supplier of eyewear for brands such as Burberry, Chanel, Armani, Coach, Bvlgari and of course, Oakley and Ray-Ban, the conglomerate has been accused of running a monopoly and artificially inflating prices.
Although it is unclear exactly how much of the market Luxottica owns, consumers may have to start getting used to higher prices. The company has recently announced a merger with lens maker Essilor, a move valued at US$49 billion.
Yes, eye care is important, and we should do everything we can to maintain proper eye health. But you certainly don’t have to bust your budget in the process.
As long as you’re getting your prescription eye products from a licensed practitioner, and following their advice, you’re getting all the eye care you need. The rest are just bells and whistles.
All-Purpose Cleaning Products
Household cleaning products all work the same way: a surfactant dissolves and picks up grease and dirt, a bleaching compound removes stains and odours, and water washes it all away.
The method by which the above is accomplished is dependant on the active ingredients found in the product. And there are only so many active ingredients that can be safely used on an everyday basis.
Put all together, this means that because it is the active ingredients (and arm strength) that does the work, a generic all-purpose cleaner may work just as well as its branded counterpart.
If you find yourself spending more on a particular brand, it may be because other factors (such as colour, packaging, or scent) that you find appealing are tugging on your Distinction Bias.
It may sound counter-intuitive, even dangerous, but the truth is, it doesn’t matter what brand of formula you feed your little one.
According to the Mayo Clinic, all infant formula that has been cleared for sale by the US FDA contains the required levels of nutrients needed for babies to grow up healthy. So you don’t have to break the bank buying expensive infant formula out of the fear that your baby will suffer malnutrition on a cheaper brand.
Yes, the more premium brands tend to advertise added ingredients with exotic acronyms, but the long-term benefit of these have yet to be proven. It may be wiser spending your money on other important things, such as comfortable diapers and good quality bedding.
One caveat - if your infant regularly shows distress after nursing, he/she may be intolerant to the formulation. You doctor will be the best person to advise you, obviously, but you may have to switch to a different brand, or even a soy-based formula.
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By Alevin Chan
A Certified Financial Planner with a curiosity about what makes people tick, Alevin's mission is to help readers understand the psychology of money. He's also on an ongoing quest to optimise happiness and enjoyment in his life.