Monday, September 4, 2017

A look at Brandless shopping

A week or so ago, I came across an interesting article in Advertising Age about how Millennials shop. Apparently, they're far less brand-loyal than previous generations. They care about the quality of the product, certainly, but not about the name on the label; they'll happily switch from one brand to another to get better quality, or the same quality at a better price.

The article went on to cite Brandless, a new online store that started up just last July, as a retailer that targets this new shopping trend. The goal of the site is to sell high-quality products at low prices by eliminating what the owners call "BrandTax": the advertising costs that get wrapped into the price of most national brands. The owners estimate that BrandTax jacks up the price of the average product by 40 percent, and for beauty products, it can be over 350 percent. So the site is approaching retail from the opposite direction: focusing strictly on the quality of the product, not the brand name. And to emphasize just how much this helps them keep costs down, they've priced every single item on the site at a flat $3. This simplifies shopping on the site and encourages people to try new products, since even if you don't like it, you're only out three bucks.

Since I'm a Gen X-er who shops like a Millennial, this site naturally intrigued me. I always look for the best prices on worthy products—nontoxic, organic, Fair Trade, and so on—and one of the best ways I know to find them is by embracing high-quality store brands at Trader Joe's, Aldi, and now Costco. Would Brandless, I wondered, be a worthwhile addition to my list of places to shop cheap but good?

So I browsed the entire selection of products at Brandless, looking for ones that (1) I would actually use and (2) I couldn't get cheaper somewhere else. Unfortunately, after running through every single product on the site, I came to the conclusion that there weren't any that met these two simple criteria. It wasn't that the Brandless products weren't good; it was just that, on the whole, they weren't any better or cheaper than the ones I'm buying now.

Here are a few examples:

  • Organic Peanut Butter. Both creamy and crunchy varieties are available at $3 for 12 ounces, or $4 a pound. However, a one-pound jar at Aldi is only $3.39.
  • Coffee. The organic, Fair Trade medium roast is $3 for 6 ounces, or $8 a pound. Unfortunately, like the new PATAR line at IKEA—which has supplanted my beloved MELLANROST–it doesn't come in a decaffeinated variety, so it's not much use to me. (Millennials, I guess, don't drink decaf.) But even if you want the hard stuff, PATAR is a much better value if you can get it, at under $5.50 a pound.
  • Organic Raisins. They're $3 for 10 ounces, or $4.80 a pound—much more than the $3 a pound we used to pay at Trader Joe's, and more than twice the $2.37 a pound we're now paying at Costco.
  • Organic Sugar. A 24-ounce bag is $3, which is $2.00 a pound. That's not as good as the $1.45 a pound Aldi charges for a 2-pound bag, and nowhere near as good as the 80 cents a pound we just paid for a 10-pound bag at Costco.
  • Toilet Paper. The "tree free" TP at Brandless is made from bamboo and sugarcane bagasse, and costs $3 for 6 rolls, or 50 cents a roll. The 100% recycled TP we buy at Trader Joe's costs $5 per dozen, or 41.7 cents a roll. 
  • Toothpaste. The toothpaste Brandless sells proudly touts itself as "fluoride free," which is baffling to me, given that fluoride is the one ingredient that actually keeps your teeth healthier. (Even all-natural health guru Andrew Weil says you're definitely better off with a fluoride toothpaste.) So I certainly see no reason to pay 75 cents per ounce for this, instead of 33 cents per ounce for SLS-free, cruelty-free toothpaste from Trader Joe's.

Product after product, the pattern was the same. Dish soap, cotton swabs, coconut oil—all cheaper, and just as good, at the stores where we shop now. Even the few products that were marginally cheaper on Brandless than they are at our local stores—such as the organic beans for a dollar a can, or the organic flaxseeds at $2 a pound—would end up costing us more after shipping. And there were many products on the site that were no use to us at all, such as bagged popcorn (we pop our own), paper napkins and tissues (we use cloth napkins and hankies), organic cotton tampons (I've been using the same set of reusable Glad Rags for close to 20 years), and multi-surface cleaner (we use DIY vinegar-and-water solution).

So is there anyone out there who would benefit from shopping at Brandless? Yes, possibly. One thing Brandless carries is a selection of gluten-free products, such as macaroni and cheese ($1.50 per box), baking mixes, corn-based and quinoa-based snacks, and things you wouldn't normally suspect of containing gluten, like pasta sauce and mayonnaise. So if you're a gluten-intolerant person with a need for this kind of product, Brandless could be a good place to get it—although if you live near an Aldi, I'd recommend checking out their extensive LiveGFree line first. Brandless could also be a good place for people who live in an area without any Aldi or Trader Joe's stores to find organic and natural products at a reasonable price—though it's important to factor in the shipping cost and make sure they're really a better deal than your local store.

For most ecofrugal folks, though, I'd say the most useful thing Brandless can provide is ideas. The site offers a variety of "bundles" that look like they might make useful gifts for the person who's hard to buy for, such as the $24 "beauty basics" bundle for eco-conscious fashionistas (cruelty-free and natural versions of eight products, including hand cream, lip balm, toothpaste, and cotton balls), the $30 "dorm essentials" bundle for college students (various dorm-friendly snacks, herbal tea, a mug, lip balm, mouthwash, and all-purpose cleaner), and the $114 "new home starter kit" for a wedding or housewarming gift (a little of everything, including foodstuffs, cleaning supplies, kitchen tools, and tableware). The thing about these bundles is, you could probably put together your own version more cheaply at a local store, such as TJ's, Aldi, or one of the new Lidl stores that have opened this year from Virginia to South Carolina. So you can check out Brandless for an example of what to put in a gift basket, then assemble it on your own and avoid the shipping fees. Brandless products can also provide ideas for inexpensive stocking stuffers, such as fancy lotion, lip balm, and snacks.

Of course, Brandless is just getting started. If the site is a success, it will no doubt expand its product offerings, and eventually it may even have some bargains to rival those at Aldi and Costco (and IKEA, for home products). So it's worth keeping an eye on the site in the future. But for the present, I think it's more interesting as a concept than as a useful shopping destination.
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