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Consumer Watch: Comparing 'private label' prices takes time, but can save money

Jul. 9, 2014 - 01:13PM   |  
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When it comes to cheaper alternatives to name brands, commissaries’ options run neck-and-neck with — and often beating — Wal-Mart’s private label prices, according to a limited comparison by Military Times.

In fact, the commissary alternatives’ prices are as good as or better than the Exchange’s private label.

The Defense Commissary Agency doesn’t have its own official “private label” like the Wal-Mart “Great Value” brand or the Safeway brands, or the military exchanges’ “Exchange Select” brand, but it does carry other options. These include “control label” brands, which fill the same role as a private label or store brand for grocers that can’t afford their own store brand program. Some examples commissaries carry are Presto trash bags, Good Sense over-the-counter drugs and Ralston cereals.

Like civilian grocers, commissaries don’t have imitations for every single item; there isn’t the space.

I recently compared prices on a few private label items at the Fort Belvoir, Virginia, commissary and exchange, and Wal-Mart and Safeway stores within about five miles. I compared baby wipes, laundry detergent, tall kitchen garbage bags, ibuprofen, corn flakes and “Honey Nut Toasted Oats,” as Safeway calls them. I didn’t compare the cereals in the exchange, because they aren’t carried there.

Admittedly, there are many caveats to my comparisons, but I did compare similar items and sizes and visited all stores within several hours, knowing that prices often change quickly. Here’s what I found.

On that day on those six items, the commissary’s “control label” value brands were 54 percent cheaper than similar name-brand commissary versions. The commissary’s value brand beat Wal-Mart’s store brands by a total of $3.20 on those items; or $3.45 if you include the commissary’s 5 percent surcharge and Wal-Mart’s state sales taxes of 6 percent on nonfood items and 2.5 percent on food.

Commissary control label prices also beat Exchange Select prices that day on the four similar items I was able to compare, by $5.93. If you add the commissary surcharge, it’s less of a difference — $5.01— since there’s no surcharge or tax at the exchange.

Wal-Mart’s private label prices also beat the exchange’s private label by $3.47, or by $2.22 if you include the sales tax Wal-Mart collects. Of note, the Exchange Select brand of detergent most similar was 250 ounces — more than the 175-ounce sizes of the commissary and Wal-Mart brand. The exchange unit cost was 3.2 cents per ounce, commissary’s brand was 2.3 cents per ounce; Wal-Mart was 2.8 cents per ounce.

Of note, DeCA’s “XTra,” controlled label, which happened to also be sold in Wal-Mart, 97 cents cheaper in the commissary than in Wal-Mart for the same 175-ounce size; $3.99 in the commissary vs. $4.96 in Wal-Mart. That particular Wal-Mart didn’t have a Wal-Mart private label detergent.

On the three private label items I could compare at all four stores, I spent $30.97 at Safeway, $22.36 at the exchange; $18.91 at Wal-Mart; and $16.43 at the commissary. And the private label Safeway brand of detergent was 150 ounces — smaller than the other stores’ sizes.

Such comparisons take time. The key is comparing unit prices — per baby wipe, per ounce of cereal, per trash bag, etc. Of course, you’ll find good sales in commissaries, exchanges and civilian stores that beat those prices on any given day; it’s just more difficult to keep track of commissary prices. On the day I compared prices, I found that Wal-Mart beat three out of six prices on the exact same national name brands in the commissaries.

It’s not about cost alone, of course; the quality of the product is important, too. But you might ease the strain on your budget if you try an off-brand product and it meets your needs.

More to come on this subject.

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