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Generic Products, Once Thought Inferior, Gain Cachet


The word "generic" means general, ordinary, nothing very special. Generic drugs, for instance, get a fraction of market share, even though they are much cheaper, and their active ingredients just as effective, as those of national brands. That's because generics are plainly packaged, rarely promoted and often overlooked.

In the grocery section, generic, or "house brand" cookies and spaghetti and canned peaches are perfectly safe and quite a bit less expensive than brand-name competitors. But they, too, come in unimaginative packages stuck off to the side on store shelves. Often they don't taste quite as good, last quite as long, or look quite as snappy as the big boys' products.

It costs Coca-Cola and Kleenex tissues and Jockey underwear a bundle to advertise their products and muscle them into special displays. But they make the investment back, and more, when consumers pay premium prices for these brands they know and trust.

This familiar pattern is starting to change, however. Some generics are carving their own, lucrative identity as what are called "private label" brands, lustily advertised and seductively packaged. The Chicago Tribune newspaper reports that in the 1970s, generics accounted for no more than two percent of U.S. grocery stores' sales. Now the figure is 17 percent, totaling well over $100 billion. Sometimes these fancy new generics are priced higher than the well-known brands.

They're doing it by emphasizing freshness, organic ingredients, brand loyalty, or distinctive taste -- as when the Safeway food-store chain touts its Japanese-blend green tea.

In short, the word "generic" may soon need re-defining, for it doesn't always mean "ordinary" any more.

More essays in Ted Landphair's Only in America series

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