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You're paying more for brand bias

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By Brett Graff
The Miami Herald
  • Diane Petersen checks for sale items as she pauses near a Publix supermarket display in Miami. Consumers find displays in many stores that cross-merch...

    C.W. Griffin / Miami Herald

    Diane Petersen checks for sale items as she pauses near a Publix supermarket display in Miami. Consumers find displays in many stores that cross-merchandise items such as beer and nuts or sodas, paper plates and fireworks to suggest picking them up for cookouts.

To help shoppers stock up for their summer barbecues and picnics, supermarkets around the country will prepare displays grouping together seasonal favorites.
Some stores may cap aisles with marshmallows, chocolate and graham crackers so customers can buy s'more ingredients in seconds. Other locations might pair chips and beer, or ice cream and chocolate sauce. The different merchandising combinations will depend, Publix media and community relations manager Kimberly Reynolds said, on the sale items featured in weekly circulars.
"Our goal is to make shopping in our stores more convenient and enjoyable for our customers," Reynolds said.
In addition to convenience, those combinations will have a subliminal effect that causes us to think products were perfectly paired together in the same way a sommelier pairs food and wine or engineers code computer software, according to new research. In addition to our faith in displays, the research says shoppers believe that everyday brands design and test products, such as chips and salsa or toothpaste and toothbrushes, so they work best with the complementary product of the same brand.
Whether that's true -- brand spokespeople swear it's fact, while consumer experts laugh heartily -- it's a bias that can in many cases cost us money this summer when throwing that big barbecue and stocking both the fridge and the bar.
"The more complementary products a brand has, the more you get hijacked by that brand to pay their prices," said Ryan Rahinel, a researcher at the University of Minnesota who decided to study this effect after finding himself crossing the border to Canada to make sure his over-the-counter skin therapy products were manufactured by the same company.
"This notion that things are tested together is overgeneralized. We know it's true in some categories, such as with printers and ink. But the margarita mix probably isn't made anywhere near the tequila of the same brand."
Rahinel and his team performed a series of experiments, first dividing subjects into four groups and serving each one a combination of chips and salsa from make-believe brands, Festivities and Party Time. While two groups ate one brand of chips dipped into the other brand's salsa, the two groups that sampled both chips and salsa from the same brand reported much having higher levels of enjoyment. But all four groups were actually served the exact same Tostitos chips and Tostitos salsa.
"We were able to create out of thin air that there is this idea that brand combination creates enjoyment," Rahinel said.
Tostitos, for its part, says its products actually are in fact designed to match. Frito-Lay spokesperson Chris Kuehenmeister points to its new Cantina line as proof. The thin and crispy tortilla chips are designed to pair with the brand's chipotle restaurant-style salsa, while its thicker, traditional chip was baked especially for the brand's roasted garlic chunky salsa.
"I hope people enjoy them together," Kuehenmeister said. "We're trying to create the best flavor experience."
But the researchers say the experience involves actually knowing that brands match, and when serving guests this summer, when most of us dump chips into the bowl, put buns and burgers on a platter and ice cream in dishes, it's lost entirely. What you likely have instead is a table topped with full-priced items, not a comparable store brand or sale selection, even if you stop at the supermarket's display.
Stores know we buy more chips and beer when they're paired together, said Pat Fitzpatrick, president of Atlanta Retail Consulting.
"It increases sales because you don't forget them," Fitzpatrick said. "There's a lot of psychology to placement of items in the market."
That's why when considering displayed items, you should also check out the larger selection from the aisle, said Andrea Woroch, a consumer expert who contributes to Even if those hamburger buns are on sale, it might not be the best sale. And don't forget to look not only at prices but also at price-per-unit, which is more telling, she said.
"There are so many tactics making a consumer think you need this product to go with that product," Woroch said. "You see it online also - when the site shows you, 'People who bought this also bought .. .' But it's a marketing tactic and nothing more."
How not to get 'branded'
You may be devoted to brand names, but experts say your favorite toothpaste will work just fine with any brush while your clothes will be clean regardless of whether your detergent brand matches the fabric softener. Instead shop smart and:
1. Be aware of the brand bias, which makes it go away.
2. Remind yourself that it works for lower-priced brands also; if you want matching, you will enjoy the generic or sales matches just as much.
3. Compare price-per-unit, which gives you a better comparison than simply the package price.
4. Instead of buying from displays, head to the item's regular aisle to see all your options.

When brands count
Experts say brand recognition disappears in blind tests, except when it comes to:
Cheerios: Using his students as subjects, the University of Minnesota's Joseph Redden found that General Mills makes a crunchier cereal with a heartier taste.
Haagen-Dazs: Redden said ice cream lovers could usually tell this dessert from the store brand. Thing is, people who swore they'd be able to recognize the national brand could do so with the same frequency - about 50 percent of the time - as those who weren't confident ice cream connoisseurs.
Trash bags: The national brands tend to rip less frequently, said consumer expert Andrea Woroch.
Paper towels: Brand name towels tend to contain more fiber, Woroch said. A stronger towel means using fewer, which saves both money and the environment.
Condiments: We seem to favor the brand we had as children, Woroch said. So quick, get your kids hooked on generic brands while they're young.
Brett Graff is a former U.S. government economist and the editor of, where she reports on the economic forces affecting real people. She writes an occasional column for the Miami Herald. Reach her at
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