Beneath the minimalist packaging and economical prices, they’re more complex than you might think.
They’ve been around for decades, and have become an ingrained part of our day-to-day shopping habits. Take a peek into any pantry in Aotearoa and you’re likely to find an own-label can of tomatoes, rolls of paper towels or bags of dried pasta – even if it’s not initially apparent.
You might know them best as Pams or Homebrand or No Frills or Essentials: own-label products are carried almost exclusively by the supermarket that owns the brand, and they have a reputation for being more affordable than their branded non-supermarket-owned neighbours on the shelves.
Stereotypically, these products have carried decidedly unadorned packaging, brutalist monochrome printed labels and names that bellow their penny-pinching credentials. It’s an image that was evocative enough for the minister of finance Grant Robertson to use as a metaphor for this year’s “no frills” budget. And as food prices continue to rise, and our budgets continue to be stretched, it’s likely even more of us are opting for the “value” pack over other, “fancier” brands.
So what are the country’s own-brands of past and present?
As the country’s oldest surviving supermarket own label, Pams, originally set to be named Pep or Presto, has an 85-year history that’s shrouded in mystery. Pams was launched through Four Square in 1937 by way of a box of baking powder, while the country remained in the grips of the Great Depression of the 1930s. “Pams was born of a spat between Foodstuffs and the Wholesale Merchants Association,” Josie Adams wrote for The Spinoff in 2019. The makers of Edmonds baking powder removed Foodstuffs from its list of stores they would supply, meaning the store was forced to develop its own brand, and thus Pams was born. Unfortunately the identity of the original Pam is a mystery lost to the annals of time.
In 2017, Foodstuffs quietly released a new brand called “Pams Finest”. While Pams is certainly the oldest surviving supermarket label on our shelves, whether it was the first to exist remains up for debate with early local supermarket Self Help launching its own label of custard powders, soaps and jellies in the 1930s too. These days, Pams products are sold at Foodstuffs-owned New World, Pak’nSave and Four Square. Meanwhile, Value Range, a descendent of Budget, is sold in its bold blue and white packaging through Foodstuffs supermarkets across the country as a lower-priced companion to Pams.
Known for its proudly utilitarian bordering on dystopian black-and-white packaging, budget label No Frills was founded in 1978 by Australian supermarket Franklins. In the 1980s, the brand was adopted by New Zealand supermarkets Price Chopper and Big Fresh, which had both become part of the Woolworths New Zealand Supermarket Group. In the early days of No Frills, the brand was solely used for three items: peanut butter, honey and chips, but it later expanded into a list of 800 products including hot English mustard, canned lemonade, vanilla ice cream, candles and even cigarettes. The demise of Price Chopper and Big Fresh in 2003 and 2004 saw the end of the line for the iconic No Frills label too.
The iconic stark white, black and red branding of Homebrand began to appear on Foodtown supermarket shelves in 2005, when the stores were acquired by Australian company Woolworths – 47 years after the supermarket first opened its doors. Everyday items like table spread or sliced white bread at budget prices was the schtick for the label, which had been around since 1983 in Australia. Its introduction to Aotearoa saw the pre-existing Basic range shuffled out to make way for its Australian equivalent. Even when Foodtowns across the country were transformed one-by-one into Countdowns between 2009 and 2011, Homebrand hung around, but was finally retired for good in 2016 and replaced by the Essentials range found in Countdown today.
Foodtown’s Signature Range was Homebrand with a top hat on. The words were in cursive. The packaging was taken up by swathes of modish black background. There were eclairs, and chilli and lime tortilla chips too. Everything about Signature Range screamed refinement. But even sophistication couldn’t save this supermarket private label: it met the same fate as its more rough-and-ready sibling Homebrand in 2016 and was ousted in favour of Countdown’s eponymously named “Countdown” range. Since then, Countdown has installed numerous other own labels like Free From, Macro, The Odd Bunch, Plantitude and Countdown Gold.
Own brands are cheaper – that must be a good thing, right?
Not necessarily. While the price on your receipt might look slightly less jarring for your supermarket’s own brand than other products from the same aisle, recent reports indicate these own brands might do more harm than good for both suppliers and consumers shopping within our competition-starved supermarket duopoly of Woolworths New Zealand (Countdown and Fresh Choice) or Foodstuffs (New World and Pak’nSave).
According to independent research commissioned by the New Zealand Food Grocery Council in 2021, “[g]iven the high concentration of the retail market in New Zealand…private labels are likely to accentuate and entrench the strong imbalance of bargaining power held by retailers for many grocery suppliers.”
It also noted that when retailers have market power in a concentrated market they “may be incentivised to discriminate in favour of its private label”. This could look like better product placement of their own private labels, raising charges on rival brands while not applying the same charges to private labels and maintaining a gap in prices between the private label and the named brand.
The Commerce Commission expressed concerns about private labels in its 2022 report on the industry too, saying supermarkets focus on private labels “because of the potentially higher margins available on such products, as the retailer earns both the upstream and downstream margins”. It also said in its report that private labels “serve to reduce inter-brand competition, with consumers facing a reduced range of products or higher prices”.
So how do the “no frills” brands of today compare on price? Here’s a price comparison between the main supermarket own brands across six pantry items.
Essentials from Countdown: $6.90 for 770g
Countdown Own Brand: $4.20 for 470g
Pams from New World: $4.59 for 443 ml
Pams from Pak’nSave: $8.39 for 887 ml
Value doesn’t have mayonnaise within its range.
Essentials from Countdown: $1.30 for 400g
Countdown Own Brand: $1.40 for 400g
Pams from New World: $1.29 for 400g
Pams from Pak’nSave: $0.99 for 400g
Value: $0.99 for 400g
Essentials from Countdown: $1.50 for 500g bag of penne
Countdown Own Brand: $2.30 for 500g bag of penne rigate
Pams doesn’t have dried pasta within its range.
Value: $1.99 for 500g bag of penne
Essentials from Countdown doesn’t have canola oil within its range
Countdown Own Brand: $10 for 2L
Pams from New World: $8.99 for 2L
Pams from Pak’nSave: $8.59 for 2l
Value: $11.49 for 3L
Essentials from Countdown: $2.40 for 1kg of long grain rice
Countdown Own Brand: $3.30 for 1kg of jasmine rice
Pams from New World: $3.29 for 1kg of jasmine rice
Pams from Pak’nSave: $3.09for 1kg of jasmine rice
Value: $2.09 for 1kg of long grain rice