The nitty-gritty on in-store brands: Sometimes they are cheaper and better

When you go shopping in any grocery store or discount big box retailer these days, you're likely to find a growing array of products sold under the store brand or "private label." These goods aim to compete with the national brands you see advertised on TV. (See our taste test comparing generics with the brand name products they emulate).

If you're like most Americans, you're increasingly tempted to snap up these blander, cheaper boxes. But where do they all come from?

The answer is a dizzying array of manufacturing plants around the country and around the world that are ready to make virtually any product for any company -- for the right price. The Private Label Buyer, a kind of catalog of product makers, lists 756 companies in an ever-expanding array of categories that used to be the domain of specialty brands: 96 sell organic foods; 10 make alcoholic beverages; 31 make Asian foods. The stores pick and choose among these companies by requesting bids and testing quality.

As a result, each product sold under the same store brand may come from a different plant. And some may come from several different regional makers. Each year the Private Label Manufacturing Association holds a giant convention for companies whose names you've never heard of to meet up with local stores and potentially sell their goods there under a store brand name you might vaguely be familiar with.

Consumers always wonder if name brand companies are just selling their same products for less under a store brand label, says Dave Twinning, director of public relations for the Private Label Manufacturing Association.

"Generally speaking, it's fairly common for brand manufacturers to also make private labels," he says -- just not the household names.

"The ones that tend to be very high profile -- they will say that they never make private label and never intend to," Twinning says.