When you shop, do you automatically reach for an advertised, name brand product, or check to see if there is a store brand available? According to Consumer Reports, buying store brands can not only get you high-quality products, it can save you hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars a year.

Comparison tests performed by CR experts of 65 grocery products in six categories (peaches, yogurt, plastic bags, facial tissues, paper towels, French fries) for the Ratings report, appearing in the August issue, demonstrate that store brands are at least as good as national name brands. And consumers are also starting to notice, as many of them are growing hesitant about paying more for some name brands because they don't see a difference to justify the higher price.

CR's findings will be news to anyone weaned on the no-frills "generics" of the late 1970s, when double digit inflation prompted consumers to put price ahead of other considerations. Today, many store brands are aggressively competing with name brands in quality, packaging, and variety, and even in select product lines such as organic and natural foods.

Indeed, during the past several years CR's tests often found that store brands are as good as name brands. At the same time consumers are also changing their attitudes about store brands: 1 in 5 products sold in supermarkets, mass merchandise stores and drugstores carry the chain's own label.

When CR averaged the amounts that staff shoppers paid across the U.S. for many samples of each product tested, the experts found that national brands cost an average of about 25 to 50 percent more than similar-quality store brands.

How to Choose

Trying store brands carries little risk - most stores offer a money-back refund if you are dissatisfied -- and the rewards can be considerable: 15 to 20 percent average savings across all categories of store brands sold in supermarkets. If you are thinking about buying more store brands, CR has the following tips to make the best decisions:

• Consider quality and value. The fact that a national brand also makes store brands doesn't mean the products are identical. Quality also depends on the retailer's specifications. If a store brand wants to emphasize value, it might opt for lower-grade ingredients.

• Know the differences within the same national brand. A national-brand manufacturer might make several formulations of the same product to appeal to consumers with different needs-and snatch valuable shelf space from competitors. Don't expect the same performance from all of them.

• Know the differences within the same store brand, too. Most store brands come in several tiers to dispel the notion that store brands are strictly for penny pinchers.

• Try over-the-counter remedies. Store-and name-brand versions of aspirin, cold and cough remedies, antihistamines, and other such medications are likely to be even more similar than other types of products. If the active ingredient is the same in name-brand and store-brand products both must have met regulatory standards for efficacy.

Who's Behind the Store Brands?

Of the thousands of manufacturers of store brands, many are national-brand companies. But, neither retailers nor big-brand manufacturers are anxious to reveal that information, and you won't find any clues on product labels. That doesn't mean that national brands simply change the label on the same products. They sometimes manufacture a different type of product to be sold as a store brand, and even if it's the same type, they make it to the store's own specifications, which could mean a change in ingredients or quality.

Consumer Reports discovered some big names behind store brands by walking the aisles at an industry trade show, checking the displays, and reading through program guides that name-brand manufacturers use to promote their services to stores. Below is sampling of the players, the products for which they're best known, and the types of good they make for a variety of stores:

COMPANY: Alcoa
BEST KNOWN FOR: Reynolds Wrap aluminum foil
STORE-BRAND LINES: Foil, wrap, plastic bags, disposable storage containers

COMPANY: Bausch & Lomb
BEST KNOWN FOR: Contact lenses, lens-care products, eye medicine
STORE-BRAND LINES: Eye-care products, nonprescription nasal remedies

COMPANY: Birds Eye
BEST KNOWN FOR: Frozen vegetables
STORE-BRAND LINES: Frozen vegetables, canned soup, chili, hash, pie filling

COMPANY: Chicken of the Sea
BEST KNOWN FOR: Canned tuna
STORE-BRAND LINES: Canned tuna, salmon, specialty seafood, fruit and vegetables, pet food

COMPANY: Del Monte
BEST KNOWN FOR: Canned fruit and vegetables
STORE-BRAND LINES: Canned soup, broth, gravy

COMPANY: McCormick
BEST KNOWN FOR: Spices, seasonings, extracts
STORE-BRAND LINES: Spices, seasonings, extracts, salad dressings, party dips

The Best Store Brand Products

Below are some of the top store-brand products the experts at Consumer Reports have tested in recent years. All were at least very good overall and are still being sold in the formulations our experts tested.

CATEGORY: Cereal
HIGH-RATED STORE BRANDS: Oatmeal: Great Value (Wal-Mart) Quick Oats 100 percent Natural; America's Choice (A&P) Instant Maple & Brown Sugar; Raisin bran: Kroger

CATEGORY: Detergent (laundry)
HIGH-RATED STORE BRANDS: For most washers: Kirkland Signature (Costco) 38722; ShopRite Free 'N Clear. For high-efficiency washers: Sears Advanced Formula Plus 9669 and 9820

CATEGORY: Ice cream (chocolate)
HIGH-RATED STORE BRANDS: Prestige Premium (Winn-Dixie)

CATEGORY: Peanut Butter
HIGH-RATED STORE BRANDS: Creamy: Kroger; Great Value (Wal- Mart). Crunchy: America's Choice (A&P;); Kroger; Great Value (Wal- Mart)

CATEGORY: Pizza (frozen)
HIGH-RATED STORE BRANDS: Kroger Self-Rising Crust 4-cheese Pizza