Brandless: Bargain or Bust?
One of the greatest advantages of living in the golden age of e-commerce is the ability to comparison shop from your couch. Pants are optional. So is hygiene. And thank God you don’t have to speak to anyone for any reason whatsoever. You can search for the essentials you know and love while hunting down the best possible price among innumerable digital storefronts, and once you’ve found that top bargain have it all delivered to your door for a nominal fee. What a world. But what if there was an even more direct, cost-efficient option? A place where all those essentials are in one place, and they’re not only cheaper, they’re better? And not only that, things like pants and deodorant are obsolete, and the comfort of the couch reigns supreme? Two seasoned entrepreneurs believe this place should exist, and they’ve named it Brandless.
The brainchild of Tina Sharkley, former venture partner and serial entrepreneur, and Ido Leffler, founder of numerous consumer brands, Brandless is the hot, new kid on the consumer packaged goods block. Raising over $50 million across three rounds of fundraising, the launch of Brandless has been making big waves.
The central tenant of the Brandless model is to eliminate what they call the “brand tax.” This means rather than stocking name brands, they go right to the source and contact the suppliers of similar or in some cases identical goods and arrange for bulk buys, which Brandless packages themselves, essentially creating their own very lean (Brandless carries less than 150 products) and cost-effective line of generic versions of brand name products, all of which are non-GMO, fair trade, kosher, gluten-free, organic when possible and contain no added sugar. It says so right on the front of the package. The kicker? It’s all $3. Everything. Except for when it’s less, and what’s more, every time you place an order with Brandless they donate one meal to Feeding America.
Brandless products range from a variety of non-perishable food items to household cleaners, home and office staples and an array of health and beauty products, which they claim are an average of 40% cheaper than their name brand counterparts and are always of comparable quality, if not totally better. Certain health and beauty offerings, they claim, cost up to 370% less than their name brand equivalent. So how is it possible they can offer such good stuff for so little? Is it just the “brand tax” thing? All of this sounds pretty good, right? Like, so good? Maybe even way too good? Yeah. We know.We’re pretty curious (ok, more like dubious) so we placed are order.
A big order. We bought some Sea Salt Quinoa Chips. We bought some Organic Applesauce Pouches. We bought some Craft Paper Hardcover Bound Notebooks, some Toilet Bowl Cleaner, a Pizza Cutter, some Organic Yellow Corn Tortilla Chips, some Organic Aged White Cheddar Popcorn…the list goes on. Oh, man, did we buy some stuff! I mean, did we mention everything is three bucks? C’mon.
Immediately upon check out we noticed the first catch. Shipping is $9. Wow. Thankfully they offer a $6 discount on your first order, but imagine coughing up $9 every time you order. That, or try to either rack up the $72 minimum for free shipping or op for their “prime”-style membership package, B.More.
For $36 a year you can join B.More, which lowers the free shipping minimum to $48 and increases the amount of meals donated to Feed America per order from one to two, including a 10 meal bonus upon signing up. But, unless you’re feeling very philanthropic (in which case, good on you), to make the savings worth it you have to cart up over 16 items per order, and place at least 4 orders just to break even.
Despite the shipping costs which we’re still reconciling, we were psyched to get our order only two days later (the package shipped from Lebanon, Indiana, the place where numerous distribution centers such as Amazon have massive, space-age facilities). The packaging is sturdy and arty and excellent. A letter welcomes you to the Brandless experience–an experience which, we quickly start to notice, is totally blasted to the gills with the Brandless name, a trademarked name by the way that very closely resembles–GASP–a brand, and is on absolutely everything. But ok, who cares? Is it the stuff good and does it save me money? Well, yes. And no.
Many of their products are awesome. The applesauce pouches are delicious and great on-the-go. The notebooks are very well made and aesthetically pleasing. The instant Mac—Two-Pack Organic Shells & Yellow Cheddar—is decent in a pinch. But products like the toilet bowl cleaner, popcorn, and others were just not that great and, we later figured out, actually a little expensive.
When compared to Trader Joe’s, many of the Brandless offerings cost more per ounce and simply weren’t as good. And despite their disruptive pricing model, properly sourced, buzz word-laden goods, and high-minded mission to subvert the “brand tax,” the very clear identity of Brandless itself as a brand sort of spoils all the fun.
Take the case of MUJI. A Japanese brand almost identical in platform to Brandless. They were so successful they’re now a powerhouse, industry-leading brand. So at what point does the scrappy, ethical underdog become the very thing it was born against? When does good value cease to be a fundamental brick in the ethos and begin to be the kind of false advertising it was directly meant to confront?
These are questions we can’t answer. Because our mouths are too full of White Cheddar Flavored Quinoa Puffs.
All the Quinoa Puffs.
So. Many. Quinoa. Puffs.
The truth is Brandless may not be the best deal. But like Trader Joe’s, it is a lot better, at least in value (and sometimes in quality), than the name brand. And it’s green-kinda and organic and all that. And it’s philanthropic. And it’s delivered to your door. Yeah, it’s $9 but you don’t have to go anywhere. They bring it right to you. So that tiki torch-waving, Hawaiian shirt-wearing, chipper skipper Trader Joe can hop in his sloop sail off into the sunset. I’d bet all the Kohlrabi Salad Blends and Mango Sticky Rice Spring Rolls in the world that any day now Brandless, regardless of its somewhat hypocritical, anti-brand philosophy, is going to be the Free Range non-GMO Organic Bee’s Knees.