Low End Theory

Private Labels: Scourge or Menace?


By Brendan I. Koerner

I don't know "Navin R. Johnson", the pseudonymous Gizmodo commenter who swiped his handle from the classic 1979 Steve Martin vehicle The Jerk. But I still love Navin like a fat kid loves cake, thanks to the comment he appended to last week's column. Somewhat inspired by my cheap headphones Final Four, Navin touted the low-end virtues of this $24.92 CD/MP3 player from Wal-Mart. "And with a name like Durabrand," he concluded, "it has to be good!"

Upon reading Navin's comment, I remember thinking to myself, "Durabrand—has there ever been a more ingeniously dubbed low-end brand?" I mean, within twothree syllables, the marketing gurus down in Bentonville, Ark., are able to convey that their cheapest electronic wares are both durable and, uh, branded. Talk about plainspokenness—it's an even better brand name than another Wal-Mart fave, Ol' Roy dog food.

As a resident of perhaps the last Wal-Martless county in America, I confess that I'm none too familiar with Durabrand. But taking a cue from Navin, I decided to correct that shortcoming for this week's column. After the jump, some halfway insightful musings on what the Walton family hath wrought, and an appeal for your help in finding the best and worst private-label brands around. PLUS: Words of wisdom from a CB radio guru!

For starters, let's make clear that the Durabrand that will be discussed forthwith is not affiliated with Durabrand wood substitute for marinas, which a company called Tire Conversion once manufactured in Schenectady, N.Y. In fact, the latter Durabrand no longer seems to be called as such, which suggests that, somewhere along the line, a nasty trademark fight ensued. (Law-talking guys who know the deal on this, please let me know.)

What's most interesting about the Durabrand line is that it's chock full of very similar products. Froogle the name, and the very first page of buying options lists five different types of boomboxes, from the CD-109 to the mega-deluxe CD-2086 (pictured above). I can't imagine that there's that much design for such a wide variety of low-end boomboxes; my guess is that Wal-Mart just keeps cutting fresh deals with Guangdong factories, and each one has a slightly different approach to sourcing parts and manufacturing.

Controversial as the retailing giant may be, you have to give their marketing team credit for understanding what low-end consumers want—namely, lots of color variety. Let's face it, a huge percentage of low-end electronics are purchased either by or for pre-pubescent girls; it's a demographic unlikely to complain about crummy audio specs when rocking out—er, "rocking out"—to Kelly Clarkson. These consumers do like 'em some pink, though, and so Durabrand obliges by plasti-plating many of its offerings in Hello Kitty-worthy colors. Call it a bell, call it a whistle, but it works.

Low End Theory

Anyone with even a dab of gearhead in 'em, though, should probably steer clear of Durabrand, at least judging by the negativity in the blogospheric air. Time and again while surfing around in search of Durabrand info, I came across posts lambasting the brand's quality; this cat's invaluable brands rundown note that even a Wal-Mart employee tried to steer him clear of a Durabrand TV. Sure, you can counter that the prices are just too appealing for those suffering from SADPS (Short Arm/Deep Pockets Syndrome), but that's not really the case. The $89.68 19-inch TV is cool, but Toshiba offers a much better set for only $19 more (complete with GameTimer, which lets you go all fascist on your kid's PS2 usage). And Low End Theory's beloved jWin and Coby are competitive on price for items such as CD players.

The question that lingers is how Durabrand stacks up against other craptacular private-label brands. I've already taken a look at Best Buy's Insignia, but Circuit City's Esa, CompUSA's Norwood, and countless other's have so far escaped Low End Theory's watchful eye. Given that I'm working on a limited budget (natch), I must appeal to you, my brothers and only friends, for help in evaluating the sketchiness of various private-label brands. Who wants to step up and be the next Navin R. Johnson, by sharing the scoop on private labels both great and terrible (though almost assuredly more of the latter than the former)? Good karma and limited fame, via this space, to the best respondents; also, should you ever swing through my neighborhood, I'll buy you a Miller High Life at the Lenox Lounge. Show Low End Theory some private-label love, either via e-mail or comments. Many, many thanks for doing your part in making this world a slightly better place.

KEEP IT LOCKED ON 19: Two weeks ago, while suffering through a beer-less stretch in Pennsylvania, I took a look at low-end CB gear. A helpful enthusiast e-mailed in with this piece of advice, which may prevent several Gizmodo readers from getting stomped:

I just thought you might want to let the budding CBers know that Channel 19 is the official 'main chat' channel and in another, you might be butting into a private conversation which won't win you many friends. Worth letting people know so that the trucker community doesn't get really pissed off.

This strikes me as really useful info. Lord knows there's few things less pleasant than having a 300-pound, possibly speeded-up trucker jumping up and down on your thorax.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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