Experiencing the paradox of choice at the local Schnucks grocery store.

| February 18, 2008 | 11 Replies

It’s difficult to overcome the prejudice that having more choices is always better.   In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz made a convincing case that too much choice can overload and paralyze us.   I couldn’t help but think of the paradox of choice while grocery shopping yesterday.  

One of the major chains of grocery stores in the midwest is Schnucks (that’s right, 7 consonants and only one vowel).   Schnucks has done business in St. Louis since well before I was born.  I’m assuming that Schnucks is a typical grocery store and, therefore, that it stocks as many as 30,000 different products in each of its stores–a formidable number.

As I shopped yesterday, I took a few photos to illustrate the point made by Barry Schwartz.   Here, for instance, is the mustard aisle, offering you about 30 kinds of mustard:

mustard-aisle-lo-res.jpg

And that’s just the beginning.  Here’s the pickle department.  I will occasionally eat a pickle, but if you told me that I could never again have a pickle, it wouldn’t upset me in the least.  Many people value pickles more highly than I do, apparently.  Here they are, dozens of types of pickles, ready for you to choose.

 pickle-aisle-lo-res.jpg

I was on a roll (and I was having some fun), so I moved over to the pasta aisle:

pasta-aisle-lo-res.jpg

There were a lot more types of pasta than one could fit in a single photo.  

Was there any major product, I wondered, where you could simply choose between two or three types?  The answer is “no” regarding most of the things most of us purchase most of the time.  There were hundreds of types of liquor, tea, cheese, snacks, cookies, cake mixes, cereals and pizzas, all of this choice making it so incredibly difficult to whisk in and out of the store.   You can imagine a comment echoing across America every day:  “No, not that type!  I wanted you to buy the mini, mint flavored, instant, Brazilian, fiber-enhanced, artificially sweetened low-fat version with individual servings!”

Ready for another photo?  How many types of peanut butter can there possibly be?  After all, it’s only smashed up peanuts with a bit of sweetener, right?

 peanut-butter-aisle-lo-res.jpg

Actually, there are many types of smashed up peanuts with a bit of sweetener (some types coming with no sweetener).  

I decided to end my little tour at the non-dairy creamer section, assuming that there would be only few types of this product (I’m not a coffeee or tea drinker, and I’ve never actually paid attention).

coffee-creamer-aisle-lo-res.jpg

There they were.  Enough brands to start a fight in any well-behaved household in the country. 

I can’t find the statistics to support me at the moment, but it seems to me that grocery stores doing business when I was young (in the 1960’s) probably carried only 20% as many products as modern grocers.  It’s also funny to consider what “works” for modern buying clubs.  Costco seems to do very well with only a couple types of each food product.   If you want pretzels, you pick either this one or that one.   If you want a jar of Vitamin D tablets, here’s your only choice (unlike the mega vitamin selection you’ll find in a Walgreen’s–if you really want to have your head spun around by choices of vitamins or supplements, shop on the Internet.  For instance, the Vitamin Shoppe brags that it carries 20,000 distinct products. 

Choosing a tombstone can also be exhausting, according to Rock of Ages.  You’ve simply got to pick the right one, or else the dead person might get hurt feelings: 

Selecting the granite for a memorial can be confusing-much like selecting a fine gemstone. If you’ve ever purchased a diamond, you know that even stones that appear similar can vary greatly in quality and value. It takes special tools and expertise to tell a perfect stone from an imperfect one-whether diamond or granite.

And what about choosing a pet dog?  For our family, it was relatively easy.  We went to the local Humane Society and took home one of the bouncy mutts (I admit that we focused on type of dogs known to be friendlier with children).   If you want to do it right, though, you might want to spend a few hours looking over all of this material at Wonder Puppy.  Before having a wine and cheese party, you simply must spend a few days learning to become a competent beginner wine-buyer here

It just doesn’t stop, here in the U.S.    Good enough is simply not good enough.  It’s often said that we are so choosy because we need to make the “right” choice, but that rationale doesn’t convince me.   I think that there we are often shopping for sex, whether we realize it or not.  The cure for this madness?  I don’t know that there is one, though the “Church of Stop Shopping” is trying to lend a hand to neurotic shoppers everywhere.

If choice makes us neuotic (Schwartz has convinced me that it has), we are “lucky” that we don’t have excess choices in all aspects of life.  For instance, we are in the process of wiping out many types of fish, by some estimates, 90% of the large predatory fish of the oceans, such as swordfish, marklin and the biggest types of tuna.   Soon, we’ll be surprised that there is any fish at all in the restaurant.  We’ll happily take whatever they have.

And our voting neuroses will be kept to a minimum this election (as almost every election), because we only have two choices for president (at least for those of us who vote for someone who might actually serve as President).    

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Category: American Culture, Consumerism, Evolution, Psychology Cognition, Sex

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (11)

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  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    Schnucks has absorbed 2 other local chains in my memory; Bettendorf's in the 1960's and and National in the 1990's. Some smaller supermarkets still exist, but Schnucks does to those what they complain Walmart and Costco are doing to them.

    Marketing people know that people want the illusion of choice. When the choice isn't real, then they manufacture apparent differences to widen the appeal.

    Consider something as basic as milk. It used to come whole in bottles. Then The choice of homogenized and cream-on-top. Then skim. Then they branched out the amounts of fat to skim, 1/2%, 1%, 2% and whole, plus half-and-half (10%), light Cream (20%) and heavy cream (40%). Add vitamins. Now choose how organic: With or without hormones. Fed on grass or grain. Organic grain? Free range or dairy barn? California organic, or just USDA organic? Local dairy or long distance?

  2. Erika Price says:

    My big "paradox of choice" item is gum. Now, gum is an entirely useless thing, yet I still struggle to decide on a type, as it comes in endless varieties and flavors. Whitening, non whitening. Hard, soft, stick. Different kinds of packages. Breath gum and candy gum and quit-smoking gum. Sugar free or not. Double mint, spearmint, cinnamon, bubble mint, melon, berry, lemon, mojito, peppermint, wintermint, orange. A new flavor seems to come out every month- a great way to sucker in buyers that enjoy a little useless novelty. All this trouble for something with no nutritional value or practical purpose at all!

    This absurdity goes even further when you consider the myriad kinds of candies in existence! I can think of about a dozen different types of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups alone. But I suppose we all get the picture at this point.

  3. Sylvie says:

    And then there are people like me who usually just want the basic original, even if old-fashioned, product. Just try to find it! It can take nearly as much time as if you were searching for the "very best" among dozens of choices.

  4. Edgar Montrose says:

    One word: shampoo.

  5. Dan Klarmann says:

    Let's not forget the other, invisible choice: "Don't need it." It costs less that all the other varieties, is easier on the environment, and you can save your resources for something else. E.G: Trade a year of gum in for a reasonably good digital camera, or a flight to the mountains or coast.

    Shampoo: Can you actually tell the difference between hair washed with some particular "best", and hair washed with what is cheapest? I never could.

    One pays a premium for simple choices. I ate health-food store bulk peanut butter for a while. Ground at the store, and nothing added. Now I eat organic roasted almond butter, instead. The price is comparable, and I prefer the taste. But it took me 40 years to come to a final answer. Before I found "healthy" peanut butter, it was always what was cheap.

    Peanut butter, like chlorine bleach, is a matter of market over needs. These two products were what marketing people came up with to collect money for disposing of a waste product. Peanuts were planted mainly to restore nitrogen to depleted fields back before WWII. Chlorine (sodium hypochlorite) is a major industrial byproduct, volatile and toxic. We buy it to make surfaces dead quickly, and temporarily. It also bleaches.

    Speaking of bleach, take a look at the laundry aisle. An entire aisle of soaps and whiteners.

  6. Patrick says:

    At the beginning of this article, you mention that too much choice can paralyze us. I agree with that completely, as I have seen it evidenced many times in tabletop roleplaying games (such as Dungeons & Dragons or any of White Wolf's vampire or werewolf games to name a couple).

    Without some sort of framework limiting the person playing the game,

    the 'Wow, I could do anything!' idea quickly turns into '…so uh, what do I do..?'

    But back to the original topic: the sheer number of 'choices' involved in getting even simple products probably causes us to waste a lot of time at a given grocery store unless we already know exactly what sub-type we're looking for (or are willing to accept).

    Of course, the more time we spend in a grocery store, the more likely we are to happen to see something that looks good and make an impulse purchase. I don't know how many times I've ended up buying crackers or donuts because my friends are indecisive and I'm waiting for them to finish shopping, and then I see the snack section…

  7. grumpypilgrim says:

    Further to Edgar's post…one more word: pet food.

    What is also worth noting about grocery store shelves is product location. Usually, name-brand items appear on the eye-level shelves, while more economical products appear way down near the floor. Brand managers give all sorts of promotions to stores to help ensure such advantageous product placement.

    Oh, and speaking of product placement, have you ever noticed that many clothing stores display their inventory by size…with the smallest sizes on high shelves and largest sizes on low shelves? I once pointed this out to a store clerk and, even after I pointed out the problem, she just didn't seem to understand the absurdity of their practice.

  8. Artemis says:

    my word: tyranny. that's right. Too many choices is tyranny.

    That's why I shop at Trader Joes

  9. Erich Vieth says:

    Here's an excerpt from Barry Schwartz' book:

    In the pharmaceutical aisles, I found 61 varieties of suntan oil and sunblock, and 80 different pain relievers — aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen; 350 milligrams or 500 milligrams; caplets, capsules, and tablets; coated or uncoated. There were 40 options for toothpaste, 150 lipsticks, 75 eyeliners, and 90 colors of nail polish from one brand alone. There were 116 kinds of skin cream, and 360 types of shampoo, conditioner, gel, and mousse. Next to them were 90 different cold remedies and decongestants. Finally, there was dental floss: waxed and unwaxed, flavored and unflavored, offered in a variety of thicknesses.

    Returning to the food shelves, I could choose from among 230 soup offerings, including 29 different chicken soups. There were 16 varieties of instant mashed potatoes, 75 different instant gravies, 120 different pasta sauces. Among the 175 different salad dressings were 16 "Italian" dressings, and if none of them suited me, I could choose from 15 extra-virgin olive oils and 42 vinegars and make my own. There were 275 varieties of cereal, including 24 oatmeal options and 7 "Cheerios" options. Across the aisle were 64 different kinds of barbecue sauce and 175 types of tea bags.

    http://www.usatoday.com/life/books/excerpts/2004-

  10. MARY JANE says:

    "Paradox of Choice?" Yes, maybe if your running around like a mind numb robot maybe too many choices is too much for you to handle. If you are a real person with real feelings and intelligence, maybe you can make decisions and accept the consequences of your decisions whether they be good or bad. For me, I am glad that I live in America where I can go to the grocery store and have these kind of choices. I have been in other countries and they do not have these choices. Wake up america….We are Blessed! Stop complaining and if you don't like your unhappiness because of too many choices, get off your ass and do something about it!

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Mary Jane: Did you actually read the article prior to launching your uber-free-marketer attack? Just curious. I challenge to restate the basic theme of Barry Schwartz in your own words.

      Barry Schwartz is aiming work at people like you who insist (as a gut or reflex reaction, just like you) that more choices are always better. His answer is counter-intuitive at first glance.

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