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