Too Much?

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For years I commuted back and forth between the farm in Virginia and my law office in Tampa.  That was a crazy way to live.

During the week I stayed in a condo near the office.  After many years of married life, with the domestic duties being handled by my wife, suddenly I had to manage those kind of things on my own again.

I recall running out of shampoo and going to the nearby CVS to get some. How difficult could that be?

But when I found the shampoo I was astounded to see dozens, maybe even a hundred, options to choose from.  And not just different brands, but a bewildering variety of choices from every company offering the stuff.  I was paralyzed.  I just wanted some shampoo and being confronted with row after row of choices left me with no idea what to buy.  I had to call Cherie from the store for her advice.

I think it’s good to have choices, but do we really need a couple hundred varieties of shampoo?

All of which brings me to something I read in Michael Moss’ new book Salt Sugar Fat. On average there are 38,718 items available in a grocery store.  Of course there aren’t nearly that many types of whole food available.  Rather, the overwhelming majority of the choices are packaged processed foods, occupying the choice center aisles of the store.

I don’t know what the optimum number of food choices should be.  But it seems to me that 38,718 is a number that just doesn’t make sense.

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10 comments on “Too Much?

  1. shoreacres says:

    Well, to paraphrase the great bard, perhaps the fault lies not in our stores, but in ourselves. It seems to me that most products that don’t sell are taken off the market. Several items I’ve dearly loved over the years disappeared because not enough people purchased them. Someone is buying those items that remain.

    I prefer to keep the choices, and hone my ability to choose. I’ve already lost my right to choose my doctor because of Obamacare. I don’t want to see that particular experience moved into other areas of life.

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    • Bill says:

      Well I suppose if the market can bear hundreds of varieties of shampoo and Hawaiian Punch then there’s no harm in it. It overloads my brain, but I’m not much of a shopper. The book tells the story of how the companies are constantly searching for new items that will sell. Most of the new items that hit the shelves are flops.

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  2. Bob Braxton says:

    Each time after a month in Kenya, that huge number of items feels overwhelming to me, too. I myself am also “not much of a shopper.” With a short list at the “grocery” store, I can focus on the tasks at hand and make my escape soon enough. Still … I agree with Bill.

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  3. And adding insult to injury, each of those 100’s of shampoos claim to be the best the very best.

    Self-made lye soap anyone? Lye soap is the best the very very bestest!!!

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    • Bill says:

      Packaging is one of the principal ways they distinguish themselves from one another. I doubt there is much difference in the products themselves. And the packaging is ridiculously wasteful–mainly plastic bottles that end up in landfills. We use shampoo bars now that we get from someone who sells them on Etsy. They last a long time and require no plastic bottles.

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  4. nebraskadave says:

    Bill, during the final decade of my wife’s life, she was not really able to do much outside the home. The duty of grocery shopping and cooking fell to me. One day she decided just to tag along to the grocery store just to get out of the house. As I gathered up everything on the list, she suggested we get some potato chips. I asked what kind. She looked at me bewildered and wanted to know what I meant as she hadn’t really been in a grocery store for years. We shuffled our way to the chips isle and you can imagine the look on her face. She told me that she just wanted regular potato chips. We made our way to the regular potato chip section and then I asked, “Ok, what flavor would you like?” The look I got was classic Kodak moment photo material. As she stared at the section totally over whelmed, she asked if they still made just plain old potato chips. I said, “Yes”, but my next question totally overwhelmed her. I asked what size would you like. She turned and walked away. I grabbed a medium bag and headed toward the checkout. Upon returning home she immediately took a pill for anxiety and went in the bedroom to lay down for awhile. Never again did she ask to go grocery shopping with me.

    Sad to say I never knew it was such an overwhelming thing for people to have so many choices of one item. It had just happened a little at a time for me and I was totally unaware it had happened. Out of the 38,718 items, it would be interesting to know just how many are variations of the same thing. As your picture shows, one isle is dedicated to carbonated beverages, another for breakfast cereal, and still another for bread, or chips, or etc. I remember the day when all that was needed was a list and the owner of the small little grocery store would either wheel the ladder on the rail attached to the ceiling back and forth to get each item or use a long pole with a grabber on the end which would snatch the item off the shelf. There were no carts or bags. Once the order was filled either the owner, his wife, or the one stock boy employee would help take the groceries out to the car. Those were peaceful simple days for sure.

    Have a great shopping day at the store.

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    • Bill says:

      Thanks for the great comment Dave. I can relate to your wife’s experience. I was flabbergasted as I stood before that sea of shampoo. There’s a lot in Moss’ book about potato chips and the way they’re marketed. It’s very big (and profitable) business.

      There is a store that opened here not long ago called Aldi. They sell only one or two varieties of each item and have whittled their store size down to something that makes sense. Low overhead and good prices, plus they pay their employees fairly. That’s our preferred grocery store.

      One of my a-ha moments came years ago when I was on an airplane overhearing the guy in the row in front of me talking about his company’s decision to start producing breakfast cereal. He said something like, “When we saw that people will pay more for a box of cereal than they will for a dozen eggs we knew we needed to get into that business.” The box costs the manufacturer more than the stuff in it. The companies PAY the grocery stores to get the prime eye-level spots on the shelves. And there is an entire aisle of cereals. I took a picture of that too but decided to use the sugary drinks aisle picture instead.

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  5. Steve says:

    You touched on it above, but it’s not the variety it appears to be. It’s an illusion of choice.

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    • Bill says:

      Yes. That’s an important point. A handful of companies make nearly everything in the store and while there may be two dozen variations of Hawaiian Punch, for example, it’s all just minor variations of HFCS-sweetened, artificially colored, water.

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