Let's Go Shopping
A Day at the Supermarket
Scanning the shelves of my local supermarket recently, I
found 85 different varieties and brands of crackers. As I read the
packages, I discovered that some brands had sodium, others didn't.
Some were fat-free, others weren't. They came in big boxes and
small ones. They came in normal size and bite size. There were
mundane saltines and exotic and expensive imports.
My neighborhood supermarket is not a particularly large store,
and yet next to the crackers were 285 varieties of cookies. Among
chocolate chip cookies, there were 21 options. Among Goldfish (I
don't know whether to count them as cookies or crackers), there
were 20 different varieties to choose from.
Across the aisle were juices -- 13 "sports drinks," 65 "box drinks"
for kids, 85 other flavors and brands of juices, and 75 iced teas and
adult drinks. I could get these tea drinks sweetened (sugar or artificial
sweetener), lemoned, and flavored.
Next, in the snack aisle, there were 95 options in all -- chips
(taco and potato, ridged and flat, flavored and unflavored, salted and
unsalted, high fat, low fat, no fat), pretzels, and the like, including a
dozen varieties of Pringles. Nearby was seltzer, no doubt to wash down the snacks. Bottled water was displayed in at least 15 flavors.
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.
Heading down the homestretch, I encountered 22 types of
frozen waffles. And just before the checkout (paper or plastic; cash
or credit or debit), there was a salad bar that offered 55 different
This brief tour of one modest store barely suggests the bounty
that lies before today's middle-class consumer. I left out the fresh
fruits and vegetables (organic, semi-organic, and regular old fertilized
and pesticized), the fresh meats, fish, and poultry (free-range
organic chicken or penned-up chicken, skin on or off, whole or in
pieces, seasoned or unseasoned, stuffed or empty), the frozen foods,
the paper goods, the cleaning products, and on and on and on.
A typical supermarket carries more than 30,000 items. That's a
lot to choose from. And more than 20,000 new products hit the
shelves every year, almost all of them doomed to failure.
Comparison shopping to get the best price adds still another
dimension to the array of choices, so that if you were a truly careful
shopper, you could spend the better part of a day just to select a box
of crackers, as you worried about price, flavor, freshness, fat,
sodium, and calories. But who has the time to do this? Perhaps
that's the reason consumers tend to return to the products they
usually buy, not even noticing 75% of the items competing for their
attention and their dollars. Who but a professor doing research
would even stop to consider that there are almost 300 different
cookie options to choose among?
Supermarkets are unusual as repositories for what are called
"nondurable goods," goods that are quickly used and replenished.
So buying the wrong brand of cookies doesn't have significant emotional
or financial consequences. But in most other settings, people
are out to buy things that cost more money, and that are meant to
last. And here, as the number of options increases, the psychological
stakes rise accordingly.
Shopping for Gadgets
Continuing my mission to explore our range of choices, I
left the supermarket and stepped into my local consumer electronics
store. Here I discovered:
- 45 different car stereo systems, with 50 different speaker sets
to go with them.
- 42 different computers, most of which could be customized
in various ways.
- 27 different printers to go with the computers.
- 110 different televisions, offering high definition, flat screen,
varying screen sizes and features, and various levels of sound
- 30 different VCRs and 50 different DVD players.
- 20 video cameras.
- 85 different telephones, not counting the cellular phones.
- 74 different stereo tuners, 55 CD players, 32 tape players,
and 50 sets of speakers. (Given that these components could
be mixed and matched in every possible way, that provided
the opportunity to create 6,512,000 different stereo systems.)
And if you didn't have the budget or the stomach for
configuring your own stereo system, there were 63 small,
integrated systems to choose from.
Unlike supermarket products, those in the electronics store
don't get used up so fast. If we make a mistake, we either have to live
with it or return it and go through the difficult choice process all
over again. Also, we really can't rely on habit to simplify our decision,
because we don't buy stereo systems every couple of weeks
and because technology changes so rapidly that chances are our
last model won't exist when we go out to replace it. At these prices,
choices begin to have serious consequences.
The foregoing is excerpted from The Paradox of Choice By Barry Schwartz. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022
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