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The Paradox of Choice By Barry Schwartz
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The Paradox of Choice

Why More Is Less


On Sale: 06/01/2005
Price: $18.50
Formats:     Trade paperback | Hardback

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Chapter One

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 items.

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 quality.
  • 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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ISBN13: 9780060005696; ISBN: 0060005696; Imprint: Ecco ; On Sale: 06/01/2005; Format: Trade paperback; Trimsize: 5 5/16 x 8; Pages: 304; $18.50; Ages: 18 and Up

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