Friday, May 16, 2008

More thoughts on fewer choices

Earlier this year I read a book by Barry Schwartz called The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less and gave a quick overview of it.

I've been thinking about this book (and some of the main ideas in it) more and more over the past few weeks and I wanted to write down a few more thoughts on the whole concept of simplification and having fewer choices.

Like most people I have things that I care about and want to have tons of choices and things that I just want to be simple that I don't have to put a lot of thought behind.

I looked at reviews on hundreds of different tires before I picked the set I wanted. However, walking down the cereal aisle in the supermarket and being presented with plain Cheerios® in three different sized boxes (8.9, 14 & 18 oz.) just seems a tad ridiculous to me. How much of a waste is it to have three different package sizes, three different cases that have to be shipped to the store, three different spots on a shelf that have to be stocked, three different UPC's that have to be maintained in computer systems and on and on... all for the SAME EXACT product. Now expand this thinking to all of the other cereals... and then on to all of the other products available in a typical supermarket.

Do stores really need to carry a half dozen or so different brands of pasta? (I've never had pasta that tasted any different than any other pasta.) How is "pizza sauce" different from "pasta sauce" or "tomato sauce"? Aren't they all just basically tomatoes and spices? I'm not going to lie and say that I don't have preferences or favorite products and foods but I'm usually so overwhelmed when I walk in the supermarket that I don't pay attention to different prices or sizes and just grab what I'm used to eating but I can spend many hours spread over a few months researching tires for my car beginning months before they're even ready to be replaced.

I don't really know how to justify what I'm thinking and I'm sure that Cheerios®, pasta and various sauces are important to some people in the same way that tires are important to me. I wouldn't just walk into a tire store and say: "I'd like to buy some tires." the same way I walk into the supermarket and grab a random box of rotini and jar of Prego®. However, I think I'd have a meltdown if I tried to compare Prego® to Ragu® to Bertolli® to Classico® to Emerill's® to Hunt's® to Newman's Own® to Muir Glen® to Gia Russa® to the store brand (and I could go on and on and on here...) the same way I obsessed about tires.

The whole concept of having too many choices is such a tricky situation that we've gotten ourselves into in pursuit of the almighty dollar... everything is a balancing act. Retailers don't want to piss off customers by taking away their choices and they want to keep adding new products to their lineup to relieve you of some of your cash while you're picking up your necessities but at the same time they want to save money and increase their profits. New brands pop up to take a share of your pasta sauce budget. Retail stores just keep getting bigger and more overwhelming. At many Wal-Mart stores you can have your car's oil changed while you purchase Miller Lite, shrimp, boxer shorts and a big screen TV.

I know there are other people out there that feel a lot like I do. The same simplification argument apples to pretty much everything from the supermarket example to computer software user interfaces. Sometimes having too many choices is overwhelming and wasteful... but how do we go back to a more simple existence? How do we remove choices without taking away a person's freedom to choose?

No comments :