When he was President, Barack Obama told writer Michael Lewis that he wore only gray or blue suits and preferred having others decide what he would eat. Saving his energy for the important stuff, the President tried not to think about clothing and food.
Perhaps similarly, I have the same breakfast every morning, shop at one store for clothing, hate buffets, and try to skip the plastic baggy aisle in the grocery store (where I find all the size alternatives daunting).
So I am delighted that supermarkets will carry fewer products.
A Nielsen analyst calculated that the average number of different items at supermarkets was down 7.3 percent from mid-May to mid-June. At some of IGA’s 1,100 U.S. stores, 40 varieties of toilet paper will shrink to four while manufacturer Georgia Pacific said we will be able to buy its 328-sheet roll of Quilted Northern toilet paper but not the half-size version. Also during the depths of the pandemic, PepsiCo cut one-fifth of its products. While they recently said many will return, still, their Frito-Lay subsidiary will have 3 to 5 percent less.
Offering less reverses a trend that started almost 50 years ago. Lay’s used to have four chip varieties; now it has 40. Campbell’s sells 400 kinds of soups rather than 100. Responding with more shelf space, the average supermarket grew our choices from 9,000 to 33,000 different items.
Our Bottom Line: Choice (or Decision) Fatigue
Behavioral economists like to tell us that sometimes more is less because we pay a biological price for making decision after decision. Depleted, at some point, our brain looks for shortcuts. Yes, we have the benefit of multiple options but also we pay the cost of choosing among them..
In one experiment, grocery store customers who were offered samples of jam purchased more when given 6 than when they could try 24. Aware of our weariness, car dealers sell us option packages rather than a menu with every new car extra. Even during the day, for many of us, our choice overload accumulates. We have to decide what to wear, what to eat, what to read. We have countless emails, Facebook friends, Instagram, podcasts, apps, and YouTube. At some point choice becomes an overload that constrains us.
Returning to the supermarket, we might enjoy fewer products.
My sources and more: In two recent articles, WSJ, here and here, described where product choice has diminished. The perfect complement, this NY Times Magazine article had the decision fatigue analysis. And finally, if it does not add to your decision fatigue, do read this paper. Please note that several of today’s sentences were in a previous econlife post.