The Era of Choice Overload

ELLEN GOODMAN

March 31, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- Speed-shopping at the supermarket, I find the fast track, Aisle 6, that runs down the length of cereal options from pure bran to sugar-coated alphabet letters has become an obstacle course.

A vanload of elderly women, who bear the unmistakable accents of their Russian homeland, have come to market and are now at a full stop in front of me. One cluster is studying each box, another is holding a seminar on comparative cereals.

These women are not tourists, but immigrants still new enough to be fascinated by the choices offered to them. This is what identifies them even more than their language: a visible pleasure in such plenty.

For my own part, exchanging greetings in my pidgin Russian, wending my way past their carts, I feel suddenly thoroughly American. It occurs to me that I no longer regard the choices in this consumer hall of fame as emblems of my freedom but as demands on my time and attention. I have become less interested in widening my options than in narrowing them.

Have I become the manufacturer's worst nightmare? I check the list in my pocket. I have bought the same toothpaste for 15, years, the same shampoo for 7, the same cereal for 5. I buy shaving cream indiscriminately, and cannot for the life of me make a distinction between or among toilet tissues. I doubt that a new, improved product is truly new or improved.

I doubt that this is my own middle-aged hardening of the consumer arteries. Rather, like many Americans, I am reacting to a choice overload. At some point, the exploding number of decisions to be made between Brand X and Y and Z, the options in ice cream and cable channels, squeezes too much time from the day.

To work this aisle properly, after all, any good, informed self-respecting consumer must know about vitamins and minerals, about the importance of fiber and the dangers of fat. She should read in detail the nutritional information on the box and the price information on the shelf. The same holds true in picking milk for the cereal. Skim? One percent? Two percent? Homogenized? Quart? Half-gallon? Such attention is demanded by a thousand products a shopping day.

I have a friend who is getting ready to prepare to commence to buy a new car. Over the past few months, he has bought an array of magazines and studied automotive reports as if he faced a qualifying exam in consumer smarts: To the loser goes the lemon.

But he is paralyzed by the number of models and options. Whatever happened, he asks wryly, to the Model T? Finally he has decided: He will ask his brother.

In the homeland of my supermarket companions, an astounding amount of human energy goes into the search for the simplest things. Russians work an elaborate network in pursuit of a pair of boots or a single videotape. Here, the same astounding amount of human energy can go into choosing the right thing. We work an an entire mall of boots and scan a thousand videos before choosing one. Comedy or Romance? Schwarzenegger or Streisand? PG or R?

I am no fan of the Moscow market. I want a range of blue jeans on the remote chance that one may fit. I have done my share of ranting against six-sizes-fit-all American shoemakers. I am aware that in the downwardly mobile '90s the un- and underemployed face the added insult of an increasing number of choices they cannot afford.

But the consumer world still expands, and so must our defenses. Against too many choices that make too little difference. Against the time that must be paid for a life of informed consuming. Against the need to decide. And decide.

Would my car-buying friend use the hours he spent comparing fuel-injection systems to compare national health plans? Maybe not. Will the moments I save studying cereals be devoted to studying the greenhouse effect on grain? Maybe not. But every ounce lifted from choice overload must free up some room for the mind to wander down other aisles.

Today, stuck in the gridlock of Aisle 6, it occurs to me that as my shopping companions become citizens, their love affair with the free market will turn into a desire to be freer of the market. How odd that this American cornucopia has become a landscape of (( too many choices.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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