- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 22, 2002

ATLANTA — The avalanche of choice starts every day with the innocuous question: What's for dinner? A chain reaction of decisions tumbles out in response, eating up time as though the minutes and seconds were morsels spread out at a buffet.
Eat in or out? Chinese or Italian? Who's making it? Is that all the chicken we have left
The choices we face every day have exploded not just by quantity, but also by significance. It's merely frustrating to pick the best Internet provider, cell-phone plan, computer, long-distance company or TV show. It's downright life-altering to be responsible for selecting a health maintenance organization, gynecologist, 401(k), IRA or mutual fund.
It's a tyranny of choice.
"Family members are increasingly expected to participate directly in the market as an individual consumer, guided by the individual's preferences," said Ida Simpson, a Duke University sociology professor. "The commercializing of our lives increased and diversifies the demands others make on us."
Or, as Joe Fox the bookstore-chain executive played by Tom Hanks says in the movie "You've Got Mail":
"The whole purpose of places like Starbucks is for people with no decision-making ability whatsoever to make six decisions just to buy one cup of coffee. Short, tall, light, dark, caf, decaf, low-fat, nonfat, et cetera. So people who don't know what the hell they're doing or who on earth they are can, for only $2.95, get not just a cup of coffee, but an absolutely defining sense of self: Tall. Decaf. Cappuccino."
It takes time to make a good decision. Sometimes, we simply have better things to do than to find the best ranch dressing on the grocer's shelf which seems to extend clear to Alabama.
"The choices we have are 20 times greater than just 10 years ago," said Richard Feinberg, director of Purdue University's Center for Customer Driven Quality. "But the human capacity for processing information is finite and very low."
The SKU (stock-keeping unit or simply the "skew") is the unique identifying number on a product that retailers use to track inventory. Often, it's represented by the familiar bar code.
America's stores have about 1 million SKUs. The average supermarket has about 40,000 SKUs though the average family receives most of its needs from fewer than 150 of them.
Limited choice is better than no choice at all, research suggests. People rationally select the best option in a limited universe.
But a never-ending list overwhelms to the point where we don't decide or stop looking once we find something acceptable, according to a study by Stanford psychologist Mark Lepper and Columbia University business professor Sheena Iyengar.
"Their inability to invest the requisite time and effort in seeking the so-called 'best' option may heighten their experience of regret with the options they have chosen," Mr. Lepper and Miss Iyengar concluded.
"How can there be so much dissatisfaction in the face of so much opportunity? Perhaps it is not that people are made unhappy by the decisions they make in the face of abundant options, but that they are instead unsure that they are burdened by the responsibility of distinguishing good from bad decisions."
Mr. Lepper devised the study after he noticed Stanford University professors delaying their 401(k) decisions, just after the university increased its fund choices from nearly a dozen to more than 150.
"They thought they were doing us a favor," Mr. Lepper said.
Time has been a commodity for a while.
"As the scarcity of time increases, we can expect a decline in the quality of decisions. Instead of possessing complete knowledge, we shall be acting on increasingly uncertain grounds," Staffan B. Linder, an economist, wrote 32 years ago in his classic on time allocation, "The Harried Leisure Class."
Need choice but have no time? Our godsend is Wal-Mart. Pick up milk, rotate your tires, change your oil, get some diapers and grab a Big Mac all under the same roof.
It's the chapel where choice marries speed.
Beep. Beep. Beep. Clerks scan our items with the nimbleness of a blackjack dealer.
A generation ago, shoppers went to the butcher for meat, the bakery for bread and the service station for oil.
"Wal-Mart made it fast to get what you wanted," said Mr. Feinberg, the Purdue consumer analyst. "Then they started offering that stuff on a 24-hour basis."
Have a choice headache? Get an aspirin at the Wal-Mart pharmacy but bring your Excel spreadsheet to chart the selection.
Bayer offers extra strength. Then there's a women's version (aspirin plus calcium), extra strength plus (helps protect against stomach upset) and extra strength p.m. (for pain with sleeplessness).
Cut to the chase one aisle over, and it's the same long-winded story with Band-Aids. There's advanced healing, advanced healing finger-care, antibacterial, antibiotic, pain and itch relief, water block plus, clear water block plus, sport strip, flexible fabric, tough strips, clear, clear-transparent and plastic, not to mention children's characters from Blue's Clues to Harry Potter.
Richard Comi, store manager of the Wal-Mart in Austell, Ga., said the choices amazed managers who were visiting from England.
"They were astounded at the pickles," Mr. Comi said. "We have 12 feet of them. They've got three shelves."

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