Normally I’m in favor of variety, whether it be of people, cultures, viewpoints, ideas or products in general. More choices give us, well, more choices and that is, by and large, a good thing. However, some of my recent experiences make me wonder if we sometimes don’t have a few too many choices…
I had run out of paper clips and wanted to get some more. I don’t do a lot of clipping, but sometimes when you need a paper clip, nothing else will do. I use the classic silver paper clips—simple, functional and durable. I didn’t want plastic-coated paper clips in a variety of primary colors or “fun” paper clips in the shape of rainbows or unicorns or whatever other shapes they come in these days. I didn’t want giant paper clips or paper clips that play “The Marseillaise.” Just plain paper clips, please. You’d think this would be easy to do, but you’d be wrong. I went to several office supply stores and they did not have ordinary silver paper clips unless I wanted to buy them bundled in groups of 6000. I could leave paper clips to my children if I bought that many. All I needed was a box of 100 or so to do me for five or six years. I think I went to five or six stores before I found that elusive box. Probably all the rest had been bought by people who also wanted plain silver paper clips.
Or take potato chips. Please. Sometimes when I’m standing at the potato chip section trying to find regular old potato chips I feel like I’m in the scene from Forrest Gump in which Bubba Gump enumerates all the ways to fix shrimp: there are fried, baked, sautéed, roasted and grilled potato chips, and chips cooked in a kettle by your grandmother. There are chips that are rippled and chips that are all one size (you know who you are). And the seasonings are enough to make the CEO of McCormack a happy person for a long, long time. Of course there’s salt but there’s also sea salt, low salt, no salt, salt from inland seas, salt from ancient glaciers and so on. Then there are the flavors—barbeque, onion and vinegar, salt and pepper, bay crab seasoning, ranch, honey Dijon, jalapeno and cheddar cheese. (Note for this paragraph: if you stand in front of the potato chip display and take notes, you’re going to get some odd looks. At least I haven’t been tossed out of a supermarket as an industrial spy. Yet.)
Then there are the microwavable mashed potatoes which I think are a great invention. They’re almost as good as the ones my wife makes from scratch but without the peeling, boiling, mashing and seasoning. And of course, they come in a variety of flavors that always seem to be in plentiful supply. There are cheddar cheese, sour cream and chive and garlic flavors. What there is not plenty of is ordinary old mashed potatoes. I don’t know if the companies force the stores to take a certain amount of flavored products, but no one seems to be buying. They do seem to be buying the plain variety, which should give someone somewhere pause.
Now, I am grateful for the choices we do have, but I wonder if we’ve gone a little too far. Maybe part of the current economic crisis comes from having too much choice—if companies are making a number of products that people don’t want or won’t buy, isn’t that a loss for the companies? I am not an economist, but it would seem that every sale not made is a loss for the company. (Yes, I know that is Nobel Prize in economics quality thinking.) One fix the car companies are looking at is not having so many brands. The chassis for many General Motors brands is the same: the sheet metal (and plastic) and appointments are different. Oldsmobile has gone the way of the dodo and maybe other brands will follow. Buick could be next, although my father tells me that the good people at the assisted living place where he lives are up in arms about that possibility since Buick is their car. Rock on, retired folks!
So, it turns out that this post is not really about choices of products I don’t want: it’s about how to save the economy. Wow! Someone tell the president! Companies can figure out what people want to buy and make only that. If people don’t have more choices than they need, they’ll live. So will I as long as I have plain silver paper clips, regular potato chips and ordinary mashed potatoes.