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The paradox of food choice

Can less be more, more or less?

"Do you ever think there’s just too much?"

A friend left this plaintive little message on my voicemail the other day. It struck me as a haiku-ish echo of Andreas Gurksy’s huge and hugely captivating "99 cent". This digitally enhanced colour print (the original is some six by nine feet) shows, in almost psychotic detail, row after endless row of goods for sale in an American supermarket. Between the claustrophobic shelves, tiny shoppers’ heads pop up as if gasping for air.

The image, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, has become emblematic of the "too much" syndrome in the contemporary capitalist environment. It has headlined an essay in Harper’s Magazine on the numbing of the American mind, popped up on a book about shopping and, in its latest incarnation, graced the cover of Barry Schwartz’s new book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less .

Schwartz, a professor of social theory at Swarthmore College in Philadelphia, has ruffled a lot feathers and popular interest with his observations. He explains why more choices really offer less satisfaction. Finally, some substance where the now-abandoned simplicity movement dropped off. (Remember that one? People bought books to tell them to throw out junk they didn’t need or stop dragging home useless stuff, like the book they’d just bought, in the first place.)

No one in her or his right mind would advocate that choice is bad. Especially in the U.S., where freedom of choice is typically a sanctified right, current presidency excepted. What Schwartz does is explain how someone like my pal got to the point of leaving such a message. And how he would likely be happier with fewer options. (The reasons, which I’m probably oversimplifying so you feel happier, are that it’s easier to feel satisfied you’ve made informed or wise choices with fewer options, plus you don’t feel like you’ve missed out on something when you finally do choose.)

When you start to poke around the idea of "choice", you find a lot of pretty interesting ideas to choose from. How much choice do we need to be happy? What determines what we get to choose from and why? And, once we take a closer look, how much of what we find on those endlessly looming shelves constitutes real choice?

Schwartz wanders deeper into the aisles Gursky portrays, starting his book with a trip to the supermarket. And what does he find? Eighty-five kinds of crackers; 285 different cookies; 95 variations of snacks like chips and pretzels; 230 soup offerings; 175 different salad dressings. You get the point.

Now, this was in America’s heartland, super choiceland. What happens in Whistler? A quick survey of local grocery stores plus Save-On-Foods in Squamish turned up more interesting pickings.

First of all, everybody who thinks the Save-On in Squamish offers more choices than smaller local stores like Nesters Market, The Grocery Store or the IGA Marketplace put up your hands. Bzzzzt. Wrong.

Save-On, which comes in around 30,000-35,000 square feet offers, more or less, since no one, least of all me, expected somebody to get out there on their hands and knees with a clipboard and count, around 10,000 different items for sale. This according to assistant operations manager Connie Wicklund. Of the total, about 80 per cent, or some 8,000 items are food.

The IGA, at 24,000 square feet, offers about 20,000 different items (also about 80 per cent is food), while Nesters (10,000 square feet) boasts an inventory of about 15,000 (70 per cent food) and The Grocery Store (3,000 square feet) carries about 10,000 items (80-90 per cent food).

Before you groan, no way a small store like The Grocery Store can have that many different items to choose from, assistant store manager Scott Aldrich points out (as does Ken Quon, IGA’s manager) that not all those items are in stock every day. Things come and go according to seasonality, availability and other factors. And different means everything from different brands to different flavours and types and different-sized packages. But that’s the active inventory, says Scott.

"We’re lucky here in Whistler. Like at The Grocery Store, and I don’t mean to brag, but we have a wide variety of things. Even Nesters has a really wide selection," he adds. "But if you go to a store like Save-On, you’ll find a 30,000-square foot store with Kraft and McCain’s and no selection whatsoever, you know what I mean?"

More or less. Obviously this is no scientific survey and we’re not trying to get into an inventory-taking showdown, but people do know exactly what Scott means. Big stores mean largely national brands and, it seems, fewer and fewer of them. Case in point: more and more, Save-On is stocking its own brand, Western Family. In the Squamish store, Connie puts that at about one-third of the current inventory. Which is fine. If you like Western Family.

Don’t forget, too, that the number of choices also depends on the size of items (take away those big honking Costco-sized boxes of cereal or cat food and you suddenly have a lot more room for different items) and/or the number of items of any one kind stocked on the shelves.

To carry on with Schwartz’s theme, lets zero in on one item, breakfast cereal, only because it was the star of a great New Yorker cartoon, "An Awful Lot of Cereal". In Schwartz’s Philadelphia supermarket, he found 275 different breakfast cereals. Now that includes hot cereal, cold cereal, kids’ cereal – Fruit Loops, Lucky Charms and the like – old people’s cereal (corn flakes, All-Bran), 24 oatmeal options and eight kinds of Cheerios.

Compare that to the roughly 300 varieties of cereal at Save-On, 230 kinds at Nesters, and about 100 each at IGA and The Grocery Store. Wow, that’s an awful lot of cereal. Is it too much? Or just the right amount? That depends on who you ask.

So what determines all these hundreds of choices? Lots of different factors and the importance of each varies from store to store: marketing; people’s insatiable appetite for novelty; keeping each different consumer demographic happy by offering options in type, size, price and value, or perceived price and value; what the store staff tries and likes; availability; the need to dump overstocked/stale-dated items; who attends food shows; you name it. But, as Ken points out, in the end it all boils down to supply and demand.

But even that has its variants. Ask Scott or Ken or Sean Daly, assistant manager at Nesters, what drives what’s on the shelves and the answer is a resounding "customer demand". Hey, that’s us!

Sean: "Customer suggestion is tops. People tell us what they want and we take pride in responding. If there are things we don’t carry, we’ll bring in a case and even store it in the back so they can buy it bit by bit."

Scott: "We have people coming in from all over the world telling us, oooh we have this back home (like Marmite from the UK or Vegemite for Aussies)… We have to make sure everyone is happy or else they just complain about it."

Ken: "It’s a little bit of everything. But 90 per cent is customer demand. I have sales reps saying you should bring in this or that, but I don’t because it doesn’t sell."

Sean and Ken also point out that customer demand in Whistler is very different from that of their respective sister stores in Vancouver.

No doubt Save-On also rides the customer demand bandwagon, albeit in a different, somewhat more removed way. Connie says that 95 per cent of what you see on the shelves is determined by the warehouse. So that leaves about five per cent responding to local requests. And you definitely can’t order in your own case of something and keep it in the back.

Now here’s the disclaimer: Not to pick on Save-On. Hey, I shop there. Sometimes. Ditto SuperStore and Safeway and IGA. And Nesters and The Grocery Store and Choices and the thousand-and-one ethnic grocers dotting Vancouver. It’s just that Save-On happens to be the only big supermarket-type store in the area that mirrors Gursky’s and Schwartz’s archetype.

Also, we’re talking about multiple choices here, whether we have too many, and what constitutes real choice. On the latter note, if you want to get really serious, likely the only substantial choice facing us any more is sustainable vs. non-sustainable food production. And some days that’s just too much to contemplate.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who believes that the unexamined food shelf is not worth stocking.