Freedom of Choice? Or Too Many Choices?

Having been brought up in our bountiful nation, I suppose it is normal to think of all our freedoms as positive things, assuming you think about them at all. Look at our Constitution: Freedom of the press, of speech, of religion, of assembly. The whole document springs from our Founding Fathers' wish to institutionalize the rights and privileges we were denied while an absentee landlord ruled America.

Then, there's freedom of choice, something only implied by our Constitution -- by its specifying several BIG things where we should have a choice. For nearly 200 years, "implied" was sufficient. We didn't need this right "enshrined" with the others, yet we could still appreciate that we had it, all the same. And then came niche marketing. Now, freedom of choice has become one with the other, larger freedoms, and our right -- indeed, our duty -- to practice it, suffuses nearly every decision we make, at least on the retail level. For, while the Executive Branch was tasked with assuring the maintenance and survival of the big freedoms, it is the retail branch that nowadays enforces the notion of freedom of choice.

Think I'm overstating things? Have you tried buying orange juice at a supermarket lately? The other night, I visited our nearby Gristedes, an average-sized urban supermarket -- but strictly a mom-and-pop store compared to its giant suburban counterparts. I was looking for orange-tangerine juice. Couldn't find it. But, what I did find was orange juice with ... pulp, no pulp, some pulp, lots of pulp, MOST pulp, calcium, antioxidants, fiber, added Vitamin C, calcium & vitamin D. There was traditional, original, grovestand, grower's style, homestyle, low-acid, OJ light, light & healthy, farm fresh, healthy heart with Omega-3s, and healthy kids (I am NOT making this up). There was orange juice, orange-grapefruit (golden or red), orange-pineapple, orange-strawberry-banana, orange-peach-mango, orange-kiwi (okay, maybe not orange-kiwi, but, in a bigger store... ). There were also dozens of other juices, juice combos, juice "beverages" and juice drinks -- essentially sugared water with some flavoring or other -- in this section of the cooler. Jeez! When I was a kid, we went to the "juice" section, and here was Tropicana, and there was Minute Maid. Two choices. A glance, a coin-toss, and on to the next item. I couldn't even have had a V-8!

So now, overwhelmed with a juicy sugar rush from so much freedom of choice, I found I had a headache. Time to repair to the neighborhood drug and convenience store, across the street. This place, too, is a typically modest affair. The section with painkillers is only 12 feet long. When I was young, our "choice" was among Bayer aspirin, Bufferin (buffered aspirin) and Anacin (aspirin with caffeine). Tylenol (acetaminophen) didn't come along until 1955, and the various brands of ibuprofen didn't arrive until 1974. Now, good grief! The brands in this small store included: Advil, Aleve (that's naproxen, available since 1991), Anacin, Ascriptin (aspirin buffered with Maalox -- yum!), Bayer, Bufferin, Ecotrim (coated aspirin), Excedrin, Halfprin (not sure about the other half), Legatrin, Mobigesic, Momentum, Motrin, St. Joseph, and Vanquish.

The Bayer brand alone offers: genuine, "plus," safety-coated, low-dose, extra-strength, extra-strength back & body pain, chewable, PM, and women's (low dose & calcium). Tylenol, apparently Bayer's biggest competitor on these shelves, counters with: regular strength, extra-strength, 8-hour, PM, arthritis pain, tabs, caplets, cool caplets (huh?), rapid-release gels, and "Go-Tabs," whatever those are. Excedrin and Anacin have "only" several choices each. And of course, generic versions of aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and naproxen, in various strengths, are there as well. Is your head throbbing yet? Mine is. Spinning, too! Thank you, America, for giving me so many choices.

In any supermarket or drugstore in America, you will find similar duels among eager, colorful contestants vying for your business. And don't get me started on cold remedies, or shampoo, or salad dressings here, because they're even worse. The problem for me is that, while I am rummaging through these endless choices of assorted commodities, I am rapidly eating away at the most-valuable commodity I have: time. I go to the supermarket for a juice with a particular taste. Five minutes later, I'm still looking. I flee to the pharmacy for relief. Hmmm, I have sniffles, a headache, chest congestion, but no sore throat, no fever. Which product do I need? How is all this freedom of choice helpful? You call this liberating? Often, it's just time-consuming and, ultimately, frustrating. In the Communist-era Soviet Union, stores would have perhaps one or two of a given item on a shelf -- not one or two choices, mind you, just one or two loaves of bread, or bottles of milk, a couple of cartons of eggs. I've spoken to Russian émigrés who express nostalgia for those good old days. I think I understand them, now.

It can't be such a great thing for retailers, either, having to stock and keep track of those 50 different painkillers. And, of course, they have other products, too -- try shampoos! That's why they invented inventory software and bar codes, because the stocking/inventory/ordering task became so complex. And manufacturers, trying to cater to every whim, every whiff of a new trend? How efficient is it to make a dozen or so smaller batches of essentially the same product -- with only slight differences? If they can't produce stuff in large quantities, it costs them more. Then it ends up costing us more. Segmenting the market IS good for advertising and marketing agencies, because they must devise an endless series of campaigns to get us to buy from an ever-more bewildering menu of choices. Their future rests on their ability to find as many niches as the American psyche will allow - and then tuning in a product to stick in that niche. Good for them. Bad for us.