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Tuesday 14 June 2005

The Curse Of Abundant Choices

The lovely and talented Don Boudreaux comments on a letter that appeared in the New York Times. The letter was written by a correspondent in McLean, Virginia, one of the world’s wealthier places and a suburb of Washington, DC.

It’s impossible to really tell how much irony went into the letter, but for the moment we’ll take it at face value. Boudreaux quotes the whole thing, but here’s a short excerpt. It’s in response to a column about super-abundance in the United States, particularly focusing on the startling diversity of dental flosses that are available. The Times’ reader writes:

Never mind the dental aisle. I can’t get past the orange juice with pulp, some pulp, no pulp, with calcium, without calcium, with calcium and extra vitamin C, with calcium and added vitamin D, low acid, blended with other fruit juices, from concentrate, not from concentrate, low carb.

What happened to just plain orange juice? Only Tropicana and Minute Maid know for certain.

Boudreaux scoffs lightly at the plight of the would-be orange-juice consumer in McLean.

Now, I don’t really care what kind of garbage the O.J. Trusts are selling in their paper containers: I don’t pay attention, because unless it’s fresh-squeezed, it all tastes horrible to me. The goodness of orange juice doesn’t survive pasteurization, and nearly all orange juice is pasteurized these days.

I do, however, pay attention to milk, because I use milk in my tea and on my Grape Nuts (when Grape Nuts are available, that is).

The dairy case, like the dental aisle and the orange-juice department, has exploded in recent years. I have my choice of milk, 2% milk, and skim milk; I can get all of those pasteurized, ultra-pasteurized, or organic (which is usually also ultra-pasteurized).

I can get each of them with regular or low carbs; I can get them with or without enzymes for the lactose-intolerant. I can even get ‘milk’ that actually has no milk at all in it, having been squeezed from the teats of soybeans in a process I don’t care to contemplate.

I can get them in regular, chocolate, or strawberry flavors, and I can get them all in half-pints, pints, quarts, half-gallons, or gallons. And despite the government’s price supports, I can get all of them for remarkably low prices.

Dairy Case

When I can get them at all, that is.

I prefer quarts of whole non-ultra-pasteurized milk. The ultra-pasteurization cooks all the flavor out of the stuff, and when you use a couple ounces of milk a day it doesn’t pay to buy it more than a quart at a time.

Unfortunately, whole milk in quarts seems to be almost totally unavailable here. There’s room for it on the shelf, but there’s only something there about one in five times that I look.

The milk cooler at my local supermarket is about 30 feet long, meaning that it’s got 150 linear feet is shelving for products, but the only things that are reliably available there are the soy milk (which is not in much demand) and the gallons of whole milk (which are something of a commodity and are thus stocked in enormous quantities).

I’ve written before about the unreliability of my supermarket, and this is just another example.

I’m all for an abundance of choice, but I am alarmed at what seems to be the usual practice of neglecting the tried-and-true classic choices that have a proven market in favor of something new. We need the new! We want the new! Bring on the choco-strawberry low-carb, no-fat, semi-gelatinous non-dairy soy-based beverage with added calcium! Suspend globs of candy in the stuff if you like! See whether people will buy the stuff, and congratulations to you if they do. You deserve your marketing-department bonus, because you have made the world a better place.

In the process, however, it’s important not to over-extend your company to the point where you cannot manage to supply those products that sell consistently and in volume with no expenditure on research or advertising.

If you have twenty different kinds of dental floss but only twice the shelf space you used for two kinds of dental floss back in the Dark Ages of only Mint and Unflavored, you are ten times more likely — assuming perfect distribution of both supply and demand — to run out of any one variety before you restock. Looked at this way, this abundance of minutely differentiated products doesn’t look like such a great idea unless you can inexpensively and competently manage to supply or sell a greater number of individual products than before. It’s a pity that few companies seem to be able to do this.

Posted by tino at 11:03 14.06.05
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