April 16, 2006

The shoppers of today probably won’t understand this, but there actually was once a time where you could go into a store, find the exact item you were looking for easily, and then be off to your next stop in no more than 5 minutes. Yes, really!

Take just one minor example: If you wanted, say, soft drinks, you could always count on finding the basic Coke/Diet Coke/Pepsi/Diet Pepsi thing working. Oh sure, if you didn’t want cola, you always had the reliable 7-Up, Canada Dry Ginger Ale, Sprite, and Squirt alternatives. Oh sure, even then, you might be tossed a quirky product out of left field like Tab, Moxie, or Dr. Pepper, but the choices weren’t difficult. Because supermarkets were smaller then, the range of choices for a given product was limited to the amount of shelf-space the buyer had to work with.

Maybe it was Wal-Mart and the whole inane “superstore” concept that changed all that. Or shopping malls. Or, perhaps it was increased consumer demand for a wider range of choices, or changing consumer demographics, or an increase in disposable income, or increasingly scientific or intelligent target marketing. Whatever. I’m just not sure how we got from there (wherever “there” might have been) to here, but somehow we’ve come to a place where there are simply too many choices for every freakin’ kind of product imaginable.

(I have a theory here. Want to know why so many people are being treated for ADHD? It’s because they’re the lucky ones who finally realized that prescription drugs may be the only way one can acquire the discipline to go grocery shopping in today’s consumer marketplace.)

I write this because today, to my horror, I discovered I was in dire need of toothpaste. This caused me great distress, because I’m still recovering from the last time I had to go toothpaste shopping. You see, being a kind of basic guy, I’m partial to basic toothpaste – unfortunately, in my case, that means Crest, with Flouride, Regular Paste.

(BTW, I’m wondering if, as a savvy modern consumer, I should be offended by the term “regular paste”. Is it Proctor & Gamble’s polite way of saying, “toothpaste for dummies”, or “toothpaste for old farts”? Does this mean the other varieties under the Crest brand name are “irregular”? Just a thought…)

Anyways, I should have counted them all, but there had to be at least twenty or more different varieties of Crest toothpaste: in paste, in gel, in various sizes, with various formulas (cleaning, whitening, brightening, fresh breath, etc.), in ever flavor across the toothpaste spectrum imaginable – it made me dizzy.

And I wondered – have we reached a point where, as American consumers, we have become too sophisticated and demanding for our own good? Does there come a point where we can recognize the basic absurdity of producing a multitude of varieties of a single, generic consumer product – in this case, the ubiquitous tube of toothpaste? Is this in itself a sign of something more serious at work in our present consumer-driven society? I mean, at what point does it all end? From toothpaste aisle sections, do you somehow arrive at toothpaste aisles? Toothpaste stores?

I’m aware this may not be the most critical issue of our time. And yet, I wonder if it says something about us, our society and our culture – something we may be aware of at some level, but afraid of the kind of questions we would then have to face. After all, this is America, right? Capitalism and individualism in its most purest form, right? The sky’s the limit, right?

I just worry that the amazing array of choices available to us as consumers these days has already spoiled us and softened us up, to the point where the independence and ruggedness of the essential American character is no longer able to judge what these qualities once meant. Can we still judge what in the end is important – you know, the truly important stuff – and what is not? Will there come a time where a product like “Crest with Flouride Brightening Formula Mint Flavored Gel” is elevated to the status of, say, a tomato, or a loaf of bread? I wonder.

At any rate, I did find my toothpaste, it was exactly what I was looking for, and yes, it did take me a good ten minutes to find it. It’s just disconcerting that a simple shopping experience should result in having to ask more questions than there are answers.

Filed in: Religion & Culture by The Great White Shank at 21:17 | Comments (4)
  1. If you think buying toothpaste is tough, just go in for a loaf of bread. In my “growing up” years, your choices were limited to white, rye, wheat. Granted you had to pick between Wonder, Bond, and maybe two or three others. Just check your bread shelves these days:— in addition to the above, you now have Italian, potato, 6 grain, 7 grain, 9 grain and, of course, multi grain, and, in addition, there has to be 97 other types of bread. You’re absolutely right, my dear nephew, there are to darn many choices on everything!!!!!!

    Comment by Auntie Marge — April 20, 2006 @ 2:39 pm

  2. Now there’s someone who speaks from experience! Thanks Auntie!

    Comment by The Great White Shank — April 20, 2006 @ 8:26 pm

  3. Don’t blame this on consumers. The average consumer can find something suitable on one or two shelves of toothpaste. We don’t need an aisle devoted to it. Admittedly, there are exceptions. It’s merchants that are forever trying to grow in order to please their shareholders. A successful merchant merely had to turn a profit when I was a kid. They didn’t need to be all things to all people. Turning a profit isn’t enough any more. They have to make a killing, open new stores, and fill every niche in every market. If they don’t, their investors will take their money elsewhere.

    Comment by Rob — April 22, 2006 @ 6:02 pm

  4. Thanks Rob for the comment, Rob. An interesting point there. Maybe it’s really a Catch-22, in that superstores and the like wouldn’t exist unless consumers wanted them, and if investors weren’t there to pump the supply, there’d be no way to build a consumer base to begin with. Me, I’ll just buy the “complicated” stuff in bulk so I don’t have to spend any more time shopping than I need to.

    Comment by The Great White Shank — April 23, 2006 @ 12:02 pm

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