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The Valley of Confusion


Published: 12/02/2013

by Jim Campbell

Arecent newspaper cartoon by Rina Piccolo featured a woman at a desk in a supermarket cereal aisle. Following the example of art galleries, she offered audio guides to help customers figure out what to buy. It makes sense. On any given day, there are probably over 400 different varieties of breakfast cereals on the shelves – 16 varieties of Cheerios alone!


Variety and choice are the operative words today. For example, Kraft produces over 50 varieties of salad dressing, Prego makes 36 flavours of pasta sauce, and … well, I gave up trying to count the varieties of cold cuts, cakes, crackers, cookies, colas and condiments.


Shopping for almost anything is a journey into a valley of confusion. What to pick: chunky, zesty or roasted garlic? If you stopped to read the ingredients on the packages, you’d probably be at the store until closing time.


It’s not just food. How many of us can figure out the endless varieties of insurance packages, bank accounts or investment vehicles on offer? I suspect forensic accountants get headaches trying to fathom the intricacies of the points rewards offered by retailers and credit card companies.


Now all this didn’t take place because there was a great hue and cry demanding chocolate-flavoured cereals, sun-dried tomato and basil pasta sauce, 50 varieties of salad dressings or a dozen different types of bank accounts.


It is all the result of market research done by an admired marketing genius, Howard Moskowitz. He set out to find out why people picked one product over another (Coke or Pepsi, for example) in order to help companies increase sales and market share.


He found there was too much sameness in most products for distinctions to be made. Howard came up with what he called ‘horizontal segmentation’. Simply put, companies should provide consumers with many options in each product line to increase sales and market share. He believed that consumers wanted more choice; choice made their lives richer. Choice was good.


As companies followed his advice, competition produced the plethora of choice facing every shopper. It makes me wonder, if everyone offers so many choices, whether choice gives any producer a measurable marketplace advantage.


Is having so much choice always as good as Moskowitz proclaimed? Gregg Easterbrook, after examining the stress involved with the excess of choices we have to make, coined the phrase ‘choice anxiety’, arising from trying to keep up, to be ‘with it’, of trying not to make bad choices, and having the expectation for you to have passionate opinions on likes and dislikes. Choice anxiety abounds as we are burdened by complexity in matters that should be simple.


So, here’s the place for a handy-dandy solution to appear. Sorry, but I can just offer some thoughts, not a formal solution. Choices may be profitable for the producers, but it is not always good for consumers. However, it is a comfort to know that you are not the only one annoyed and confused by all the options, by the pressure to over-consume. And it is good to realize that, while we probably can’t stop the flood of choices, we can, as much as possible, stick to what is simple and basic. Simple is good.   


Jim Campbell is an Oakville author, writer and longtime contributor to Home Digest. He also blogs at We welcome your comments at


 Illustration for Home Digest by Rui Ramalheiro


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