Monday, January 10, 2011

Why haven't I been made King of the World yet?

It started, as most things do, with cheese.

I'd run out. This is one of those circle of life type things; you put cheese in sandwich, you eat sandwich, repeat until you run out of cheese/bread/butter/vegemite. My lunches are not complicated things, but I do like a little bit more than just a spread. (Unless it's toast, in which case a wad of peanut butter is just fine.)

So I went to the supermarket, as one does, and I went to the dairy aisle, as one does, and I stood in front of the cheese, as one does, and spent the next twelve minutes struck dumb with indecision.

A wall of cheese, from floor to ceiling. Cheese in different brands, of different types, reduced fat or full, sliced or not. So much cheese, so many cheese, and too much choice.

When the shelf-stacker gave me a funny look on passing me for the third time, I realised what I was doing, grabbed without looking, and walked away.

That is what stress can do, that is what depression can do, that is what not having all your mental resources operating at normal capacity can do. The ability to process and compare information is significantly reduced, and the capacity to commit to a decision is practically nil. That is how cheese can steal twelve minutes of your life.

At the check out, bewildered as I was having passed by soup (Do I need soup? I don't know!) and tea (What about some nice tea? I don't know!) and chocolate-covered honeycomb (Should I get a treat? I DON'T KNOW!), I figured there must be a niche in this anxiety-driven and consumer-based society for a supermarket that caters to the perpetually overwhelmed. A supermarket that stocks milk in milk cartons that say milk and with no options on offer, cheese in a packet labeled cheese and no options on offer, museli in a bag labeled museli and no options on offer.

This is a supermarket I would really appreciate right now. A place at which I will be able to find the basic necessities to feed myself without being confronted with choices.

You could even have levels of the Stressed Supermarket, for those who may be coping a little better but still not ready for a wall of cheese; full cream and skinny milk and only those two to choose from, jarlsberg or chedder cheese and only those two to choose from, swiss museli or natural museli and only those two to choose from. Baby steps. We have to work our way up through the ranks, get practice at processing and streamlining information until we are prepared, at last, to face a wall of cheese, and make a selection in a mere moment.

And not be stricken with indecision.

And not feel weak for the time wasted.


  1. I do that. I forget what I normally buy adn take whatever is at the right height, just to save myself from getting caught in a loop and never leaving the shop. On a godo day, I end up with lots of things I don't need and none of the things I do. This summer I've cheated madly and made lists and shopped online and all I have to do is unpack the bags - no vast shelves of choices facing me, no choices of cheese to judge me.

  2. I like the idea of the Supermarket for the Stressed. As for cheese..

    Cheese, Grommet, Cheeeeese

  3. I recall having a long (and tedious) argument with a friend about ketchup. We'd been sent out to get some and between us couldn't decide and had to ring for further instructions since the rest of the group were picky. Why does anybody need more than 20 different types of any product?

  4. You sure have a lot to say about cheese, something I don't eat but you kept me reading so that's remarkable.
    I read a book once that mentions the multitude of choices in our society is a factor that causes depression. So your idea of simplicity may catch on, if not already.

  5. Gillian - shopping online is an excellent idea! Unfortunately I don't think I buy enough in the way of groceries to really warrant it. Shall keep it in mind though...

    Wordsmiff - and crackers, don't forget the crackers.

    Light - My thoughts exactly. In fact, why have ketchup at all when there's tomato sauce? ;]

    Shopgirl - If you recall the title of the book please drop a line here. The strain of making a decision - even something over something so small and impactless as which cheese to get - is underestimated, and the promotion of choice is massive in current Western culture. Unfortunately, it seems most of those choices are trivial, and so the mental energy is wasted.

  6. Tessa:

    The book is called: "The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less" by Barry Schwartz. Not a towering glory of literary achievement but it does give a good number of examples of why and how choices can confuse and depress us. Supermarket I believe was in there.

  7. I have a fair number of customers who spaz at the number of options they have in printers, laptops, etc. and find themselves incapable of making a command decision on their own; either they go with what I suggest, or they leave without making a purchase.

    Yet there is also a surprising number of people who will survey an aisle that contains ~30+ machines (with about that many in the next two aisles), sniff haughtily, and declare, "This is ALL you carry?"


  8. I often get overwhelmed like that, even when I'm not stressed to begin with. In supermarkets I tend to just buy the same things all the time, and in clothing and shoe shops I get confused and run away. Little shops with limited chioce are much better!

  9. Jaime, on big purchases I tend to look around, do a bit of research and then wait until my unconscious has made the decision, and regardless of the merits of that decision just go with that. Otherwise I tear myself up with the fear I may make the wrong decision. It's hideously painful. (And makes deciding where to travel excruciating.)

    Kirsten, I think that's a lot of the power behind developing brand loyalty. Having made one overarching decision negates the precipitation of being confronted by further choices.

    Unfortunately, I have no big supermarket near me. I have to wander through three small IGAs, and none of them ever keep the same stock around. Argh.

  10. <a href=">Youtube TED talk</a> of Barry Schwartz talking about just this. He's already done all the thinking and composing, and says pretty much what I feel.

  11. That was well worth watching. I'm the woman who wants the phone that doesn't do too much.