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September 02, 2007



There are many reasons for this nonsensical level of "choice" - the two I find interesting are (1) simply a much higher level of competitiveness within United States culture at all levels - almost a spiritual belief that no market or category is too full, and a fervent belief that Milk brand #15 will be good/cheap/different enough to squeeze some more margins from what should be a simple purchase; and, (2) an economy geared up to ignore the additional economic, social and environmental costs of this culture of wasteful consumerism.

I entered my first US supermarket aisle in an altered state ... many, many years ago. I had to be rescued and barely survived the experience. Last year, I spent 15 minutes in a 'rice cracker' aisle trying to find plain, unadorned rice crackers to no avail. I think when you have 30+ brands of rice cracker, but all of them have evolved beyond being actual rice crackers, then Houston, we have a problem.

You'll get over it ;-) Don't forget to blog when you drop your pet poodle off at the psychologist whilst you get your British teeth fixed.

Jon Peterson

There are only six kinds of apple on display. A 30 minute walk from my village is a farm shop that will sell me roughly 10 kinds of apple, as well as juice from about 3 more kinds.

There are shown, I think, only 3 kinds of milk - skimmed, semi-skimmed, whole. I think four different brands are shown, so a total of about 12 different coloured cartons of milk. In a UK supermarket I could be sure to find several additional kinds of milk - Jersey milk, possibly "night-milk" (although it's called something else now), and all of the normal three kinds repeated in 'organic' style.

There would be little choice of brands, because UK supermarkets only sell own-brand milk, rather than allowing local dairies to brand their own product. In the US, local dairy collectives, or large dairy firms will brand their own milk, so you can see what farms you are getting milk from. This allows consumers (if they care....) to support one kind of farm over another. It means you can buy local milk from a collective rather than a large national chain of dairy farms, if that's your thing.

Most people think that there is only Rhubarb, because shops merely sell us soemthing called Rhubarb. But any seed catalogue will allow you to buy several different kinds. I don't think the catalogue is an example of wasteful consumerism, rather it appears that gardeners care more about the subtle differences in variety than the average shopper.

Next you'll be throwing your hands up in horror at the way there are 30 different shapes of pasta for sale in Italian shops - hell, I mean it all tastes identical! And as for UK shops offering 20 kinds of bread - it's just bread!

Will Davies

Thanks Jon. This is one of the most informed and informative comments my blog has ever received! The only thing I'd quibble with is that I'm throwing up my hands in horror. It's just a set of observations.

David Lee

Hi Will

Your post made me think of Allen Ginsberg's wonderful poem 'A Supermarket in California'- such a haunting account of the consumerist 'choice' society. I love the way he evokes the isolation and atomisation of consumption, and the way the presence of the shadowy 'store detective' hints at darker forces within consumer capitalism. And he wrote it in 1955!

Allen Ginsberg's "A Supermarket in California"

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for
I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache
self-conscious looking at the full moon.
In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went
into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families
shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the
avocados, babies in the tomatoes!--and you, Garcia Lorca, what
were you doing down by the watermelons?

I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber,
poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the
pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans
following you, and followed in my imagination by the store
We strode down the open corridors together in our
solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen
delicacy, and never passing the cashier.

Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in
an hour. Which way does your beard point tonight?
(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the
supermarket and feel absurd.)
Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The
trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we'll both be

Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love
past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher,
what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and
you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat
disappear on the black waters of Lethe?

Berkeley, 1955


But did you notice that in most of these choice-proliferation situations you can actually choose between a lot of "new" things but you actually can hardly find the plain, normal, non-modified, regular-size yogurt? And when you actually find it there is only one?


The post made me think of "Running the Numbers: An American Self-Porttrait" , a work by Chris Jordan that you might enjoy:

Will Davies

David - thanks for that. I'd not ever read that, and it's very pertinent.

David Moon

Calvin and Hobbes made a nice comment on this same subject also:


Dad: "Look at all this peanut butter! There must be three sizes of five brands of four consistencies! Who demands this much choice?? I know! I'll quite my job and devote my life to choosing peanut butter! Is "chunky" chunky enough, or do I need "EXTRA chunky"? I'll compare ingredients! I'll compare brands! I'll compare sizes and prices! Maybe I'll drive around and see what OTHER stores have! So much selection and so little time!"
Dad: "I think YOU should do the shopping." Mum: "Did the manager have to talk to you again?"
Calvin: "Hey, where's the peanut butter?!"

Max Nathan

The other classic consumer choice episode in US literature is the supermarket scene from 'White Noise'. It's too long to quote here, but worth tracking down ...

Will Davies

I had a distant memory that there was a Delillo portrait of this, but couldn't remember where or what. Cheers, will dig it out.

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