Unnatural Selection

I was in the supermarket the other day buying toothpaste, it’s not something I do very often, it’s not that I don’t use much, I probably would consider myself an average user, but toothpaste is one of those things that is always there. The tube can always be found, even on the bleariest of mornings waiting on its shelf, and when it gets to the point where mechanical devices are needed to extract the last helping, another fresh tube can be found in the second drawer down. Toothpaste is clearly the responsibility of someone else, someone organized, in this household it falls in the same category as clean laundry, some is always available when needed.
Parenthetically (a lovely word), I am of an age where I can clearly remember that the toothpaste of my youth came in a flat round tin somewhat similar to a shoe polish tin, it contained a hard round disc of pink material and one proceeded by wiping a wet toothbrush over the surface to pick up a modest portion. It was made by a company called Gibbs and for some reason called Dentifrice. It worked pretty well but had one major drawback for the manufacturer, it was virtually everlasting. I am sure a single tin would, with care, last an average person’s lifetime and as a result the Gibbs company either stopped making it or simply stopped altogether.

Where was I? The supermarket, yes, I found the aisle I needed, sixty feet long five shelves high, 300 linear feet of toothpaste in a dozen different brands. I use Colgate, I recognized the red and white box, there were six different sizes of box and 41 different varieties of Colgate on the shelves. I counted them twice before falling to the ground in a disoriented state. Focus, I thought to myself, you CAN do this, first pick a size. Sizes ranged from “travel” (presumably less than the limit the airlines forbid) up to a tube the size of your forearm containing several quarts of product and possibly useful for clubbing small rodents that may attack one while one is at one’s ablutions. Out of curiosity I scanned the prices, most supermarkets have generously calculated the price per ounce of each size, surprisingly (to me at least) the middle sizes were the best value. So “Tartar Control”, “Whitening”, “Gentle”, “Mouthwash” and so many others I cannot remember the names, I settled on “Original” because it looked vaguely familiar, and fled.

What’s the point? Well what is the point of such an overload of options?  I seem to remember a few basic rules of life, like the “80/20” rule where 80% of the market is served by 20% of the products. So why are those thirty odd other flavors fighting for 20% of the sales? This assumes of course that the products are in fact different and not just differently labeled, and that the consumer can differentiate between them, big assumptions both.

Poking about on t’internet I discovered that learned studies have been done on the subject of number of choices, the optimal number it seems is three, so why are the toothpaste companies so ill informed as to be competing against themselves? One study appropriately called “The Jam Study” set up a booth in a supermarket with samples of jams. The booth alternated hourly between 24 and 6 different jams. 60% of customers participated when 24 choices were offered and only 40% when 6 were offered, the average number sampled by all participants was 3 jams (surprise?) and all participants received a $1 off coupon for a pot of jam of their choice. The surprising part is that 30% of the participants of the trial when 6 jams were offered bought a pot of jam while only 3% of the participants in the 24 jam trial bought. Clearly having a larger choice had somehow inhibited the participant’s decision to purchase. The experts contend that this behaviour is a result of fear of making the “wrong” decision, suggesting that maybe one of the large number of jams one did not sample would have been a better choice. So is choice a good thing, and is more choice a better thing, or is it time to bring back Gibbs Dentifrice “a lifetime supply in one tin”?
One thing is for sure I‘m not buying toothpaste again if it can be avoided.

Author: Low Wattage

Expat Welshman, educated (somewhat) in UK, left before it became fashionable to do so. Now a U.S. Citizen, and recent widower, playing with retirement and house remodeling, living in Delaware and rural Maryland (weekends).

12 thoughts on “Unnatural Selection”

  1. I find this very interesting. I note in myself, the more selection the less I can be bothered. I tend to dodge free samples in the supermarket like the plague.
    I’ve told you before it is best to restrain yourself from walking up and down the aisles, much better to sidle round the walls of supermarkets! Better for both the psyche and the figure anyway, if not the bank balance!

    On the subject of toothpaste, I too remember that stuff, I rather liked the taste of it. I have, for the last three years been trying to use up purchases by the boy bought back from Brum when I cleared his flat. For some reason, he appeared to be trying to corner the market on toothbrushes and toothpaste. I found huge stashes of both in his bathroom, God knows why he bought so much. I am just on the last toothbrush at the moment. I know I always banged on about changing your toothbrush regularly, but this was ridiculous, he didn’t have to take it quite that much to heart!

    Thinking about it I wonder how they managed to get as many as 24 sorts of jam?

  2. My favourite toothpaste is an herbal variety from Japan. After that, anise-flavoured herbal toothpaste.
    I have severe reactions to fluoride, hence my inability to tolerate almost all types of toothpaste.
    It’s not so much that there are so many varieties — it’s that so many of the varieties are redundant.
    It would be nice, for example, if they had more varieties of non-fluoridated toothpaste.

  3. Chris is your water fluorided? I gather it is spotty here not national.

  4. CO: in San Francisco it is so I have to filter it. In my country home it’s not, so no worries there.
    Whenever I am in places I’m not familiar with I buy bottled water to avoid the situation.

  5. Nasty Chris and expensive, a rotten thing to be reactive to. The water in Dallas came from some ghastly swamp, they called it a lake, full of brown slime, quite disgusting! So then they threw in so much chlorine that you staggered back from the tap! Every bit had to be filtered with those Brita jugs, even the water to boil veg, it was safer to steam them!!! Thank God here we have our own well. I shall miss it dreadfully when we move.

  6. I remember the tins of powder, beginning the Eucryl or such like name….

    the thing is I end up getting a different toothpaste each time as I can’t remember which one I bought last. Colgate, yes, but which one? No idea. And this time we have ended up with a blue gel concoction. Yeurk!

  7. Don’t knock the fact that you have a choice – I’m getting more and more depressed by the lack of choice in the shops here in Oz! 🙂

  8. I recall from marketing days that niche markets cater for those with the desire for special variants of almost everything. The consumer is not homogeneous, so mass market solutions don’t work for everybody. Agony of choice may be common but it ain’t universal.

  9. I was reminded of this joke.

    The Husband Store
    A brand new department store has just opened in London. It sells husbands.

    When women go to choose a husband, they have to follow the following instructions:-

    You may visit this store ONLY ONCE! There are 6 floors and the value of the products increase as you go up. You may choose any item from a particular floor, or may choose to go to the next floor, but you CANNOT go back down except to exit the building.

    One day a woman goes into the store and rather nervously starts climbing the stairs.

    When she gets to the 1st floor a sign on the door reads:
    Floor 1: These men have jobs.
    She thinks, “I can do better than that” and keeps going up.
    The 2nd floor sign reads:
    Floor 2: These men have jobs and love kids.
    But she goes up another floor.
    The 3rd floor sign reads:
    Floor 3: These men have jobs, love kids and are extremely good looking.
    “Wow,” she thinks, but feels compelled to keep going.
    She goes to the 4th floor and the sign reads:
    Floor 4: These men have jobs, love kids, are extremely good looking and help with the housework.
    “Oh, mercy me!” she exclaims, “I can hardly stand it!”
    Still, she goes to the 5th floor and the sign reads:
    Floor 5: These men have jobs, love kids, are extremely good looking, help with the housework and have a strong romantic streak.

    She is so tempted to stay, but she goes to the 6th floor and the sign reads:
    Floor 6: You are visitor 31,456,012 to this floor.
    There are no men on this floor.
    This floor exists solely as proof that women are impossible to please.
    Thank you for shopping at the Husband Store.

    To avoid gender bias charges, the store’s owner opens a Wives store just across the street.
    The 1st first floor has wives that love sex.
    The 2nd floor has wives that love sex and have money.
    The 3rd,4th, 5th and 6th floors have never been visited.

  10. But on a more serious note, this ties into the book I mentioned in Ara’s ‘Hitler’ post. We are persuaded by the choices of other people and the fear of making the wrong decision. The author gave an example of a internet site that sold digital cameras. Camera A had many features and was more expensive than camera B which had fewer features. People could not decide between the 2 and sales were low. Camera C1 was introduced to the range. It had exactly the same features as camera A, but was significantly more expensive. People began to buy camera A. Camera C1 was removed and replaced by Camera C2. This was the same price as camera B but had fewer features. People no longer bought Camera A, but bought Camera B instead.

    In such examples products like C1 and C2 are instrumental helping people to decide what to buy, though very seldom do people actually purchase them.

    The moral of the story: nothing is what it seems. We are being manipulated all the time.

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