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.