Would we be Better Off with Fewer Options?
This is an original post by Jack Quarles and it does not appear anywhere else.
We can buy almost anything these days, but it wasn’t always that way. Here’s a brief history of buying:
History of Buying
Back in the cave, no one bought anything. No socks, no taco kits, no iPads. You couldn’t buy anything if you wanted to.
Fast forward to the American Revolution, 1776. There was currency and a marketplace. But still, many people might go weeks or longer without buying anything, as it was commonplace to make your own houses, clothes, and food.
Some people bought socks, and some made their own. Still no taco kits.
Over the following 200 years, of course, things changed quite a bit.
In 1976, everyone buys socks, all kinds of socks. In fact, no one doesn’t buy socks. It’s a consumer society, and you have to buy to get by. This is relatively new for humans.
It’s now been 40 years since the ‘70s. We buy socks, we buy iPads, and we buy taco kits, which lead to taco night.
Taco Night, Circa 1977
Here’s what happened on Taco Night in the 1970s: older kids chopped lettuce and tomatoes, and the younger kids shredded cheese. That was either cruelty or poor design, because the aluminum box shredder was a torture device. One slice too many, and your knuckles never forgot.
Some of you remember that pain, which also almost certainly means you are over 40. Those wounds today are as rare as polio, because of the mass-produced miracle called shredded cheese.
Pre-shredded cheese was not available at the 1970s supermarkets. Maybe grated parmesan in a shaker bottle, but that was it. You couldn’t send someone to the market and say “pick up some shredded cheese” because they didn’t have it.
Taco Night, Present Day
You still can’t place a simple order to “pick up some shredded cheese,” but for a different reason. You have to provide much more specific guidance. There are now – at my local market – over 50 varieties of pre-shredded cheese. Here are a few of the options:
- Finely shredded or regular shredding
- Low-moisture or regular moisture
- Whole fat, Low-fat, 1%, Non-fat
- New York Cheddar or mild cheddar or sharp cheddar or extra sharp cheddar
- Triple cheddar, Four-cheese Mexican blend, Gourmet sharp blend
- Store brand or multiple national brands
Any one of these permutations could make taco night delicious and far less dangerous than the razor-box grater and a cheddar block. Here’s the point: a simple activity from my childhood has now been replaced with fifty different buying options.
An Explosion of Options
The cheese is a low-tech example, on purpose. How much more have our buying options exploded in entertainment, shopping, travelling, advertising, and so on…?
Is this progress? As someone who still can’t look at a cheese grater without tensing up, I certainly think so. But it also presents some challenges. We are swimming in a sea of consumer choice, awash in options, and it takes effort to stay afloat. Too many buying options can paralyze us and distract us.
The New Skill
We need ways to manage our decisions without surrendering to them. It serves us to recognize that buying is a life skill of increasing importance. Our ancestors didn’t need that skill. They just had to be able to kill bears, knit socks, and grate cheese.
To get better at buying, we can first acknowledge the skill. The next step might seem counter-intuitive: reducing our options in order to make better decisions.
Jack Quarles is a speaker, trainer, consultant, and author of Amazon #1 bestsellers How Smart Companies Save Money and Same Side Selling, as well as the upcoming Expensive Sentences. He has saved companies tens of millions of dollars over two decades in the field of expense management. Jack has co-founded several companies, serves on two non-profit boards, and received degrees from Yale and Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Business. Connect with Jack on LinkedIn or Twitter (@JackQuarlesJQ).