After a trip to Russia a couple decades ago, a the part of culture shock that I experienced on my return to the U.S. related to the huge amount of choices available to us. Take a trip to the grocery store for a simple gallon of milk and you can see this at work. If you want milk, you can choose from name brand or store brand. And then there's fat free, 1%, 2% or whole milk. Or maybe you'd like organic milk. White or chocolate? Soy or cow? Crazy, isn't it? Or not. It doesn't seem at all crazy to us because it's our world. We learn to navigate the myriad of choices by creating a habit. I buy 2% milk and usually the store brand. So immediately I've narrowed the options available. If I want to change my habit though, I could easily switch to say, organic. After trying a few varieties I would probably narrow in on my preferred brand (or store) and stick with it.
And all the options we have, whether it be car insurance, radio stations, or milk, all stem from the free flow of commerce in a healthy capitalist society. At least that's my take on it (don't quote me, since I'm no economics guru). The thing is, I make this observation because I see the tide flowing the other way as our economy struggles. Our options are dwindling. I used to have four, five or maybe even more, furniture stores I could shop at when I wanted to buy something new for my home. Of those, at least two have closed down in recent years. Across all sectors of goods and services, more and more companies are closing their doors. With them go options.
I mention all of this because I see it happening in what seems to me to be the final frontier - the grocery store. Our local supermarket keeps having clearance sales and not all of them are to clear the shelves for new product. Some are to sell out the remainders from companies whose products will no longer be represented. The shelves remain filled, in an effort to keep up the appearance of continued options. But fact is, we have less to choose from. My usual grocery store no longer carries the pancake mix we like best. And a recent trip for a national brand of peanut butter revealed that it too was gone. I'm used to hunting down rare items (like two-step angel food cake mix and mushroom steak sauce). Now, it appears I'll be hunting down formerly common items.
The Post Russia Trip me would smile smugly and deem the dwindling of choices a return to better proportion. The Frugal Shopper Momma me frowns and wonders how far it will go. And the Politically Unsavvy me begins to understand a little better one side of the debate over health care reform. Choice can be bad when it's an addiction and we can't handle the lack of it. But in general, I think consumers benefit from a variety of options.