The world is growing ever more complex, ever more dangerous, and nowhere is this more evident than when…. shopping for groceries. Go ahead, laugh, but you clearly haven’t thought this through. Fortunately I have done the thinking for you and I’m here to show you just how traumatic modern grocery shopping can be.
First, let’s establish right up front what the risks are in modern grocery shopping. Purchasing the wrong item can have several bad results, ranging from a simple look of disappointment from the person who got the wrong shampoo, through the stoic air of long-suffering tolerance from the person who got non-fat sour cream instead of low-fat sour cream…AGAIN… to the realization that one of the items you have purchased is *completely wrong* and will never do and now you have to figure out what to do with 12 boxes of inadequate facial tissues. You can’t throw them out, that would be wasteful, and it’d be a shame to toss them straight in the recycle bin, but who the hell’s gonna take second hand snot wipes, even if they ARE sealed in the original packaging? No, those are gonna sit in the basement gathering dust until the end of the world, and you and everyone else staring at them as they unload the groceries knows it, and not only are they blaming you for getting the wrong thing and now they can’t blow their noses but you’ve also just added to the clutter in the basement. Nice going, you idiot. See? Fraught with danger.
“Come on, Feingarden,” I hear you protest, “How often can you possibly get the wrong thing at the grocery store?” The answer, with capitalism and a competitive market conspiring against me, is pretty darn often.
When I was a kid, shopping was easy. Well, in fact, it was actually a bit more physically hazardous, because we shopped at the Prairie Market where you marked the price on the groceries with a grease pencil and bought stuff by the case and loaded them on a big platform cart and it was cool because Mom would just walk along the aisles and you could jump on and off the moving cart just like the garbage collectors did and it was really neat until… uhhh… this isn’t going where I wanted it to and this seems like a good time to get back to my main point, so allow me to reset.
When I was a kid, shopping was easy. Want soap? Great, Dial, Dove, or that newfangled Neutrogena stuff? Out of shampoo? Pert, Prell, or Head and Shoulders? It was just that easy, and products were differentiated by name and people were brand loyal and life was good. Until some uppity consumers started demanding more choices. More freedom. More options. “Gosh golly,” they’d whimper, “I’ve loved Lay’s potato chips all my life but suddenly I think I need a chip that isn’t so boringly flat or my life will be unbearable.” They’d whine at whoever would listen, convince them that flat potato chips are dull, and soon the poor folks at Lays were forced to either figure out how to make non-flat chips or watch their revenue stream dry up like it had been dammed by a beaver. And consumer whining wasn’t limited to potato chips, oh no. “I want fancy mustard.” “I have 24 children, I need to buy cereal in a 24 pound box.” “I don’t like putting lotion on my nose when I have a cold, so I need you to put it in the Kleenex for me.”
The end result of this is product chaos that is irritating on at least 3 levels. I know! Let’s explore those levels of irritation, shall we? Yeah, that’ll be fun!!!
The first level only affects hard-core logic based people and obsessive compulsives, and perversely is based on how FEW choices there are. Laundry detergent is a good example here. Once you decide that just being “Tide” isn’t enough to keep your buyers loyal, you decide to introduce unscented Tide and cold-water formula Tide. To folks like me (assuming there are any) that means that you have to introduce all the combinations so that you can please as many people as possible. So you need scented and unscented warm and cold water formulas for a total of 4 products. Add a dye-free version and you have 8 products, right? WRONG, because some fascist somewhere has arbitrarily decided that people who want dye-free laundry detergent will be not be allowed to have their special cold-water formula. You can get soup that is low-salt or low-fat but you can’t get both in the same can. I guess the idea is that you’ll get one can of each and mix them together and settle for medium-salt, medium-fat soup.
The second reason that this is irritating is that the marketing directors want it both ways. They want the new versions of their products to break new ground and cut into someone else’s market, but they also want it to look like the same Milky Way bar that their customers have become conveniently addicted to. The result? All their products look nearly exactly the same and those of us doing the damn shopping have to get a frickin’ magnifying glass to see whether we’re buying fast yeast or quick yeast or regular yeast and what the hell is the difference anyway? Well, the difference is whether or not the homemade rolls that go perfectly with corn chowder are ready in time for dinner or in time for the next family vacation, that’s the difference and yes, it does matter. To make this worse, the makers of the “generic” products employ teams of lawyers to tell them how close to identical they can make their products to the products they’re ripping off without getting sued and now for every real product that you can’t tell whether it is original recipe or spicy or crispy there’s a knockoff trying to look just like it and now you have twice as many ways to get it completely wrong.
The last reason that all this is irritating is because in their quest to cut into their competitors, manufacturers have started crossing boundaries that simply should not be crossed. Sacred boundaries. Boundaries established long-ago and respected for generations are being ignored with unholy results. There are more examples of this than I can name in the snack aisle alone. Wheat Thins, for example. Everyone knows what Wheat Thins taste like, right? Not so fast, sailor, not if you don’t grab the right type of Wheat Thins you don’t. They have multi-grain now. And sun-dried tomato and basil. And ranch flavor, in case you can’t actually dip them yourself. And even nacho cheese flavor. I’m sorry, but if I want nacho cheese flavor I’m going to eat Doritos the way God intended me to. Nacho Wheat Thins. Bah. But the Wheat Thins people are amateurs compared to the potato chip people. The marketers of potato chips are a soulless lot, wandering around the grocery store looking for anything that is popular. When they find something, they take it back to their lab the same way that Igor took spare body parts back to Dr. Frankenstein and together they bring that flavor to life as a horrible new chip. Chicken wings becoming a fad? Let’s make buffalo-wing flavored chips. People buying garlic bread to go with their spaghetti? Try garlic bread potato chips instead! There is no limit to the choices these people can create, and to prove it they have created a contest they call “Do Us a Flavor” which is nothing more than a chance for chip consumers to dare the company to produce combinations that would make Dr. F himself cringe. “Winners” have included cinnamon roll flavor for those who prefer their cinnamon rolls crunchy. If you’re dying for a cup of coffee but have a restraining order from the people at Starbucks, don’t fret, you can get cappuccino flavored chips. They make steak flavored chips, apparently targeting the “struggling vegetarian” market. I’m no food purist by any means but when you can make a potato chip taste like a steak dinner, you’ve gone beyond the boundaries of food and entered the Valley of the Damned.
To resolve this, I’m going to start a project on Kickstarter to fund a new chain of grocery stores. We’ll have 2 kinds of milk. We’ll have 3 kinds of chips (original and BBQ potato chips and Nacho Doritos). We’ll sell 4 kinds of soup, two brands each of shampoo and conditioner (no, no 2-in-1’s in my store because everyone knows the shampoo washes the conditioner out), we’ll only sell 2-ply toilet paper in 12 packs. And so on. I haven’t settled on the name yet but I’m pretty sure I’m going to call it “Luddite’s”. I look forward to a chance to serve you.