When too much choice is just as annoying as none at all


Unpicking ‘choice’

This follows on from a short rant I had about choice a year ago. Mark Steel, who I went to see at The Junction (who I ended up joining for a drink after the gig) raised this when retelling a visit to Subway. It goes along the lines of:

  • “Hi, can I have a ham salad baguette please?”
  • “Would you like white, granary or brown?”
  • “Erm…white – no, granary.”
  • “What ham would you like? Parma? German? English honey roast or French?”
  • “Erm…English?”
  • “What would you like in the salad? Tomatoes, lettuce, cucumber, peppers…”
  • “Erm…tomatoes and lettuce?”
  • “What tomatoes would you like? Beef tomatoes, ripened on the vine tomatoes, cherry tomatoes…?”
  • “What’s the difference?”
  • “And what lettuce would you like? Iceberg, little gem, round…” 
  • “Look, can’t you just make me a ham salad baguette?”

The thing with exercising choice is that for it to be anywhere near satisfying, it’s got to be an informed one. This applies to politics too. Look at the recent police and crime commissioner elections that hardly anyone voted in. One of the reasons given anecdotally was that people didn’t know that the elections were on, let alone who was standing on what platforms.

In the case of the ham salad sandwich, Mark made a much better go of showing just how ridiculous too much choice was when you weren’t familiar with the sub-choices on offer,  on a very short lunch break. You just want a ham salad sandwich and are not particularly fussed what types of tomatoes or lettuce that are put in it. But then in some places you’re sort of expected to know how to differentiate between the choices on offer. In 2006 when I spent a couple of months in Vienna, people there told me if you want to differentiate between Germans and Viennese, you can tell by what they ask for when ordering coffee. The former will ask for a coffee, while the latter will tell you what type of coffee – because there are so many different variations on sale at Viennese coffee houses, which I frequented regularly.

“Yo Pooffles, why are you trying to ban freedom you big state-loving carmmunist!?!?!”


I’m not going to dignify that loaded question with a response.

For ‘choice’ to work, you need the means to exercise it. In neo-liberal world, this particularly means having the money. But it also means having the information, knowing how to use/interpret it and also having the time to do so. It’s the time and information variables I’m particularly interested in. We know financial inequalities are now at a level that are so extreme and polarised that I tend to sigh and take that as a given in terms of the economic mess we’re in.

Take electronic goods. I look at the power of the speakers and it tells me what their output is in Watts. But how many people can [what’s the word for ‘visualise’ but with their ears] have an accurate understanding of what say, a 2oW pair of speakers sounds like, a 40W, 60W etc? Marketing whizzkids will come up with all of these zaney sounding terms to describe how wonderful the bass is, or how ace their graphic equaliser is…but what does it sound like? You could go into the shop and listen, but given the number of products that are on sale at any one time, do you have the time to listen to them all before making your selection? If you went through every single one…exactly. How long would it take?

At the same time, there’s also the problem of the choices that perhaps you’d like to have but for whatever reason the manufacturers or service providers refuse to provide them. Such as buying a computer that doesn’t have all of that pre-loaded software, or the electronics equipment that is compatible with each other. The firm has the incentive to lock you into their web so that you end up buying their stuff while the market in order to function more effectively needs to have the opposite. People need to be able to switch more easily. Politicians like to ‘talk the talk’ on this, but haven’t been so good in passing the legislation to enforce this. For example, should firms be able to refrain from partaking in price-comparison websites?

“Of course the firm has the incentive to do this! How can you be profitable if you cannot lock in customers like that? What are you trying to do Pooffles, ban profit?!?!”

Actually, it’s taking on a view of what ‘consumer welfare’ is – which the OECD defines as being primarily based around price and income. Personally I find that definition a bit too Friedman-esque – it’s all about the money. In recent times, things like fair trade and carbon footprint/energy efficiency, and even tax avoidance have started nibbling at the heels on this. But institutionally it’s still all about price being the bottom line.

“Yo Pooffles, why are you trying to make things more expensive for everyone?”

This is the problem with looking at a single issue in isolation. Small local shops cannot compete with huge firms like supermarkets – in particular on convenience. But the downward pressure that the latter can place on producers has an impact on farmers both domestically (think dairy farmers producing at a loss – and having to cross-subsidise) as well as food producers in developing countries. And I’ve not even mentioned air miles.

As far as domestic food goes – locally to me at least, I’d like to see some local producers and small retailers get together and…well try and ‘build’ a community around a square where you had the butcher, baker, green grocer etc that could match the supermarkets for convenience as far as within walking-from-home day-to-day food shopping was concerned. But then that’s all a little bit ‘The Good Life/Middle Class is Magical” isn’t it?


It’s something that we tend to forget, but there’s merit in standardisation of some things. You see those plug sockets? Think of how annoying it would be if every electrical item came with a different plug socket that, mobile-phone-style needed its own adaptor to hook up to an electrical supply. Phones and tablets are one of those areas where the law took far too long to catch up with the technology and compel firms to standardise their chargers and adaptors so that you’d only need one type for all – making switching easier. Think about…cycles and bike pumps. Standardised pumps and valves there. Imagine if each different make of cycle had its own different valves for inner tubes requiring a different type of bike pump. Batteries too.

The stereotype can be that standardisation can turn us into an army of grey cap wearing drones. Actually, it’s one of the reasons why I don’t like wearing grey clothes. I prefer bolder colours, even though for men these are hard to find on the high street – especially for formalwear. In this regard, the traditional high street department stores have taken standardisation too far – applying whatever they source to their stores nationwide. Hence criticism of clone-towns. And Cambridge should know about this. Hence this reaction from Independent Cambridge.

Price is a very dumb feedback mechanism

The standard retort is “If you don’t like our products, don’t buy them!” from neo-liberal types. But it is a limited response. The problem for firms is that once a person stops buying your products or services, it can be very difficult to get them to return. Hence trying means fair and foul to keep customers. I was particularly angry with the way BT spoke to people in my family when we tried to change phone provider. (It was over this). Their rude attitude only convinced us that switching provider was the right choice.

Social and digital media users are now making the appalling customer service all too often provided by a number of big oligopolies all too public. You only have to do a Twitter search for their Twitter customer care account to see all of the tweets that criticise them, as well as all of the apologies they have to make before inviting people to email them and discuss it away from prying eyes. But by their nature, large firms are not nearly nimble enough to restructure and respond to things like social media fire storms.

More choice on some things, fewer choices on others, and greater transparency and understanding overall?

The recent #horsemeatgate scare raised people’s awareness of, and desire to know where our food comes from. The problem in part has come from Europe – in particular the move away from saying “Made in the UK” to “Made in the EU” labelling.

It’s with stuff like this that the EU hasn’t really helped itself. Was there a large consumer push to have all EU-produced products as being labelled as ‘Made in the EU versus its component member state? Many moons ago, you’d look at the contents of a bottle of shampoo and you would see the composition listing things that were common in the English language. But because of the single market and globalisation, this changed. (See here). You could argue that in some parts this actually decreased consumer’s understanding of what was in such products. Think of shampoo where ‘water’ is listed as ‘aqua’ – and the jokes about the number of people killed due to a direct result of the chemical dihydrogen monoxide.

So, people are also interested in where their food comes from and under what conditions it has been produced in – hence the growth in things like organic foods and fair trade. Others look towards things like the working conditions of those that make the goods – in particular in developing countries. (Hence fair trade). Furthermore there is the environmental footprint and most recently, how much tax you pay as a percentage of your profits.

But again, the problems here are transparency, standardisation and people’s ability to interpret the information in front of them. How can the state persuade (or even compel)  firms to increase transparency in markets, standardise the information that they subsequently publish, and ensure that consumers are educated enough to interpret that information when making their choices?



2 thoughts on “When too much choice is just as annoying as none at all

  1. Too much choice might be annoying but it is rarely if ever worse than no choice. Standardisation can help where there is little or no qualitative difference between things but even in the example of mains power sockets different choices have legitimately been made in different countries so that the three pin plugs we have in the UK are by the standards of pretty much every other developed nation, rather over-engineered (and only 20 or so years ago plugs with round pins were still commonly used in Oxford colleges, much to the joy of local hardware stores and consternation of undergraduates who hadn’t paid attention in GCSE Physics when being taught how to wire a plug).


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