August 8, 2014 12:39 pm

When choice isn’t an option

‘To live,’ remarked Kofi Annan, ‘is to choose.’ But apparently some of us are living too well

“To live,” remarked Kofi Annan, “is to choose.” But apparently some of us are living too well. Last week, AG Lafley, the chief executive of Procter & Gamble – and a true giant in the retail business – announced he would be culling a number of brands. Explaining his decision, he said there was “a lot of evidence … that the shopper and consumer don’t really want more assortment and choice”. Shoppers, he added, “want to keep their life simple and convenient”.

He did not say which brands were for the chop, though one analyst identified the Naomi Campbell perfume range as a possible casualty. This may or may not be true but I have a hunch that customers do not stand paralysed in the store, unsure of whether they wish to smell like Naomi Campbell. More likely is that people don’t want to smell like Naomi Campbell: they want to look like Naomi Campbell – or want their partner to look like Naomi Campbell. Any problem with the brand, I’d suggest, is more likely to be because customers have come to realise that smelling like Naomi Campbell does not guarantee looking like her. (Having said that, there is a staggering range of celebrity scents – from Heidi Klum, to Lady Gaga, to Christina Aguilera. We chaps are also well catered for. With one bottle I could smell like Antonio Banderas, P Diddy or One Direction. Or I could mix them up and smell like all seven … grrr.)

The argument used by Lafley has been deployed before, notably by the psychologist Barry Schwartz in the book The Paradox of Choice. Schwartz says that the range of choices facing an individual – and he was discussing the entirety of life, not merely the contents of one’s shopping basket – fostered depression and loneliness.

mummified shopper standing in front of a shelf. Illustration by Lucas Varela©Lucas Varela

This was because individuals were paralysed by excessive choice, and their expectations are set too high. As Schwartz puts it: “The secret to happiness is low expectations.” The more options one has, the easier it is to regret the choice made.

This is, as they say, one of those first-world problems so easily derided on Twitter. But as Schwartz points out, when supermarkets offer 175 different salad dressings, to say nothing of the various olive oils and balsamic vinegars, it is possible to detect choice overload. He does not argue against some choice, only too much. In some important areas, like medical or pension decisions, it shifts the burden of responsibility on to people not equipped to make those decisions.

Too much choice, he argues, switches responsibility for bad decisions from someone else to you. It is not liberating – it is debilitating. The premise has a superficial appeal. But it is also something of a nonsense, especially at the retail end of life. Faced with an array of salad dressings, most people do not stand immobilised at the counter. Nor do most consider it deeply enough to regret the decision they make. We either choose one we know or live dangerously, risking all on a new brand. I can’t speak for you but I am a positive daredevil when it comes to salad dressings – the Evel Knievel of condiments. Put simply, I have yet to be intimidated by vinegar.

I am a positive daredevil when it comes to salad dressings – the Evel Knievel of condiments

I recognise that not everyone is as brave as me. Perhaps Lafley is standing strong for the weaker species who simply crumble in the face of salad dressings. Maybe this is a welcome gesture of social justice for those who are less able to cope with the sight of Pampers Active Fit, Pampers Simply Dry and Pampers Baby Dry. Or perhaps this is a highfalutin way of explaining a more straightforward business call.

This is not to say that Procter & Gamble has made a bad business decision. It may make absolute sense to rationalise the product line, and there are reasons to think Lafley may have a better handle on that call than me. But why not just say the product lines were not working well enough. In any case, over the medium term, the market has an effective way of taking care of excess choices. But choice removed is choice denied and we will only welcome the “convenience” of fewer options if our own preference remains available; otherwise it is dashed inconvenient.

To live is to choose. So, as the Pepsi people say, let’s live life to the Max.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com; Twitter: @robertshrimsley

Illustration by Lucas Varela

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