Is variety really the spice of life?

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I’m a creature of habit.

I have purchased the same kind of toothpaste — Crest regular paste — since I was old enough to buy toothpaste. Somehow it has become harder and harder to find my tried-and-true product among store shelves that are now lined with endless varieties of Crest that range from 3D White to tubes claiming tartar and gingivitis protection and “pro-health,” whatever that means. The “regular” paste has been relegated to the very bottom shelf.

The number of Crest choices are not endless, however. There are 27 varieties. Consumer Reports actually counted them. Colgate has a mere 25.

We’re all victims of too many choices these days, but this overloading of product varieties at the grocery stores began some time ago. I remember sending my husband to the store years ago for a box of hot cocoa mix. He came home with the wrong kind, but it wasn’t his fault. Did I want Swiss Miss with tiny marshmallows or sugar-free? How about milk or rich chocolate?

“There were too many choices,” he declared. I couldn’t disagree.

Here’s the reality. Between 1975 and 2008, the number of products in the average supermarket increased from about 8,950 to nearly 47,000, according to the Food Marketing Institute. You want Cheerios? There are 11 flavors, including Dulce de Leche and Cinnamon Burst. Campbell’s Soup now offers 74 varieties, a far cry from the days of my childhood when cans of tomato and chicken noodle lined my mother’s cupboards.

Head & Shoulders shampoo boasts 25 varieties, but I still buy the original for my husband.

In nearly all cases I always choose the original variety, even though I’m bombarded with other choices — lactose-free, free-range, CarbSmart, extra creamy... Too many choices render me helpless. I was a mess when I took my daughters to the Mall of America during spring break when they were teens. They were enthralled. I couldn’t help thinking, “Do we really need a store that sells just sea shells?”

Of course much has been written about the psychology of choice. Psychologist Barry Schwartz, in his popular book, “The Paradox of Choice — Why More is Less,” argues that eliminating so many consumer choices can greatly reduce anxiety for shoppers.

The opposite opinion is also out there. Some research scientists say choice is a complicated thing. It’s too simplistic to conclude that too many choices is bad, though they acknowledge an abundance of choices can make it tough to make decisions.

They say the average American makes 70 different choices a day. It’s no wonder I want to put my brain on auto-pilot when I’m grocery shopping. I’ll continue to buy my “regular” and “original” products. At the end of the day I just want to get through the aisles, get my stuff and go home where hundreds of TV stations await my choice. But even after channel surfing, which I occasional do, I turn on the same old couple of programs. Like I said, I’m a creature of habit.

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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