Friday, 23 October 2015

Choice, by coincidence


The author and journalist Bill Bryson once wrote – I can’t track down the source - about how he was commissioned to write a newspaper article about amazing coincidences. Bereft of ideas, he found himself sitting at a colleague’s desk. Prominent on the desk was a large book – about amazing coincidences.
This came to my mind because of a sequence of events this week. In my last post on this blog I wrote about the limitations of choice as an over-riding principle. It’s a theme in the book, as well, where (e.g. p.75) I draw upon Barry Schwartz’s fantastic book The Paradox of Choice to talk about how choice in some strange way makes us less free, and can be burdensome and controlling.
A few days later, I went to have my hair cut (bear with me, this is going somewhere). For those who don’t know the ritual of the traditional English all-male barber’s shop it involves a usually awkward conversation about the weather, local traffic problems, and, especially, football. The latter has always been difficult for me, as I have no interest in football, but recently that has slightly changed since Crystal Palace, the team of my childhood home in Croydon, are now in the Premier League and out of nostalgia I have become (mildly) interested.
Anyway, that is by the way. Somehow, the conversation got on to the fact that the barber and his wife have taken to shopping at Aldi, a German-owned budget supermarket that has become increasingly popular in the UK. The reason they do so – and this is the interesting bit – is not because it is cheaper than the others but because there is far less choice. That, he said, made shopping much less hassle than going to the established supermarkets, such as Tesco where they used to shop.
Later that day, without seeking it out, I came across an article by Stuart Jeffries on the Guardian newspaper website, entitled ‘Why too much choice is stressing us out’, in which he reported that:
“Tesco chief executive Dave Lewis seems bent on making shopping in his stores less baffling than it used to be. Earlier this year, he decided to scrap 30,000 of the 90,000 products from Tesco's shelves. This was, in part, a response to the growing market shares of Aldi and Lidl, which only offer between 2,000 and 3,000 lines. For instance, Tesco used to offer 28 tomato ketchups while in Aldi there is just one in one size; Tesco offered 224 kinds of air freshener, Aldi only 12 …”
And, what’s more, the article goes on to analyse this in terms of Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice!
That same day I took a look at the excellent blog of my fellow, albeit rather more eminent, organization theorist Yiannis Gabriel where his latest post explained the background to the new edition The Unmanageable Consumer, a book which amongst many other things helps us to understand why consumers might not simply lap up the endless choices which marketeers assume everyone wants.
I have spent the last couple of days working on the revisions for what will be the fourth edition of my own book. It has been going well, so I am in an optimistic frame of mind. This leads me to think that, perhaps, the kinds of arguments I make are gaining traction. It surely cannot just be coincidence that all these things have happened this week? Alas, my wife has brought me down to earth by pointing out that coincidence is not what it seems. It is not even, as might be thought, the opposite of choice. Rather, it is the things that we choose to be interested in that gain our attention. It’s just such feminine realism that one goes to the men’s barber’s shop to escape, and only coincidentally for a haircut. Which reminds me, Crystal Palace are currently sixth in the Premier League.

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