Monday, September 8, 2014

My Visit to Aldi and Some Thoughts on Choices

Yesterday, the wife and I went down to the grocery store, Aldi, here in Xenia, and shopped.  For those of you who don't know, Aldi is a European-style (yea, Germany-based) chain of grocery stories which offer a greatly reduced number of items compared to the big grocery stores we're used to seeing in America.  In addition to having a smaller number of products, they have less selection in products, though they claim this gives them sufficient cost savings to give high quality goods.  Additionally, they don't bag your items - though they provide shelf space so you can - or provide bags.  To use a cart, you have to put a quarter into a gadget, though you get the quarter back when you return the cart.  This is another cost saving tool, meaning they don't have to have dudes wandering around collecting carts.  Nowadays, they market this as the greener alternative to big box supermarkets that most Americans shop at, though my understanding is the impetus is more pecuniary than environmental . . . but that's a trivial point!

For us, the upshot was, we really liked it.  The store here in Xenia has the right items, broadly speaking.  And given that the store is much smaller than a regular supermarket, we were in and out in half an hour.  Broadly speaking, we didn't feel the supposed lack of choice.  Even the big box supermarkets fail to have things I want, like spices for Asian cuisine.  Broadly, what we can't get at Aldi we can get online or by stopping, now and then, at specialty stores (like liquor stores for beer).

But this made me think about choices.  Recently, when Adrienne was at a convention up in Minneapolis, she spoke to a Danish collegue of hers, Jesper.  He'd been down at FIU and we had hung out a little, he's a nice guy.  At the conference, he mentioned he had forgotten how exhausting being in the United States was - that he had to translate everything in his head and then, surprisingly, to Adrienne and then to me, was the "number of choices".  Being an American has a lot of choices.

Jesper told a story about how he went into a burrito joint because he wanted to try this crazy American foodstuff about which he's heard, so he goes up to the counter and asked for a burrito.  He was then asked what he wanted on his burrito . . .

He had no idea.  He's Danish!  Their main exposure to burritos is, and I'm quoting Yona, who is my main source of all things Denmark, "Middle Eastern-owned fast food places that make them from store-bought components and have no real idea what they're supposed to be like."  The question drew nothing from him so he said, and I can see Jesper in my mind saying this, "A little bit of everything.  Which was not the right choice."

Everything in America is like this.  Once I started seeing it, I saw it everywhere.  Soda aisles with dozens and dozens of choices.  You want toothpaste?  There are a dozen brands and each brand has several different products!  There are forty linear feet of beer shelves at the local Kroger's . . . and that's not even a liquor store!  Americans are constantly asking other Americans what we want with that - do you want onion rings, house chips, French fries or steak fries with that?   What kind of cheese do you want on your hamburger?  It's everywhere!

And it is exhausting.  A supermarket is the precise kind of place that we hate and I'm sure part of it is all the damn choices.  And they're so identical!  How do you know which brand of toothpaste is actually better?!  Worse, most of the brands are functionally identical.

So you're in this supermarket and you're surrounded by choices and most of them are false choices.  But because there is this farcical illusion of choice, the store is goddamn enormous!  It's huge!  You can land aircraft in there, play football games!  So you wander around aisle after aisle, being forced to make false choices, searching around for the lowest price, or the price point you want, surrounded by other sullen faced people doing the same thing, trudging along, back and forth, making these same false choices.

Which is to say shopping in a store where there were many fewer choices was a great relief to me.  Jesper is right.  We have too many choices in America.


  1. Oh I like Aldi, you can find some good stuff there, and relatively cheap, PLUS they pay their staff living wages.

  2. Yeah, the prices were also quite nice, shall we say. There was a lot we liked about the place.

  3. Ever since I read about decision fatigue, I think about it every damn time I go to the grocery store at the end of the day.

    But yeah, the Aldi trip was nice!

  4. Eloquently stated. I love the forced choices at Aldi. It's only one of the lifestyle choices I have made so that, well, I'll have to make less choices.