Why Big Grocery Stores Make People Sad

Publix is building a new grocery store near my kids’ middle school.  The construction is causing plenty of backups as we pressed-for-time parents sit in the carpool line.  While stuck in traffic today, I noticed just how big the grocery store really is.  At least I think it’s a grocery store; it might be a new vehicle assembly building for NASA.  To put it in terms even a New Yorker can understand: it’s huge.

Staring at the enormous supermarket building this morning, I wondered, “Is it just me, or are grocery stores too big?”  Stores are certainly gaining size.  The Winn-Dixie where our family bought groceries when I was a kid is about the same size as one of today’s drug stores (around 13,000 square feet).  I know this because that exact store where we shopped in 1980 is today a small drug store. Meanwhile, the average grocery store has grown to 45,000 square feet (just over an acre) and a Wal-Mart Super Center is a whopping 250,000 square feet (almost six acres). 

I'm not sure why we need an acre of options when buying groceries. I don’t pretend to know the intricacies of retail space design, but I know it’s driven by profits.  The simple math is that big stores can carry more stuff and, therefore, sell more stuff.  By giving the consumer options (lots and lots and lots of options), they can get us to spend more money per visit.  But does having a super big store with lots of options make life better?

Here’s a shocking revelation: having more choices actually makes us less happy. 

Yes, you read that right.  We live in a land where we cherish our freedom to choose. We want to choose clothes that perfectly fit out body, our clique, and our mood.  We choose the milk that’s processed the way we think it should be processed.  We choose hair color, breast size, skin decoration, and even gender.  In a society where we want choice, choice and more choice, the idea that having more choices makes us less happy sounds just wrong.  After all, how can we have the things that make us happy if those are not available for the choosing?

About ten years ago, psychologist Barry Schwartz coined the term “the paradox of choice.”  The paradox is this: people like freedom and autonomy, but the super-abundance of choices Americans are faced with is actually backfiring – not only providing less happiness than you’d think, but making us unhappy and even depressed. 

How can it be that having an abundance of choice makes us less happy?  Five reasons:

1.     We spend too much energy making choices.  Go to the supermarket and buy spaghetti sauce.  You will be faced with about a hundred options, and you will have no quick and rational way to decide between all the options. The pleasure the sauce will bring you is eaten up (pun intended) by the hassle you have to go through in choosing which one to buy.   

2.     We raise our expectations and are disappointed. Schwartz tells a story of buying a pair of jeans.  He wanted a pair exactly like the ones he bought a decade earlier, but they don’t make them anymore.  Instead, he had to try on a dozen or more styles (which added to his unhappiness owing to reason #1) before buying a pair of jeans that fit him way better than the ones he bought ten years ago, but disappointed him more.  He was less satisfied with the new jeans because his expectations had been raised to the unrealistic point of anticipating a perfect fit.  With so many choices, certainly there had to be a perfect pair, right? He had been perfectly happy with his old, ill-fitting jeans because he didn’t know or expect better.

3.     We are filled with regret.  When you have few choices, you can compare options and know that you chose the best option.  When faced with the dozens of options at a supermarket, or the hundreds of options at a super-center, or the millions of options online, you can never be sure you chose the best option.  Schwartz calls this “missed opportunities.”  So if you buy this car and get these snazzy options, you also did not buy the other car that had those other, different snazzy options and your joy in having what you do have is tempered by the curse of knowing what you missed out on.

4.     We choose nothing.  Given all the choices you are faced with, you’ll eventually feel the symptoms of analysis paralysis and you’ll just choose nothing.  You’ll walk out of the store with no spaghetti sauce.  Or as one study found, you’ll get so dizzy when trying to choose from all the 401K retirement options that you’ll simplify the whole thing into a “Yes or No” decision and opt for “No.”  Choosing nothing will save you some energy, but you’ll end up with no sauce and no retirement savings.

5.     We are to blame.  When you have few options and are disappointed with your choice, the blame rests clearly with “the world” for not offering better options.  But when you have tons of options and experience even the slightest disappointment with what you chose, you are to blame for not having done a better job choosing.  Having more options makes you less happy because you blame yourself for not being able to choose well enough to satisfy yourself. 

So what’s the solution to the paradox of choice? 

1.     Dispel the lie.  The truth is that having some options is better than having no options.  The lie is that having more options is better than having some options.  If you believe the lie, you’re doomed and can choose to skip the advice in points 2 and 3.

2.     More blessed to give.  Living in an affluent Western society, we have the resources and options to drive ourselves mad – literally.  Your life will be better if you reduce your resources, thereby reducing your choices.  You can do this by giving away some of your resources (to charity, to church, to people with few resources and too few options).

3.     Choose fewer choices.  Finally, you can intentionally choose to limit your options by refusing to present yourself with so many options.  When you shop at Aldi instead of Publix, you’ll have fewer options and be happier. 

What about you?

When have you faced too many options?  Where do you see the paradox of choice at work?  In what ways are you choosing to limit your resources or the number of options you face?