Have we reached 'peak stuff'?

Consumers are getting fed up with too many choices.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 02 Mar 2017

A disapproval of excess and excessive behaviour has been around since classical times. The ancients knew that too much of anything wasn’t good for us. You cannot live your life with the dial permanently turned up to eleven. The Greek goddess Sophrosyne embodied the spirit of moderation, temperance and restraint, and those who ignored her risked madness and ruin. The temple of Apollo at Delphi bore the inscription Meden Agan (nothing in excess). A sense of balance is all.

These days sometimes we don’t appear to know how much is too much. For those who worry about excess consumption and its more virtuous alternative - sustainable living -  there are two competing buzzwords which explore the problems:  Peak Stuff and The Paradox of Choice. Both are about excess, the consequences of over-doing it, either on the supply or the demand side. In intriguing ways, however,  they appear to contradict each other.

The concept of Peak Stuff was introduced to us earlier this year in a slightly comical, almost Gerald Ratner-esque, admission by IKEA when the Swedish giant suggested that the hunger of western consumers for home furnishings had ‘reached its peak.’  

'If we look on a global basis, in the west we have probably hit peak stuff. We talk about peak oil. I’d say we’ve hit peak red meat, peak sugar, peak stuff … peak home furnishings,' Steve Howard IKEA’s head of sustainability said at a Guardian conference.  He noted further -  in a rare display of mirth from the Scandie giant - that the new state of affairs could be referred to as  'peak curtains'. (Despite this admission, IKEA still has a target of doubling global sales by 2020.)

If you Google 'Peak Stuff', consistently at the top of the ranking list comes Goldman Sachs and its thoughts on the subject.  How apt that the legendary ‘Vampire squid wrapped round the face of humanity’ which did more to encourage a culture of pushing it to the limit in the world of finance is now an authority on a step too far. (Well, according to Google’s algorithm, anyway.)

But Goldman's analysis is correct. (As it often is.) Goldman says the Peak Stuff phenomenon is down to two factors. Firstly, access over ownership. People are willing to share or co-own material goods and are no longer so hung up about acquisition and ownership. Cars would be a good example. Car clubs in cities are growing and when autonomous versions finally arrive, minus sexy steering wheels and accelerators, people may well have even less desire to own rather than share/hire them. People even share pets these days. Secondly, it’s experiences over possessions. So you’d rather attend a piano concerto at the Wigmore Hall or attend a performance by the ginger troubadour Ed Sheeran than own another IKEA pair of blackout curtains called Gunni.  Live and in the moment has a high premium placed on it these days.

Nowhere do you get a better vision of Peak Stuff than TK Maxx. Looking down from her pedestal on the clothing rails from which hang hundreds of metres of unwanted clobber Sophrosyne would not be amused. Maxx’s business is 'distressed merchandise': the football shirts, girls’ party dresses, sweat pants, dodgy cheap suits, ties, rudimentary bike locks, socks, belts and so on that TK Maxx has acquired from suppliers that failed to shift them.

When I were a lad

We have many more material possessions than the previous generation did. Middle-class kids in the 1960s like me had one pair of shoes for each half of the year - often the same Clarks brand as there were not many suitable makers to choose from -  probably two or three T-shirts and a British-made M&S anorak or duffle coat. I've just looked into the wardrobe containing the threads of my nine and seven year-old and stopped when I went past 30 T-shirts, not one of them made here. And this isn't just the case for a comfortably off bourgeois.

We continue to be  voracious consumers. Research conducted at Cambridge University found that, as clothing prices have come down in the UK, the number of garments bought has soared fourfold. The study found that the average British woman buys half her bodyweight - 28kg (62lb) - in clothing every year. However, the average British family spends about 45% less on clothes today than 40 years ago. Clothes are now super-cheap: in 1969 we spent almost 9% of our money on clothes, compared with about 5% in 2012. It’s easy to chose some more.

It's not just clothes. In 1969, Which? magazine's best buy Hoover Automatic 3221h washing machine cost £88, a sum equivalent to £1,044 today. A typical 22-inch colour television set would have cost about £300 then (£3,500 today). A TV cost more than a month's work for an average earner in 1969, but costs less than two days' work today. The costs have gone down and the number to choose from way up.

Too much choice?

But how easy is it to choose the one you want? If you look at TVs on the John Lewis website there are 111 from which to take your pick. The prospect of looking for the perfect needle in that digital haystack sends some people into a complete funk. The book The Paradox of Choice - Why More Is Less was written in 2004 by the American  psychologist Barry Schwartz and caused a big stir.

His argument is that reducing or even eliminating consumer choices can greatly reduce anxiety for shoppers. As he writes, ‘Autonomy and freedom of choice are critical to our well being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don't seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.’ We’re not just spoiled for choice but damaged by it.

The classic experiment Schwartz cites to prove his theory concerns not 4K enabled Ultra HDs by Panasonic but designer jam. Way back in 1995 in a California gourmet market, Professor Sheena Iyengar, one of the world’s experts on choice, set up a booth of samples of Wilkin & Sons jams from Tiptree in Essex. Every few hours, they swapped from offering a selection of 24 jams to a group of six jams. On average, customers tasted two jams, regardless of the size of the assortment, and each one received a coupon for a dollar off one jar.

But here is where it all got interesting. With eyes bigger than their tummies, sixty percent of customers were drawn to the large assortment, while only 40% stopped by the small one. However - and here’s the kicker - 30% of the people who had sampled from the small assortment decided to buy jam, while only 3% of those confronted with the two dozen jams purchased a jar. For Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury’s this was nightmarish news. One doubts whether Wilkin & Sons whose range runs into the hundreds of preserves, jams and marmalades were too thrilled, either.

That study ‘raised the hypothesis that the presence of choice might be appealing as a theory,’ said Professor Iyengar who, by the way is completely blind so would be choosing by taste and smell, ‘but in reality, people might find more and more choice to actually be debilitating.’

There are two elements that concern Schwartz: worrying about the choice and then being unhappy once the choice has been made. That you made a mistake and got the wrong one. This you might term fret followed by regret. Or in the language of behavioural economics - ‘there is diminishing marginal utility in having alternatives; each new option subtracts a little from the feeling of well-being, until the marginal benefits of added choice level off.’

In the years since, different  versions of the jam study have been conducted using all sorts of subjects, from chocolate to speed dating. Those who use the dating app Tinder will be highly familiar with this phenomenon. One of the most extreme examples of Tinder choice madness is recounted by Aziz Ansari, the comedian, in his book Modern Romance.

In it, a woman recalls meeting a man on the dating app Tinder, then spending the journey to their first date swiping through other contenders to see if anyone more promising was available. This is buyer’s unease or even (when she arrived at the date) remorse. It’s hugely frequent - many people spend hours studying brochures and websites for products way after they've bought one. It’s as if they are trying to convince themselves after the event that they made the correct decision. There are doubtless some Tinder users who would like to date everyone apparently ‘available’ before being sure they’ve come to the correct decision. But the world doesn’t work quite like that.

The same applies to those who face the nightly dilemma of bewildering choice as you scroll down through the Sky or Netflix channels, the same.  Bruce Springsteen had a song for this ‘57 Channels (And Nothing On) (The Boss is so incensed by the madness of choice he shoots the TV with a .44 Magnum).

Or too much information?

But Benjamin Scheibehenne, a research scientist at the University of Basel in Switzerland, has said it might be too simple to conclude that too many choices are bad, just as it is wrong to assume that more choices are always better. He says that it depends on what information we’re being given to assist us in making those choices, the type of expertise we have to rely on - from ourselves and our own knowledge or outside authority - and how much importance we ascribe to each choice. He hits the nail on the head when he suggest that it’s critical to separate the concept of choice overload from information overload.

In other words, he said, how much are people affected by the number of choices and ‘how much from the lack of information or any prior understanding of the options?’ The purchase of a TV on the John Lewis website shows this. It’s beautifully designed, showing screen sizes (22"-75"), brands, different resolutions, features.

For someone who is actively interested and confident with the technology this is all helpful - as are the reviews from other customers which carry very great weight. (Peer opinion has become hugely powerful in the digital age.) But for TV tech ignoramuses who do not understand the meaning and function and value of what’s on offer this can bring on panic. Such individuals are far more likely to attend a store and seek advice from an old fashioned shop assistant. It’s all down to confidence and feeling on top of things.

Schwartz accepts that people are very different when shopping and applies the commonly used psychological distinction between maximizing and satisficing. A maximizer is someone who ‘can’t be certain that she has found the best sweater unless she’s looked at all the sweaters,’ Schwartz writes. ‘She can’t know that she is getting the best price until she’s checked out all the prices.’ Instead, he advocates, one should become a satisficer, ‘content with the merely excellent as opposed to the absolute best.’ This is making the best of it.

He offers encouraging practical measures to alleviate the agony such as time-limiting your search and sticking to simple stuff that you know you like already, which seems sensible. But  it’s not obvious that you can simply decide to convert from maximizing to satisficing. These behavioural traits are very deep seated in many people. Glass-half-empties and glass-half-fulls don’t change their personalities overnight.

There is a strongly political element to the problem of choice as Christopher Caldwell wrote in the New Yorker when reviewing Schwartz’s book. ‘If choice is as painful as social scientists claim (Schwartz says it "tyrannizes" us) — and if miswanting is as prevalent — then a root-and-branch means of liberating us from it will always tempt policymakers and political thinkers.

Oh you just decide for me

Some will advocate having others, perhaps the state, choose for people; for these advocates, behavioral economics provides a rationale for paternalism. The economist George Loewenstein, of Carnegie Mellon, has said that anyone studying happiness was bound to end up leaning left. Indeed, miswanting can be seen as a version of Marxism’s "false consciousness," only in a more alluring guise — no longer just an oratorical ruse to sidestep the expressed wishes of the working class but a hard datum of social science.’

This is political dynamite and goes to the heart of what capitalism promises: choice, freedom and abundance. It’s one thing living back in the world of Henry Ford when he was supplying the Model T and colour choice famously was not something he favoured offering consumers. However the Communist way of doing things is a complete reduction of decadent capitalist choice and that you get what you are given - what the state decides not what its citizens want but what they need. This is the supply-side led world of the five-year plan and, ultimately, often the bread queue. It has very few serious advocates left anywhere - especially not in Cuba or Venezuela.

Rifling by hand through a rack of shirts at TK Maxx is one way to make a choice from a wide variety of options. But these days we are far likelier to be choosing from a vertical list on a screen, on Amazon, Google or ebay. The web has made the business of buying far easier and if people can buy something easily they will.

Being at the top of that list when the search engine has revved and done its work is the critical thing. Huge proportions of buyers don’t even scroll down to the bottom of the first page, never mind going beyond the fold to page 2 or 232. How many times on Amazon when buying a used book, for example, does anyone do so on anything other than price with the cheapest at the top? (Unless it is declared to be totally dog-eared and covered with notations in biro.) The choice has already been made. The choice was being on Amazon rather than in Waterstones.

Maybe we just don’t know how easy the digital world is at pre-making choices for us. As Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Alphabet, Google’s holding company, has said in quite sinister fashion, ‘We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.’ And, he may as well, add - ‘We know how to choose for you.’

Professional data miners working for companies can build highly detailed pictures about what people have chosen in the past - ‘history-sniffing’ - and how they have gone about that process - ‘behaviour-sniffing’.  You may think you have freedom of choice but it’s highly unlikely. You get to chose from what is selected for you. Freedom is rarely free - we’ll all in thrall to the laws of the algorithm.

The problem with the Paradox of Choice theory is that it is rarely borne out by reality and the facts. Surely if we were all crippled by indecision when it comes to choosing stuff we wouldn’t buy anything. We’d put the plastic back into our wallets and leave the store (or more likely the website) empty handed or with nothing in the basket.

The generational divide

There could even be an age divide here. The young are perfectly accustomed to the modern world. They don’t fret and regret. They just get on with it, often multi-tasking and making decisions on the hoof at pace. Our kids would think it very odd, and themselves hard done by,  to only have two T shirts and two pairs of shoes each year. There is an element of the slightly neurotic old fogey in the Paradox of Choice argument. A combination of the delaying, self-doubting Hamlet who cannot make up his mind to be or not to be and the angsting Woody Allen.

It’s all a bit joyless - there are many who actually like shopping, especially for higher value, non-everyday items, otherwise they wouldn’t do it with such alacrity. The pleasure of yearning to buy something you desire, thinking about all the alternatives, making your decision, saving for or sacrificing something else to purchase it, the actual act of acquiring it, receiving it by courier, unwrapping it and then enjoying owning and using it cannot be argued with.

But the market is aware things may have gone too far. Take Tesco for example. Last year its boss Dave Lewis, in an effort to stem the losses suffered after the deathly wars with his low cost rivals Aldi and Lidl, decided to scrap 30,000 of the 90,000 products from his supermarkets shelves. Did Tesco customers require 28 different tomato ketchups, he wondered. It might help his bottom line if he offered fewer while easing the ketchup buying agony suffered by those walking up and down his aisles.

He is not alone among grocers. The overall number of product varieties — known as stock-keeping units — in British supermarkets has fallen 7% over the past two years, according to IRI, the retail consultancy. As her spirit walks the aisles of whichever Mount Olympus supermarket she favours, Sophrosyne - for whom equilibrium, balance and, doubtless, bargain prices are all - may well approve of this.

Image credit: armchair/Wikipedia

This article first appeared in Rapha's Mondial magazine.

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