I took a risk recently and asked my wife go to the store for toilet paper. Her eyes betrayed her nervousness when I said, “Remember, we want Charmin Ultrasoft Mega Rolls.” Given the dirty business for which we use it and how eagerly we dispose of it after use, toilet paper is a surprisingly sophisticated product. For research purposes, I went to our small local grocery store and counted nine brands offering 59 options of varying softness, strength, and sheets per roll. And I was asking my wife to remember which of those many options was the very particular one I wanted.
About the same time, Democratic presidential aspirant Elizabeth Warren called for breaking up Amazon. At first glance, there may not be an obvious connection between the varieties of toilet paper at my brick-and-mortar grocery store and e-commerce giant Amazon, but there is—product variety. Amazon’s true value to consumers is not low cost and free shipping but the great variety of goods it makes available to people, both directly and from third-party sellers.
How Much Variety Do We Need?
Do we really need all that variety? Warren’s fellow presidential contender Bernie Sanders doesn’t think so. He thinks we don’t “need a choice of 23 underarm spray deodorants or 18 sneakers when children are hungry in this country. I don’t think the media appreciates the kind of stress that ordinary Americans are working on.” It might have been an even more memorable statement if he’d focused on toilet paper, but it wouldn’t have made him less wrong.
We’d have to make as many cans of deodorant whether there was one style or the 36 I counted at my grocery (along with at least 50 styles of stick deodorant just for women), so it’s not clear how reducing variety will feed more kids. With 230 million American adults, 23 types would be only one type for every ten million adults. Some people sweat more than others. Some are sensitive to certain chemicals that don’t bother others. And for that stressed American worker, the scent of lilac, vanilla, or wolfthorn in the morning may be one of the little moments that improve their day.
When I raised this issue in class, one of my students pointed out that “people have sensitivities or discomfort based on a multitude of factors, so having that [variety] available to them is important.” How many choices of shoes do I need? Enough to find the perfect ones. The same is true of everyone else shopping for shoes. In truth, I’m not really that sensitive to toilet paper, but I do have particularly sensitive feet because my arches are too high and too far back. If I had been built in a factory, I might have been rejected by quality control inspectors. Finding shoes with an arch that is both high enough and doesn’t rise under the ball of my foot is a challenge.
I recently bought new hiking boots at Cabelas, which had at least four dozen styles to choose from. Narrowing the selection to those in my price range left about two dozen, and further winnowing by style (lighter boots, mid-height, water-resistant) and aesthetics, I had ten boots to try on. One pair was perfect, one would have been acceptable for moderate length hikes, and all the others were bad fits that would have left me hobbling in pain after a short jaunt. One hurt my feet in a short stroll around the shoe racks.
So how many choices of shoes do I need? Enough to find ones that don’t hurt. And the same is true for all those people whose feet are shaped differently than mine.
As to “the stress faced by ordinary Americans,” The market does not provide splendid variety as a wasteful frivolity. Variety is necessary to accommodate human differences. I worked as a stock clerk in a building supply store while attending graduate school and being the primary caretaker of my infant daughter. Hours of walking on concrete floors is hard on the feet and knees. No ordinary American worker needs the extra stress of chronic pain from not having shoe varieties available to find a pair that cradle and protect their feet well.
The need for variety to meet human needs is rediscovered every time there’s value in discovering it. For example, in WWII, the US Army discovered that there were no average pilots when it tried to design a standard cockpit to decrease pilot-error. Not even one of the thousands of pilots they measured was average on the ten most important measures, so seats and control mechanisms had to be made adjustable to the variation in pilots’ torso, leg, and arm sizes. They learned something unwary clothing shoppers have learned time and again: one size fits all doesn’t.
What this example demonstrates is that the market does not provide splendid variety as a wasteful frivolity. Even in the absence of a profit motive, variety is necessary to accommodate human differences.
What We Want Is What We Need
Some will argue that there’s a difference between need and want, that shoes and aircraft safety are different than deodorant. Oddly, though, they never push this argument to its logical end and condemn variety in music. But as economist Art Carden recently wrote about the death of Keith Flint, the frontman for the British electronic band The Prodigy, “[e]conomic growth . . . means much more than material production.” How many styles of music do we need? Materially, none. Immaterially, as many as all those stressed out American workers want to help themselves relax after a hard day at work.
Amazon has made its fortune on offering the great variety of goods that the varying millions of individual purchasers want. Warren’s call for breaking up Amazon, like Sanders’s complaint about deodorants and sneakers, although nominally aimed at the corporation, effectively targets individuals for their decisions to choose goods and services that they decide best meet their personal needs and desires.
Variety is not just the spice of life but an essential element of what it means to be human.
If humans were built on assembly lines, we could be standardized to need only one type of deodorant, one type of shoe, and one type of music, and everything could be provided in one type of store. But to our great good fortune, we are not so standardized, even in a mass consumerist society. Variety is not just the spice of life but an essential element of what it means to be human. And so it is that there’s a truly awful and dehumanizing hubris in thinking one can speak better for ordinary people than they can speak for themselves each time they make a purchase.