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Is There Such A Thing As Too Many Options?

Although product proliferation holds out the allure of infinite choice, it often creates more confusion and frustration than it does pleasure. (Art Bochevarov/flickr)MoreCloseclosemore
Although product proliferation holds out the allure of infinite choice, it often creates more confusion and frustration than it does pleasure. (Art Bochevarov/flickr)

Remember when there was only one kind of Cheerios?

I was reminded of this fact when I arrived at Macy’s the other day to buy pillows. I didn’t expect it to take long. When I’d bought pillows in years past, I’d poked through several bins, chosen the mid-priced options (about $20 a piece), and been out the door in less than 10 minutes. Why should it be any different this time?

What I hadn’t reckoned with was the relentless march of product proliferation.

Finding the pillow department at Macy’s was simple enough, but that’s where the simplicity ended. What I noticed first was the division between the memory foam pillows and traditional pillows. The last time I’d paid attention, there was only one type of memory foam pillow: Tempurpedic. Now there were dozens. Martha Stewart makes memory foam pillows now. So do Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein. And then there are SensorGel, Comfort Revolution, Charter Club, Pacific Coast, Sleep Essentials, Perfect Comfort, Sleep Innovations. The list goes on and on.

In addition to the multitude of manufacturers, there are many different kinds of memory foam pillows as well. There are contour pillows, neck roll pillows, egg crate pillows (don’t ask), V-shaped pillows, wedge pillows and a variety of traditionally shaped options. And if that isn’t complicated enough, you have to choose between high-density and low-density.

By the time I stumbled into the traditional pillows section, I was in a daze. Things were about to get worse. I had just started to peruse the first aisle of pillows when I noticed an unsmiling, middle-aged saleswoman bearing down on me like a hungry grizzly on a baby deer.

“Do you sleep on your side, back, or stomach?” she demanded without any other introduction.

This struck me as a rather intimate question, and I’d only just begun to stammer out a reply when she cut me off abruptly.

Our life is frittered away by detail... Simplify, simplify.

Henry David Thoreau

“Because it makes a difference as to the kind of pillow you need to buy,” she went on in the same hectoring tone. “Soft pillows are for stomach sleepers. Firmer pillows are for side and back sleepers. It says on the labels which kind they are.”

“Thanks,” I finally managed to blurt out. “I didn’t realize that.”

“Well,” she replied, as if she’d suspected as much, “I’ll leave you to it.”

But she wasn’t through with me yet. She’d only taken a few steps back to the cash registers when she suddenly turned around again.

“The best bargains are here,” she said, indicating the shelf next to me. “The hotel quality are against the back wall.” She left little doubt as to which category she thought I belonged.

And then she was gone, and I was left to ponder her words in the empty aisles of pillows.

As I walked along the shelves, trying to regain my bearings, I found that there were soft, medium, firm, and extra firm pillows. There were various kinds of down pillows, as well as down-like pillows, Primaloft pillows, Hypo Fill pillows, and even recycled Hypo Fill pillows. And there were both hypoallergenic pillows, and pillows that somehow repelled both dust mites and bed bugs.

Now thoroughly confused, I suddenly remembered my wife’s directions. She wanted a soft pillow, and she had some concerns about whether I would choose one that was soft enough. My head cleared, and I knew what I had to do. I headed straight for the hotel quality section — I’d show that saleswoman — and found an ultrasoft, high quality, down-like, hypoallergenic pillow that I knew would make my wife happy. For myself, I chose a firm pillow, good for both side and back sleepers, from the bargain shelf.

As I walked back to the parking lot, I reflected that I had spent 90 minutes choosing my pillows. I realized, too, that I had paid more than three times what I paid the last time I’d been sent on this errand.

And that brings me back to Cheerios (you knew I’d get there). There are now 14 kinds of Cheerios. I think there are more kinds of Cheerios than there were breakfast cereals when I was a kid. In addition to original Cheerios, there are Honey Nut, Honey Nut Medley Crunch, Apple Cinnamon, Multi Grain, Frosted, and Yogurt Burst — and that’s only half the kinds you can buy. What used to take up a few feet of a shelf space in the cereal aisle of your local supermarket, now fills the equivalent of a small athletic stadium.

Are we better off for having all of these choices? I’m not so sure. Henry David Thoreau once wrote, famously, “Our life is frittered away by detail... Simplify, simplify.”

Tell that to the pillow makers.

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Peter Guthrie Cognoscenti contributor
Peter Guthrie, LICSW, is a writer and psychotherapist in private practice. An English teacher in a former life, he also worked for many years in college counseling.

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