Freedom of choice

   Food Lion is closing and my wife has no idea where to buy our son's 6th birthday cake. Of all the choices available locally, she likes Food Lion's sheet cakes. She's that way. Cakes from one place, produce from another place, meat from a third place – the freedom to choose where to shop is an American right, isn't it? I think Thomas Jefferson wrote something to that affect. No? Well, he should have.

   It's sad, then, that today there are fewer places to buy stuff than there were when I was growing up. I have been in a functioning butcher's shop – my children may never be able to say that. I've heard my grandmother request a specific cut of meat and watched as the man in the apron went to work on it. She got exactly what she wanted with zero compromise. Dang, how cool is that? I'm sure she paid more for the service but it's hard to put a price on satisfaction. It's even harder to put a price on freedom of choice.

   I think it all started with Henry Ford and his alleged quote about the Model T that “any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black”. Ford's standardized production was said to have “democratized” the car; suddenly anyone could own a car...as long as it was black. Of course, Fords didn't stay monotone forever but the idea lived on. You cut choice, you simplify production, you make more – that either sounds like the business model for the last century or a page out of Karl Marx's manifesto. My mind is not made up on that one.

   And, yes, we're all driving cars so I guess we should be thankful to Mr. Ford, but the older I get, the more I resent the idea of settling for something. I settle for the ugly shirt. I settle for the glue-and-sawdust coffee table. I settle for the vacuum-packed pot roast of unknown origin. Our choices continue to shrink and the fewer choices we have, the more we will have to settle. My soon-to-be six year old even came home from school equipped with a ready-made coping mechanism for settling: “You take what you get and you don't throw a fit”. Man, talk about an early indoctrination into marketplace complacency.

   We did this to ourselves. When presented with two options, we always took the cheaper one, regardless of other factors. It's the American way, baby. It didn't take manufacturers and marketers long to realize that we were all willing to settle for being less-than-satisfied if we could save a buck or two. And they catered to that human flaw. Why stock ten brands of coffee when you can present only the two cheapest and let the customer pick the least-bad one?

   By giving up choice, we're saving tons of money, right? Well, it depends on your definition of “saving”, I guess. Since the 1990's, Americans have literally been saving less and less according to the Feds.  So, by giving up choice, we're not really saving anything, we're just using those “savings” to buy more junk.  Just look around your house; I bet that you have more junk and less free cash than your parents did.  We are the free market, folks, and we chose “more junk” even if we didn't realize that we were ultimately killing choice.

   So, Food Lion is closing. Our shopping choices just dwindled a little more. And despite the great wailing and gnashing of teeth I suppose we should all be happy because this is obviously what we, the free market, wanted. Let's face it, if we cared about having another shopping choice, we would have taken advantage of that choice while it was here. Right?

  I, for one, am not happy. Admittedly, the cynic in me says that Food Lion's profits were going to Belgium, after all, and every store they opened probably put two or three Mom & Pop Shops out of business way-back-when. On the other hand, competition is good for both expanding choice and holding down price so less competition means less choice in Cynthiana. We're only going to see diminishing choice in our near future – it's the nature of a recession.  But that doesn't mean that I'm willing to give up yet; I intend to do what I can to keep those choices we do have.  

   In the mean time, I'm taking cake suggestions.