If there an activity more fun than people watching, it’s eavesdropping on people’s conversation in restaurants, matatus and elsewhere. I recently had an opportunity to watch and eavesdrop on two consumers in a large supermarket. The two women must have been in their sixties or so. They were well-dressed and they obviously were literate. It soon became clear from watching and listening to them that they rarely shopped in supermarkets. These were women who have created a bond with a small kiosk owner in their neighbourhood. We were all at the soap and detergent aisle. I was looking at body soaps with my back towards them while they tried to choose a laundry detergent. It appears to me that they were headed to someone’s home for lunch and didn’t want to appear at the door empty-handed. It’s something you just don’t do in Kenya.
But what made watching them so exciting, was the way they reacted to the choice of products available. They didn’t seem impressed and excited. They were overwhelmed. It was all too much. The detergent section in any large supermarket may have up to 50 different brands, both local and imported. In addition, some brands have different sub-products to meet different needs. Gone are the days of multipurpose detergents. These days you need a washing powder, a laundry bar soap, a colour-fixing liquid, a perfumed fabric softener and a brightener for whites. Each category has a range of brands to choose from.
One of the women, whom we shall call Woman A, was visibly irritated. She didn’t want to have to choose, she wanted everything. At one point she clutched in her hands two kinds of powder, one in paper packaging and the other in a jar. She wanted the one in paper, the familiar brand, to be in a jar. But, alas, it was not. At the same time, she wanted the jar because it can be re-used for storing pegs and that makes it a better gift. But she didn’t want the brand in the jar. She didn’t know it well.
Woman B was overwhelmed too. But her reaction was different. Instead of getting a headache trying to choose between brands, she wanted to stubbornly stick to what she knew while raising her kids. She wanted the familiar. It works, she said, so why try another? Stress.
These are women who raised children in the late seventies to early nineties with one brand per sector. In those days, there was only one mchuzi mix (the one with many ingredients), one cooking fat (a white solid) and one laundry detergent (a blue detergent that insists on kids getting dirty while everyone else is telling them to wash their hands). So Woman B decided that they should buy the formerly blue detergent even though it has no jar because it is familiar. After 15 minutes of the nerve-racking decision, the two women went to another aisle, probably cooking fat. More stress.
They left. For a moment I felt sorry for them. They will never know the pleasure of washing clothes with a liquid and they will never understand the ease of getting clean clothes in a single wash! I turned towards the detergents to choose mine. I am much younger than the two women. I was younger when choice came into supermarkets. Naturally, I should be more comfortable with choice. Or so I thought.
Me and my generation also have a problem with choice. But it’s not the same problem as the older women. We are faced with lots of detergent choices and then we are bombarded with marketing communications in form of ads on TV, radio, the web, magazines, etc. The ads tell us what we “deserve”. We want it all with no compromise. We want a detergent that cleans the laundry, of course. But it should not ruin my skin and my manicure. The detergent must smell nice. It must have a spill-proof and attractive packaging. It would be great if it was environmentally-friendly. We must save the planet.
And so our generation suffers from expectations that they can get 3-in-1 products and I wanted a 5-in-1 detergent. I selected one, which met four of my needs. Not all five. See, that’s the problem with too much choice. It creates in us a bottomless pit of needs that cannot fully be met. Every time you buy a detergent or cooking fat, you come out feeling that what you got was second best. As if the best option has yet to be invented. And that is stress.