I do the food shopping in my household, not because I am good at it, but because I am worse at all the other domestic chores. Even with a shopping list carefully prepared by my wife, trips to the supermarket are stressful experiences, as I have a severe case of shopper’s indecision, a potentially disabling disorder not yet recognized by the medical establishment.

My condition first manifested itself 25 years ago when, as I was leaving for the store, my teenage daughter shouted a last-minute instruction to buy her shampoo. I viewed this as a simple request until I found myself facing an intimidating array of different products for performing the simple act of washing hair. I froze, completely at a loss as to which one to purchase.

If you doubt me, count the shampoos at your local market. I did it recently at the Hannaford in Gardiner. I stopped counting when I reached 50, as people were beginning to stare.

Gardiner residents do not have hair that is particularly dirty, dry or oily, nor are they unusually preoccupied with appearance. Yet hidden beneath the surface of a seemingly homogeneous population, there is apparently an enormous variation in shampoo preferences.

Bald people are spared this decision, but while they can stroll past the hair products with an air of superiority, they are not so lucky when it comes to selecting toothpaste. Of course, if one is both bald and toothless, shopping is simpler, but at some point the price gets too high.

Putting aside the moral implications of a society awash in shampoos while some of its members suffer from food insecurity, my daughter’s request triggered my latent shopper’s indecision. Regrettably, what started with shampoo spread to other products.

A frequent trigger of shopper’s indecision is the choice between store and national brands. Unfortunately, my spousal shopping list rarely provides guidance on this issue.

The price differential can be substantial. For example, the cheapest national brand of red wine vinegar I found is about three times more expensive than the store brand. Since I do not cook, I have no idea whether this disparity is justified.

For the pathologically indecisive, these choices can be paralyzing. If I buy the national brand, I worry that I have been duped by fancy packaging and an Italian name. If I choose the more frugal option, I risk feeling that I am not providing my family with quality food.

Competing variables can present the most difficult challenges. Assessing the monetary value of 4% less fat in the chopped turkey requires that one go to the supermarket with an economist and a physician.

Shopper’s indecision can even extend to ethical questions. Growing up in a household in which eggs were just eggs, I have trouble deciding how much importance to attribute to the treatment of the hens. Is it worth an extra $2 to know that the hens get to frolic in the countryside instead of being incarcerated in a cage, or for a dollar less can I compromise with a hen that, although locked up, is spared artificial hormones? Having to decide whether chickens are entitled to humane treatment, and at what cost, can leave one in a foul mood.

Selecting a checkout lane can also raise ethical questions. When the regular lanes are filled with people with overflowing shopping carts, is it really wrong to wheel my cart with 16 items into the lane reserved for no more than 14? Shouldn’t older people with shorter life expectancy be allowed a few extra items instead of having to stand behind overloaded millennials with all the time in the world?

Finally, even the issue that currently dominates our public discourse — income inequality caused by machines replacing humans in the performance of simpler tasks — finds its way into my shopping experience. With a cart containing only bar-coded items, I occasionally succumb to the temptation to use a self-checkout machine, but not without a measure of guilt brought on by the knowledge that if enough of us do that, cashiers will soon be keeping company with gas station attendants.

The obvious cure for shopper’s indecision would be stores with only one of each type of item and only one check-out option, but it is difficult to imagine anything more un-American.

 

Steve Diamond is a retiree who lives in Gardiner — and who obviously has too much time on his hands.

 


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