Read: “We are all accumulating mountains of things”
Over that same period of time, Amazon’s success has pushed retailers such as Walmart and Target to carry even more stuff—especially online—and to get that stuff to shoppers even faster. The internet-shopping boom has spawned an excess-stuff economy, in which retailers such as Overstock.com buy up extra product from full-price retailers. In the case of drop shipment, websites don’t even need to have stuff to sell it: Wayfair, for example, lists thousands of products in scores of categories, but keeps almost no inventory. Instead, manufacturers ship directly to consumers, which helps keep stuff prices down.
Seeing this ever-expanding variety and choice as advantageous to consumers is tempting. The economic theory that governs many Americans’ understanding of consumer choice posits that a free, competitive market should drive down prices on the best-quality stuff. But in the arms race to sell as many sandwich bags or beach towels as possible, a problem has become clear: Variety isn’t infinitely valuable.
Contemporary internet shopping conjures a perfect storm of choice anxiety. Research has consistently held that people who are presented with a few options make better, easier decisions than those presented with many. It has also shown that having many options is particularly confounding when the information available on them is limited or confusing—as with an endless list of virtually identical hangers. To be fair, it’s not entirely clear what information would even be helpful for efficiently evaluating dozens of similar hangers. The 32 velvet options on the first page of results probably aren’t distinct from one another in any significant way, except for color and how many hangers come in a package. (Amazon did not respond to a request for comment on the expanse of its offerings.)
Those infinite, meaningless options can result in something like a consumer fugue state. After shopping online, I often don’t remember days later whether I actually made a decision, and I regularly pause at the mountain of Amazon boxes next to my apartment building’s elevators to glance at the names on the labels, just to see if I forgot to expect something. Often, one of my neighbors is there doing it with me. Usually, both of us get on the elevator without boxes.
Helping consumers figure out what to buy amid an endless sea of choice online has become a cottage industry unto itself. Many brands and retailers now wield marketing buzzwords such as curation, differentiation, and discovery as they attempt to sell an assortment of stuff targeted to their ideal customer. Companies find such shoppers through the data gold mine of digital advertising, which can catalog people by gender, income level, personal interests, and more. Since Americans have lost the ability to sort through the sheer volume of the consumer choices available to them, a ghost now has to be in the retail machine, whether it’s an algorithm, an influencer, or some snazzy ad tech to help a product follow you around the internet.