When reading the manuscript of the book Return to Order, one of the editors remarked that while he agreed with the book’s criticism of standardization, there are still plenty of choices out there. After all, he quipped, how could he give up the ten varieties of wheat thins found at the local Wal-Mart.
The comment made me pause a bit. I had to admit that he had a point. There certainly are a lot of choices out there – and yet no one can deny that there is also a lot of standardization out there. How do you reconcile the two things?
To solve the problem, I decided to take a trip to Wal-Mart. I just had to see these wheat thins for myself.
What I found was disconcerting. As you enter Wal-Mart, you are hit by row upon row of choices of just about everything. The place is huge and it took some time to navigate my way to the wheat thins. But finally I found them. There was a whole section dedicated to the snack. I found not ten varieties but 26 different kinds of wheat thins. As I went down the aisle, there were similar findings – 18 different types of Saltines, 12 types of ginger snaps and so on. My standardization claim was completely discredited before the undeniable evidence.
Or so it seemed. There was something fishy about all this variety. I returned to the wheat thins and looked over the selections. Then it hit me. The wheat thins were all made by the same company: Nabisco. All this variety was essentially the same wheat thin but with different flavorings mixed in. There were also different sizes, packaging and colors that added to the overwhelming impression of variety. However, the long and short of it is that if I want wheat thins, mighty Wal-Mart pretty much limits me to one standardized wheat thin with my choice of natural and artificial flavorings – likewise standardized.
This basic wheat thin and flavor selections are exactly the same in the thousands of Wal-Marts and other supermarkets nationwide. The fact that I live in Pennsylvania and the editor lives in Virginia makes no difference. Moreover, I can expect the present standard wheat thin to be exactly as it was in the past and that it will be exactly the same in the future.
As I looked down the aisles of Wal-Mart, I saw that most products – be it yogurt or corn chips — were organized in a similar fashion. Each category is dominated by one or several giant companies which produces a standardized basic product with a variety of standardized flavorings, packaging and sizes.
The book Return to Order addresses this standardization and imagines a more organic order where the human element returns to the markets. Imagine, for example, an array of bakers making their own distinctive kind of wheat thins, differing from place to place with flavors based on the cultural tastes of the locale – and at competitive prices.
Is such an order possible? You are invited to join the debate.