The Irritations of Modern Life 30. Supermarkets

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The Independent Culture
I AM at the supermarket. The word "yoghurt" is scrawled on the torn envelope in my hand, so I steer the trolley towards the dairy aisle, a 30-ft expanse of milk-based products. Mission accomplished.

Er, no. There's peach-flavoured yoghurt, strawberry-flavoured yoghurt, yoghurt with peach or strawberry chunks, yoghurt with forest berries (I've never seen berries in a forest), vanilla-flavoured yoghurt, chocolate- flavoured yoghurt, Greek-style with honey, creamy yoghurt with blobs of fruit puree in a separate compartment.

There's low-fat yoghurt and no-fat yoghurt, or rather - since spellings have to vary as much as the contents - lo-fat or lite. And just in case you think you've got a handle on the choices involved, there's creme fraiche and fromage blanc.

Out of my depth in dairy, I decide to go for the ordinary, unflavoured, unfiltered, unmediated, full-fat, plain variety. And I can't find it.

Perhaps I should retrace my steps and try to remember why I wanted yoghurt in the first place? Was it for pudding or salad?

If, by some failure of weekend programming, my family and I were to find ourselves at the supermarket together, my interior monologue on the merits and uses of various yoghurts would turn into a public debate that would inevitably end in one of those domestic compromises that leave each party feeling sour - and we end up leaving the shop with half a dozen different types and flavours of yoghurt in our trolley.

Without the interested parties present to debate their particular tastes, my nerve wavered. But I did not sink so low as to phone home on the mobile, as I see my fellow shoppers doing from time to time, and describe the display in front of me.

The whole point of the supermarket run is to shop quickly and efficiently and maybe even inexpensively under one roof.

The whole point of choice, on the other hand, is that it requires decision- making - a demanding and time-consuming process.

So the abundance of choice in our supermarkets - every year bigger, better, more - has transformed the business of stocking up on household staples into a day's work, involving detailed analysis of pros and cons and whys and wherefores.

The next item on my envelope is washing powder. The aisle is another expanse of different brands in different sizes and different packages and boxes. One declares itself to be "biological". What can it mean? Is it intended to sound healthy and natural?

The next box is equally proud of being "non-biological". I can have a soft pack. A cardboard box. A plastic container. A dispensing ball. A measuring cup. I could have a refill (what would I be refilling?). There are different flavours. I could, if I chose, walk around in lemon-scented jockey shorts, or sleep in pine-scented sheets. And how do I choose?

At this point I do what any rational person would, dazzled by infinite variety. I start loading the trolley at random. Then, dimly aware that I've departed from my crumpled list, I dump a couple of yoghurts (lo-fat banana flavour with honeycomb; Greek full fat with muesli) on the dog- food shelf. More choice for dogs.