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ASCM Insights

Grocery Options and Aisles are Shrinking (and We Like It)


The evolution of shopping practices spans centuries and is marked by pivotal innovations and intriguing shifts in consumer behavior. In the 18th and 19th centuries, everyday items were bought from small, locally owned general stores. You could find everything from food to clothing to tools, yet options were limited, especially for seasonal produce. The early 20th century saw the emergence of grocery chains, which offered wider selections and lower prices through economies of scale. Consumer brands established themselves with a single iconic product, and advertising played a major role. Following World War II, the supermarket revolutionized shopping once again. With whole aisles devoted to a specific category, brands soon capitalized on this by diversifying their offerings. But now, it appears that the pandemic, decision fatigue, rising inflation and sustainability concerns are shifting the aim to achieving a balance between variety and efficiency.

“Between 1975 and 2008, the number of products in the average supermarket swelled from an average of 8,948 to almost 47,000,” notes Consumer Reports. In the toothpaste aisle alone, the magazine’s contributors counted 27 varieties of Crest and 25 of Colgate — in a single store.

Although most supermarkets today still stock around 40,000 items, the variety has noticeably decreased. Referring to retailers’ COVID-related headaches, The Wall Street Journal states: “The logistical mess is behind them, but many of the choices aren’t coming back … Large grocery stores have reduced fresh-food offerings such as fruit, dairy products and deli meats by 15% to 20%.”

Reducing consumer choice might seem like a recipe for disaster — or at least dissatisfaction — but it turns out that shoppers are actually happier with fewer options. It’s been more than 20 years since psychologists found people are more likely to buy a product (in this case, jam) when they have fewer options to pick from. Huge selections lead to choice overload, making consumers literally unable to decide. Yet inventories continued to grow until the pandemic forced a reckoning.

The infamous toilet paper shortage of early lockdowns led to some fast decision-making for consumer goods. “Kimberly-Clark cut more than 70% of its toilet paper and facial-tissue products over a single weekend in 2020 as it rushed to satisfy a fourfold increase in demand,” Chief Supply Chain Officer Tamera Fenske states. And most of those product types haven’t come back: The company carries about 30% fewer product lines than it did at the start of 2020.

Similarly, retail clothing and furniture companies are reducing the number of lines they offer, while maintaining customer loyalty. For instance, new items comprised only 2% of products in Macy’s stores in 2023. As the Journal article notes, “The supply chain shock provided a real-life experiment in how trimming product lines could improve productivity without hurting customer satisfaction.”

An easy choice

We all make hundreds of tiny decisions every day, but there’s one can’t-miss option you can choose right now: Sign up to start your journey toward an APICS certification or ASCM certificate. We’re welcoming the New Year by offering 15% off these industry-leading programs with code SAVE2024. ASCM education is vast, yet expertly tailored to fit every stage in your supply chain career. Let 2024 be the year of smart decisions — get started today!

About the Author

Abe Eshkenazi, CSCP, CPA, CAE CEO, ASCM

Abe Eshkenazi is chief executive officer of the Association for Supply Chain Management (ASCM), the largest organization for supply chain and the global pacesetter of organizational transformation, talent development and supply chain innovation. During his tenure, ASCM has significantly expanded its services to corporations, individuals and communities. Its revenue has more than doubled, and the association successfully completed three mergers in response to both heightened industry awareness and the vast and ongoing global impact driven by supply chains. Previously, Eshkenazi was the managing director of the Operations Consulting Group of American Express Tax and Business Services. He may be contacted through