Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Shopping Is Complicated by Overwhelming Choice, Bad Search Options, and Well-Meaning Professional Reviews

Casey Johnston, Vice:

For a long time, our problem was there were not enough things to choose from. Then with big box stores, followed by the internet, there were too many things to choose from. Now there are still too many things to choose from, but also a seemingly infinite number of ways to choose, or seemingly infinite steps to figuring out how to choose. The longer I spend trying to choose, the higher the premium becomes on choosing correctly, which means I go on not choosing something I need pretty badly, coping with the lack of it or an awful hacked-together solution (in the case of gloves, it’s “trying to pull my sleeves over my hands but they are too short for this”) for way, way too long, and sometimes forever.

The degree to which you feel this problem definitely depends on your income, or at least, being in the privileged position of not having to make do with the only thing you can afford. But for people with even a limited ability to make an investment purchase, if it’s worth it, there’s even more pressure to get it right. Knowing you wasted a big chunk of money on a cheaper, worse thing that falls apart when you could have spent a little more money on a thing that is good and lasts feels like failure. You’ve then wasted your money, wasted your time, you’ve contributed to global warming, and now you have to start the entire thing over again and hope you don’t somehow end up making the exact same mistake.

We’ve known since at least the 1970s that too much choice feels far from freeing; it is anxiety-inducing and causes us to feel paralyzed.1 In a bid to narrow down our options, we’ll probably turn to professional reviews — particularly from sites like the Wirecutter, where Johnston was a senior editor.

Matt Hartman, the Outline:

This obsessive tendency is as obviously silly as it is widespread. Culture journalist Eliza Brooke pointed out that “Google searches for ‘best” have been steadily rising for years.’” Product recommendation sites have been springing up across the internet, including scientific reviews and influencer reviews and trend reviews and aggregated reviews and bad SEO-driven reviews and even worse copies of all of the above. “Googling ‘best air fryer’ is not a path to enlightenment, but into a spiral of comparison between publications,” Alyssa Bereznak said of the impact at the Ringer.

The worst part, though, is that I don’t actually care about pants or pillows or travel mugs. I just want to be a man with warm coffee, a covered crotch, and no neck pain. Mediocre products would suffice. But I can’t help but enter the product review trap for every little item because I live in the United States in 2019 and so I am constantly taught that I must make the best purchases because buying good things is also a moral good.

I get why people want the “best” of something, but I think that’s the wrong term for review sites to be using. I assume it’s for Google ranking reasons that they do.

Review websites are fantastic starting points for product categories that you know virtually nothing about, and for larger purchases that are supposed to last a long time. As an example, I’ve been trying to find a decent portable vacuum for cleaning detritus out of the car, and a few review roundups saved me from buying a model that wasn’t going to be powerful enough, even though it was from a well-known brand.

But the “best” product for you may vary from what reviewers recommend. You’ll know this if you know a particular product category well, or if you have fairly specific requirements. For example, when the Wirecutter tested food storage containers, they suggested Pyrex’s tempered glass containers. What Pyrex markets as an “eighteen piece set” — which is actually nine containers of various sizes and nine matching lids — costs about $30 in the United States. Their plastic pick was similar, except made by Snapware and about $10 less expensive for the same-sized set. I get the allure of both of these. But neither option fulfills three criteria that I consider essential: they must be perfectly stackable with and without a fitted lid, so they sit securely in my fridge or pantry when in use, but are compact when not in use; they must be cheap enough to leave behind, so they don’t feel precious; and they must all fit the same lid, so I don’t have to go hunting for a specific one in an oft-disorganized cupboard. And, for those reasons, I own fifty-count sleeves of half- and whole-litre heavy-weight plastic deli containers, and fifty lids that fit both sizes. I bought them from a restaurant supply store where I get a lot of my kitchen gear; this “hundred and fifty piece set”, as the marketing department might put it, cost me $15. Oh, and they’re microwaveable and machine-washable.

I think review websites could do a better job of making their criteria more apparent. I also think Amazon should make their website easier to use, especially for categories with thousands of options. Nobody needs that much choice. But we can do a better job of understanding the role of professional reviewers. They provide recommendations, but if you know better or have specific requirements, you shouldn’t take their “best” choice too literally.


  1. I think I’ve mentioned before how much I loathe shopping for toothpaste. Of all the goods in the world, why can I select from so many variations of that↩︎