Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Tribute to Snackwells

Have you ever eaten Snackwells cookies? It's a brand name Nabisco introduced in 1992, according to Wikipedia. But I think the year is wrong. I remember my mother buying Snackwells Devil's Food Cookies for my father while I was still in high school. That's the mid to late eighties.

And I remember these cookies being darn tasty. While shopping today, I spotted Snackwells Vanilla Creme Cookies in snack size--four cookies a pack, twelve packs a box--and decided they might make a nice addition to the kids' lunches. I know that they're not uber-healthy, but they certainly are better for the kids than Oreos.

Of course, an apple would be better than either and truth be told, I've noticed that my kids rarely make it to the desert portion of their lunches. My daughter informs me that she often hands over the desert I pack for her to one boy or another. Still, I remember the good taste of Snackwells and thought the kids might like them, too.

But that's all really beside the point here, which is: the exponential growth in food product varieties over the past twenty five years or so. For people like me--born in the sixties--there just weren't all that many choices to make, as compared to today. For people born in the fifties and before, there were even fewer.

Consider milk. Once upon a time--not all that long ago--there was just milk. The milkman delivered it to many people in clear glass bottles. It didn't matter what farm it came from, it wasn't really branded--except by the company delivering it--it was just plain milk. There was buttermilk and cream, as well, but that was about it. Then came low-fat milk, followed by 1%, 2%, and non-fat milk. The milkman slowly disappeared in the fifties and sixties, as carton milk sold in grocery stores became the new standard. Plastic gallon and half-gallon jugs followed not long after.

By the seventies, these were the norm. Chain grocery stores tended to sell their own branded milk in plastic containers, while carrying one or two other brands alongside them (Borden, Pet, etc.). Then....boom! The next time you're in the local grocery store, take a look at the milks that are available, the brands, the kinds, the sizes. If your store has a health food section, you'll have to look there as well. Think back to your own childhood and going shopping with mom or dad. See it?

And milk is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Look at hotdogs, or cheeses, or cereals. And to stock these varieties, grocery stores have had to get larger and larger and larger.

So, why did I bring up Snackwells? Simple: it was one of the first "health-conscious" brands to be introduced. And its initial success led to what? A proliferation of similar "health conscious" varieties of all sorts of snack foods. Low fat this, low salt that (low salt saltines always cracks me up), sugar free that, low cal this, and on and on.

This is not to say that the proliferation of products is only about healthier eating; it's not in the least. It's merely to note how trends can cause such proliferation. The same thing is true in other markets, as well. Look at the television market. In 1970, how many brands of televisions were available? And in how many sizes? Today? It's stunning, if you think about it.

But there's method--of sorts--behind the madness. Having all of these varieties allows producers and sellers to gauge demand by differentiation; profit margins can then be tailored to fit the demand in order to maximize profit. And make no mistake, profit margins are very different for each variety, sometimes drastically different.

Some would argue that this is all bad news, that people are being "tricked." Me? I'd argue that it's just the opposite, that this allows people to--in essence--vote with their pocketbook and get exactly what they want. Of course, some product varieties are eliminated, due to demand and profit margin (something with a high profit margin and low demand can be offered effectively, as compared to something else with the same demand but low profit margin). And really, that's exactly the way things should work.

Now, consider all of this with respect to the economy at large. If there is limited demand for a product and low profit margins for it as well, why should it be offered? Suppose someone in charge insists that it be offered, insists that it be produced. Do you think that such a person should remain "in charge"? Do you think that such a person even knows what the hell they are doing?

Food (pun intended) for thought.

Cheers, all.


  1. This is another restatement of the premise of Declaration of Independents, by Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch - that product differentiation is becoming the norm everywhere but in (specifically, US)politics, and politics can't resist forever. Highly recommended reading.

    (I think you've heard this song before from me. :D)

  2. Lol! I don't know that I'd apply the same ideas to politics, anymore than I would apply them to the legal system, but maybe it's too late for the latter...

    But that's a whole other can of worms.