So Who Needs 147 Toothbrushes?

Ever walk into a store to buy a toothbrush or some shampoo, find yourself choking on choice, and wind up leaving empty-handed? Toothbrushes in every shape, size, and color. Twenty kinds of shampoo, cereal, soda (diet, caffeine-free, both, neither). Five-, seven-, nine-grain bread; 1%, 2%, no-percent milk. Shoppers are staggering under sensory overload.

That's why the recent shift to simplicity is a welcome change. Companies are beginning to pare back their product lines, standardize their packaging, and replace complex discounting and rebates with plain-vanilla pricing. Corporations that were afraid consumers would continue to demand their very own micro-slice-of-a-market product are finding, instead, customer relief. Without the clutter, people can actually begin to make intelligent decisions once again. We applaud Procter & Gamble Co., Toyota Motor Corp., and other companies leading the way.

It all began in manufacturing. Back in the late 1980s, a design-for-manufacture movement swept through the heartland. Industrial designers began to cut back the number of components in a product and switch to easy-to-assemble design. The cost savings just on inventory were tremendous. Then came the superefficient merchants, such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., that demanded less-complicated shipping and pricing from their vendors. After simplifying how their products were made and moved, companies are now beginning to streamline the product lines themselves.

Customers love it. P&G cut its product roster from 3,300 in 1991 to 2,200 in 1996, while unit volume growth more than doubled. Life for most families in late 20th-century America is rushed, harried, and often overwhelmingly stressful. With more and more decisions to be made over work, raising kids, tending parents, joining HMOs, investing for retirement, etc., anything that simplifies life is a blessing. This is one move by Corporate America that will be welcome everywhere.

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