Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Why the Obvious is Often Wrong

Those moments come up sometimes, where the solution looks totally obvious. Where everyone can see and agree that there is a clear and simple solution that requires no further analysis.

But be careful.

Sometimes what seems simple is really not.

Take plastic bags. Everyone agrees that we need to cut down on our use of them,and over a couple of years pretty much every major store found a way to cut down on our use of them. Except the problem isn't quite as simple as it seems.

Take Sainsburys and Morrisons.

At Sainsburys, their new thinner bag used (I believe) 30-50% less plastic than their old one. Great, except for the fact that everytime you put something heavy or any items with a thin plastic wrap it pierces through the bag like a hot knife through very melty butter on a hot summers day. So then I had to either place a tiny number of items in each bag, or double bag everything. Either way I ended up using more plastic than before.

Now Morrisons. It appears that frankly they didn't do very much to change their bags at all. Perhaps someone who cares about the environment like me should protest... Yet what this meant in practice is that I could fit more in each bag, and because they lasted so well I could use them instead of bin bags, or reuse them for further shopping. Meanwhile the majority of Sainsburys bags were thrown away as they were ripped or stretched.

So by doing nothing and producing technically more damaging bags, Morrisons actually help me save energy. The simple answer wasn't quite the right one.

What about Muller, who decided in the maze of the yoghurt fixture to give each of their products the blue brand colours. Seems simple? Except that with so many products, it turned their space into an unpenetrable wall of blue, at which I watched several people look in vain for their favourite product and give up. The fixture might have been difficult to navigate, but their core audience knew what they were looking for.

Don't forget some small engines in cars too. I've heard plenty of stories about engines designed to be economical, but which require people to drive with their foot to the floor at all times; making it less efficient than many bigger cars in the real world. Simple way to reduce emissions? Not quite.

As most planners should know, things are usually far more complex than they seem. For me these examples remind me to always think about simple things in detail. Just because something seems like a quick and clear move, doesn't mean it won't have downsides.  Lest we forget "People prefer Pepsi to Coke, so let's improve Coke"...

So next time something seems really simple. Just take a minute to think, is this really as obvious as it looks?

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