More Income, More Choices

After a particularly sumptuous dinner with a great choice of wines, my wife pointed out to me that there seem to be many more types of wine available now than when we were dating in the mid-1960s. She’s right-and it is partly a reflection of the growth of per-capita wine consumption in the U.S. But it is also a reflection of the positive income elasticity of demand for variety. As we get richer, we not only substitute toward higher-quality goods-we demand more diversity in what we consume and what we do, as Reuben Gronau and I showed in a fairly recent paper.

As another, less tasty example, the number of varieties of lettuce available today is amazing; when I was a kid, we got iceberg lettuce-there was nothing else.

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  1. Rick says:

    Yes, and no. The variety in fruits and vegetables available to us has shrunk dramatically as demand increased industrial production of the main cash crops to the exclusion of other produce. There used to be many more varieties of produce “available” if you could travel to the locals to get them or grow them yourself. Now the food variety is actually quite limited and less nutritious.

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  2. EIleen M. Wyatt says:

    Sampling error: were there fewer varieties of lettuce in the grocery store or is it just that your parents bought only iceberg? I distinctly recall parents preferring iceberg (possibly because it was the cheapest type) although the supermarkets of my childhood carried several types of leafy darker greens, some of which I cannot find in stores today.

    The world also seems to have been reduced to two types of grape, red and green. I can get them year-round now, which can be nice… but the old varieties that didn’t travel well tasted better in their season.

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  3. Richard says:

    Rick – The supermarkets may be failing us with regard to variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, but you can at least find a large variety of seeds online. Growing your own is still a viable option for keeping a variety of delicious and nutritious fruits and veggies available.

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  4. Brian says:

    It could also be that people buying wine want to feel like they are getting something rare. The wine just seems junkier if it is distributed as generic. There could be the same number of options out there, but a wine brand will do poorly if it is seen as common.

    Options in your case must surely refer to options in brand, not in actual difference in wine. I suspect most wine drinkers can’t really tell the difference beyond the label.

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  5. James says:

    Rick, I disagree about your produce argument. With the rise of farmer’s markets and CSA’s, access to “unusual” produce is greater than ever. Our CSA distributes many strange varieties of root vegetables and over a dozen different types of lettuce. When I visit our farmer’s market, I almost always come across something that I have to look up online afterwards. My most recent example of that is kohlrabi.

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  6. Sameer Vikram Babbar says:

    You have raised a point and explained it yourself. It is your self centric point of view, it is how you see the world now, yes there may be changes around more or less ( which is irrelevant), the fact that they impact the world around “you” makes you observe these. It is very likely that your circumstances have changed

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  7. jimbino says:

    Yeah, right. You have to import coke from Mexico or Brazil to get a coke with cane sugar and taste like we had in the 50s.

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  8. gevin shaw says:

    There was a time of great variety, though that variety was limited in a different way by seasons and distance (remember canning with your mother?).

    Then there was a contraction as corporate farming flourished and needed to ensure constant revenue streams, so they limited varieties to those with the longest shelf live and sturdier constitutions, which then meant they could ship the remaining varieties farther with less spoilage.

    Now there is an expansion of varieties as corporate farming takes advantage of the demand but also of the willingness they encouraged us to buy unripe produce, moving the spoilage to our pantries which makes them cheaper at the market.

    All those heirloom tomatoes used to be available from your local grocery cheaply. Sometimes. All those greens used to be available, if you were close enough to where they were grown.

    The market works both ways. There is what we demand and there is what the market decides to supply.

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