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Faux Outrage

Literally the most important blog in the universe since 2010.

(Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be about the DMV.  “It’s so slow — and can you believe those lines!  They’re so long!” You don’t say!)

An activity is said to be efficient when it is performed “in the best possible manner with the least waste of time and effort.”  And while it’s hard to know when a process is as seamless and efficient as it can be, it is not usually very difficult to tell when things are wildly out of control.

I used to believe that I was obsessed with finding the most efficient way to accomplish whatever is on my agenda.  Eventually, I realized that I am not obsessed with hyper-efficiency so much as I am completely awestruck and depressed when I am required to engage in an ungodly and unapologetically inefficient activity.

Because this topic is so important to me, I have decided to find the most horrifying example of inefficiency in action in our daily lives.  Think of this article as a public service that results in your being painfully aware when you are at the pinnacle of time and energy-wasting.

In other words, misery loves company.

After a great deal of deliberation and countless hours of internal (and external!) monologue, I am proud to declare once and for all that the least efficient process in the universe is grocery shopping.

(I believe this is where, if this were a live conversation, at least half of you would loudly declare, “But I like grocery shopping, jerk!”  That’s fine!  Really, it is.  I’m not trying to make a value judgment here, only point out that there’s a lot of wasted energy taking place between the fruits and veggies in the front of the store and the dairy section in back.)

So what makes grocery shopping so groce-ly (!) inefficient?

Why, because of the NUTs, of course!

Number of
Unnecessary
Touches

For this discussion to work, let’s first assume the following is true (or true enough for these purposes): In an ideal world, the first time we touch a useful object should also be the last time the object remains unused.  At least at the consumer level, this is the most efficient way of operating.

(BEWARE: FIRST GRADE MATH AHEAD!)

We can calculate the number of unnecessary touches (“NUT”) by adding up the total number of touches and subtracting the last touch (which is the necessary touch, when the item is engaged for its intended purpose).

A classic example of a zero NUT (“no waste ideal”) situation takes place when you purchase a hotdog from a vendor at a baseball stadium.  The transaction is simple: you hand the vendor 300 dollars in cash (inflation!) and they hand you one of the worst hotdogs you have ever eaten (in under five seconds).

Only one touch, one necessary touch.  This means that there are zero unnecessary touches: 1 total touches minus 1 necessary touch equals zero NUT!

See?

Now let’s consider the example of a soup can at a grocery store.  How many times is the can handled before the last, necessary touch (when the soup is opened/consumed)?

Let’s follow journey of a can purchased by an average supermarket shopper:

Touch 1: Pick up can of soup in SOUP AND BAKING GOODS aisle.
Touch 2: Put can of soup in shopping cart.
Touch 3: Put can of soup on conveyor belt for cashier to scan.
Touch 4:
Put can of soup in shopping bag.
Touch 5
: Put can of soup back in shopping cart (bagged).
Touch 6: Place can of soup (bagged) in trunk of car.
Touch 7: Take can of soup (bagged) from trunk of car and place on kitchen counter.
Touch 8: Take can of soup out of bag and place directly on kitchen counter.
Touch 9: Put can of soup in appropriate kitchen storage location.
Touch 10: ACTUALLY USE CAN OF SOUP FOR ORIGINAL INTENDED PURPOSE

This means that the average consumer must handle the can of soup a full ten times before actually enjoying any soup-y goodness.  In this case, NUT = 9 (10 total touches minus 1 necessary touch).

One can of soup provides some insight into this inefficiency problem, but now let’s multiply the NUT by the number of items purchased on a given shopping expedition.

On my last “trip” (aren’t trips supposed to be fun?) to the grocery store, I bought about 30 items. Thirty items times nine (the NUT coefficient) equals two hundred and seventy actions over and above ideal efficiency.  That means the total NUT for my trip will be 270, a number signifying a high degree of inefficiency.

How do we know 270 denotes a “high degree of inefficiency”?  Simple.  Imagine your mother calls you up on the phone and asks you to do 270 pointless things.  That seems like a lot, doesn’t it?

Of course, any time you are purchasing goods that you are not immediately consuming, you are going to find yourself with a NUT higher than zero (and thus, not engaged in idealized efficient behavior).  But the grocery store provides a unique opportunity to participate in a spectacularly inefficient process dozens of times in the same location!

And that is why grocery shopping is the least efficient process in the universe.

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