Someone Out There A consumer’s point of view – Let the chips fall where they may

In this column, two consumers reflect upon their experiences in the marketplace. A male consumer and a female consumer alternate from issue to issue.Back in primordial times when I was a child and dinosaurs roamed the land (we're talking 1965) there...

In this column, two consumers reflect upon their experiences in the marketplace. A male consumer and a female consumer alternate from issue to issue.

Back in primordial times when I was a child and dinosaurs roamed the land (we’re talking 1965) there was the lowly potato chip.

It came in four varieties: plain, salt ‘n vinegar, barbecue and ripple.

Five, if you count Frito’s.

But like those first prototype lizards that crawled out of the sea onto the steamy Paleozoic shores 350 million years ago, the lowly potato chip has evolved.

The past three decades have seen a gradual but persistent proliferation within the chip phylum, culminating in that snack food population explosion of the 1990s, a period which future archaeologists will surely dub the Chipazoid Era.

The other day, I made a field trip to my local grocery store to catalogue the current species of chip.

It took me 40 minutes just to write them down, using short forms. By the end of it, I was fed up and more than ready to head back to base camp.

But my experiment revealed a number of interesting data. For instance:

1) Chips have become the king of the snack food kingdom. Such lower life forms as pretzels and caramel corn have been relegated to the bottom shelf.

Popcorn

(One might argue that unpopped popcorn is equally pop-ular, and, it does, in fact, have its own section of shelves, but it is noticeably homogeneous, coming in only four types: pop-it-in-oil, pop-it-in-a-hot-air-popper, Jiffy Pop and microwaveable; and in a measly five variations: ‘natural’, butter flavor, ‘lite,’ ‘less salt’ and cheese flavor. No, for variety, the chip beats it hands down.)

2) Chips can be divided along various lines, such as

a) Brand: my sample included two – count ‘em, two – store brands, three low-recognition name brands and 11 higher-recognition name brands.

b) Type: such as basic, health-oriented, old-fashioned, multigrain and hispanic.

c) Flavor: regular (also known as original), salt ‘n vinegar, barbecue, sour cream and onion, sour cream and bacon, bacon and hickory, cheese, salsa ‘n cheese, Texas Tang, Cool Ranch, Garden Ranch, ketchup (yuck!) and dill pickle (you’ve got to be kidding.)

d) Color: white, yellow, orange, red(!) and blue(?!)

e) Texture: regular and ripple.

f) Content: potato, corn, corn/ whole wheat/oat and corn/ wheat/rice/oat.

g) Shapes: Pick a shape, they’ve got a chip in it.

h) And even machismo level. The Krunchies bag promised ‘No more wimpy chips.’

None of these categories is cut and dried.

Ripple chips come in all different flavors now as do tortillas and nachos. (By the way, I hope you know the difference between tortillas and nachos because I certainly couldn’t tell what it was.)

Grains are mixed seemingly indiscriminately and you can even get color combos.

3) The chip world has helped to give birth to the thoroughly modern concept of healthful junk food.

Like so many of today’s other oxymorons (e.g. responsible government, winnable nuclear war), healthful junk food is a product of marketing.

It never ceases to amaze me that people can be told that black is white and they believe it. But who am I to quibble with the lowest common denominator of societal intelligence?

4) There is no longer a clear delineation between chips and the rest of the food world. Chips merge into snack crackers (like that one product that asks ‘Is it a chip or a cracker?’); as well as into the pseudo bread realm, with such products as bagel chips and crisp breads.

This continuum is, apparently, noticeable to store personnel as well as to me since chips and breads were in the same aisle and since there was an additional chip display at the end of the cracker aisle.

Crackers

Also, I noticed that crackers are now available in most of the flavors known to chips.

Many crackers were being billed as snacks and the regular old soda cracker was skulking ignominiously on the bottom shelf.

Like the u.s. takeover of Canada, the chip invasion has been gradual, insidious and complete, but, presumably, this is only a fad and the market cannot support such a wide range of snack food indefinitely. Some types are sure to become extinct.

Even as we speak, consumers are making their natural selections at the grocery store and, in the long run, it is sure to be a case of survival of the fittest – or is that the fattest?