Business Columns & Blogs

When it comes to customer choices, less is more

“Choices have proliferated out of control,” says Adam Snitzer. “Today we have to sort through scores of mustards, hundreds of salad dressings and, according to the Wall Street Journal, more than 300 types of yogurt. This is not a good thing.”
“Choices have proliferated out of control,” says Adam Snitzer. “Today we have to sort through scores of mustards, hundreds of salad dressings and, according to the Wall Street Journal, more than 300 types of yogurt. This is not a good thing.” Getty Images/iStockphoto

Oops. I did it again.

The Romano cheese I brought home from the grocery story was grated instead of shredded.

Not a big deal, right?

Well not compared to the time I bought “smoked” sundried tomatoes instead of regular. Yuck.

Or “natural” Peter Pan peanut butter instead of the deliciously sugary variety. Never opened and donated during the next food drive.

Or vanilla yogurt instead of plain. Tasty, but not the same thing.

I’m simply overwhelmed by all the choices in today’s grocery stores. I guess I’m just an old fashioned guy. I still remember when 31 flavors of ice cream at Baskin Robbins knocked our socks off.

But those days are gone.

Between ice cream flavors and toppings and mix-ins and different styles of cones, Cold Stone Creamery claims more than 10 million ways to eat ice cream. Holy cow.

Since I was a kid, the average supermarket has gone from carrying 3,700 products to more than 45,000.

I blame Howard Moskowitz. He’s the food researcher who convinced Prego to go from one variety of spaghetti sauce to three. According to best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell, Prego hired Moskowitz to reverse declining sales. The result was the invention of chunky spaghetti sauce and the notion that there’s no such thing as the perfect product, only perfect product lines.

Since then, choices have proliferated out of control. Today we have to sort through scores of mustards, hundreds of salad dressings and, according to the Wall Street Journal, more than 300 types of yogurt.

This is not a good thing. People are confused and anxious and a sort of paralysis has set in, according to some consumer psychologists.

Sheena Iyengar, a professor at Columbia Business School, warns that too much choice depresses sales volume.

A few years ago, she ran an experiment involving jars of jelly. She and her colleagues set up two different jelly displays in a high-end food store. They placed 24-jars in one display and six in the other, and then observed what happened.

People really liked the 24-jar display. Sixty percent of people stopped to look at it before continuing down the jelly aisle. Only 40 percent of people stopped at the six-jar display. But when those same shoppers went down the jelly aisle they had a much easier time deciding what to buy. Thirty percent of people who saw the six-jar display bought jelly, compared to only 3 percent of people who saw the bigger display.

Iyengar’s conclusion: When faced with too many choices, consumers become overwhelmed and frustrated. In other words: no sale.

So what’s a marketer to do? Iyengar has a few suggestions:

First, cut options. It may sound counterintuitive, but marketers can often do better by narrowing consumer choice. When Head and Shoulders, for example, cut its anti-dandruff shampoo options from 26 to 15, sales went up.

Second, provide guidance. Give your customers access to product reviews and recommendations. Online retailers make it easy for consumers to rank products according to the opinions of people who’ve already bought and used a product.

Third, put your products into easy-to-understand categories. A wine retailer might use “fizzy”, “juicy” or “sweet.” A magazine seller might use “health and fitness,” “house and garden” or “automotive.” My favorite categories are good, better and best — which are easy to understand.

The lesson is clear. We’ve created a monster. Our marketplace has an overwhelming number of choices that often leave us too confused to make a purchase. But if you simplify your company’s product line, clarify the differences between your products, and create simple, easy-to-understand categories, more consumers will make the easy choice — you.

Adam Snitzer is a business consultant. He’s also a writer and the publisher of MiamiActivists.org where you can read profiles of local people who are working hard to make Miami a better place.

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