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Is choice too much?

October 15, 2012

Is choice too much?

As consumers, we’re constantly exposed to an array of new products – all seemingly vying for our attention and our dollar. In fact, it can sometimes feel as though those marketing folk couldn’t possibly come up with anything new … but somehow, they do.

Some of you might be familiar with the concept that an abundance of choice actually may not be better for us. It isn’t a new idea – this hypothesis is presented by an American psychologist, Barry Schwartz, in his 2004 book “The Paradox of Choice – Why More is Less”. Schwartz argues that the more choice we have as shoppers the greater our anxiety levels become. In essence, despite having more options, at a psychological level what should theoretically be a benefit is not necessarily making us happier or more satisfied.

Think about your last supermarket shopping experience. Were there any moments when, standing in front of the shelf, you found it a challenge to definitively choose an item?

Last weekend I went grocery shopping at a major supermarket retailer (a larger store than I usually shop at), and found myself almost overwhelmed at times. Taking an example of a basic dietary staple, even the milk fridge could be described as a challenge. This category is a fairly typical example of a product that’s continually being given a new ‘spin’.

While I appreciate that some of these product permutations have significant health benefits – particularly for certain demographics – they can also make for a rather confused shopper. Certainly, I had my ‘curious researcher’ hat on, but the number of variables I was being asked to consider started to seem daunting! Do I want a ‘light start’ with my morning coffee, or do I want my milk to ‘tone’? Should my milk be ‘smart’, or ‘physical’ – and what exactly do these descriptors mean in practice? Do I want added calcium, skinny, semi-skinny, organic, or A2 varieties? And how seriously should I consider the latest bovine buzzword – ‘permeate-free’?

Through experience we tend to develop our own set of rules or heuristics to speed up our shopping. Despite this, at times even the savviest shopper amongst us experiences the consumer confusion phenomenon. It’s also a key decision for retailers – whether they follow a more expansive model to ensure their customers have optimal choice, or whether they streamline their product offerings to simplify the in-store experience (and thus potentially less stressful)?

I’m interested to hear what some of your thoughts on this topic are. Is Barry Schwartz correct in his thesis that ‘more is less’? What’s your own supermarket shopping experience like – does the amount of choice you have impact your navigation round the aisles? What shortcuts do you employ to make your shopping smoother?

* Please note: No cows were harmed in the writing of this blog.

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