Are Consumers Getting Overwhelmed by Choice?

Mar 16, 2017

If you’ve never been overwhelmed by choice, then you’ve never tried ordering at the Cheesecake Factory. The menu is long, filled with pages on pages of drool-worthy options, and making a quick decision is almost impossible. Factor in cravings, the size of your group, and dietary concerns, and you’re going to be deciding for a while. But there are elements that can make this choosing process either a total nightmare or a welcome selection. For instance, if you’re not sure what you want, or you have time to kill waiting for someone, you might be appreciative of the novel-length menu. (Seriously, it’s long.) But if you’re starving, rushed, or already know what you want, you may find all the options and the time it takes to consider them unnecessary. So it seems that deciding how much choice to present to customers depends a lot on how far along in their decision process they already are.

The Paradox of Choice

When it comes to shopper marketing and consumer choice, the Cheesecake Factory isn’t the only place with a lot of options. The grocery and convenience stores aisles for most consumer packaged goods are overflowing with the colors and logos of numerous brands. For years now, researchers have been debating whether this seemingly endless expansion of options can actually overload consumers to the point of not even buying at all, a phenomenon commonly referred to as the “paradox of choice.”

But for as many years, marketers have been skeptical of this claim. As much as customers may complain about having to stare at rows of toothpaste for several minutes, their purchasing behavior implies that lots of choice is a good thing. And in a recent study by Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Itamar Simonson, he contends that people do in fact prefer a bigger selection—but their preference is dependent on where they are in the timeline of decision-making.

Consumers Like to Narrow Down Choices for Themselves

According to the research, a shopper’s purchasing deliberations can be broken down into two decisions: the first is whether or not to buy, and the second is which product to choose. The crucial element for shopper marketing is understanding which decision came first.

For most consumers, the first decision is whether to buy in the first place, in which case having a large selection to choose from is more attractive. However, if the consumer’s first decision is which particular product to select from an already narrowed down field, then culling a big assortment can just make it more difficult to identify the best option.

After splitting participants into two scenarios—one asking them to decide whether to buy jellybeans first, and the other asking them to select a favorite flavor first—and then exposing them to a wide assortment of flavors, researchers discovered that those who first elected whether to buy at all were much more inclined to do so after being shown the assortment—49% did, compared to the just 26% who bought jellybeans after choosing a favorite flavor first. It seems choosing a specific flavor and then having to pick again in the face of even more choice frustrated the latter participants enough to not buy at all. But since most shoppers enter a purchasing decision by deciding whether to buy at all, it seems that their preference for a wide selection will continue to dominate product marketing strategies for the foreseeable future.

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