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Opinion: When consumer choice goes too far

A Wider Lens

Posted online

I love choices. You probably do, too. It’s ideal to have the ability to choose from a wide variety of options, right?

Now, think about the toothpaste aisle. Do you still feel as strongly? I certainly don’t. Every box shows similar but different benefits of whiter, stronger teeth in a red, white, and blue package.

For me, this represents what psycho-economist Sheena Iyengar calls “suffocation by meaningless minutia.”

As consumers, if we cannot compare and contrast products in a reasonable amount of time relative to the level of risk innate with the purchase, we are burdened by choice rather than buoyed by it.

Toothpaste is a low-risk, therefore, low-involvement purchase, and one that I dread. I just want to buy what I did last time, but all are so similar I find myself spending a ridiculous amount of time inspecting every package.

In a similar fashion, I once spent 10 minutes trying to locate a 60-watt warm white light bulb on a store shelf before I gave up the hunt. I wouldn’t be so brave as to make this admission, if I weren’t certain others had experienced similar frustrations.

For those of us responsible for bringing products and options into the marketplace, this is not just an inconvenience. It is the difference between being successful and not. 

Iyengar conducted a study I first read about in her book, “The Art of Choosing.” The study, called, “When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?” can be read in its entirety on the University of Washington website. I flippantly call it the jam study. Iyengar set up two tasting booths of jams in a grocery store. One had 24 options. The other had a limited selection of six.

The results, grossly simplified here, showed interest in the tasting booth with a larger number of options attracted greater interest. More people stopped. However, there was no significant difference between the numbers of jams tasted in the two groups. Both groups sampled one or two flavors.

Here’s where the real difference was discovered: Of those exposed to fewer flavors, 30 percent made a jam purchase compared with only 3 percent of those exposed to more flavors. This is huge. This is what really matters. Of the larger group, those who had more options, 97 percent chose to buy no jam.

This is not to suggest that you should immediately cut your product line to six options. Business models out there – think Aldi supermarkets – are proving limited selections can be very profitable. To think about your own product line, ask yourself these four questions to start:

1. Is the variety of options within your product line unique enough from one another to provide consumers clearly distinguishable options?

2. Is your product line differentiated enough from the competition?

3. Are these differences important to your prospective customer?

4. Is the amount of time it takes the consumer to recognize the differentiation in line with the level of risk associated with purchasing your product?

If you answer “no” or “maybe” to any of these, I recommend your 2019 strategic plan include a thorough product analysis of its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Additionally, do consumer market research and a review of how you are communicating your unique competitive advantage.

You just might find that it is wise to choose less instead of more.

Mar’Ellen Felin is CEO of sbjLive, a video media outlet and spin-off of Springfield Business Journal. She can be reached at


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