Is choice a good thing?

Walk through any supermarket here in the U.S and you’ll find tons of choices. Want a simple can of soup, you have to wade through 15 different brands of chicken noodle. Or toothpaste, or cereal, or ice cream. Heck, we even have to make a choice between ketchup brands.

Now choice may be good. I know I appreciate having a choice of certain things I need, use or enjoy. And I know I’d be upset if someone took away Breyer’s ice cream and made me buy from only one brand.

Yet, according to Barry Schwartz, choice is a paradox. While it’s great to have options, he’s observed that options often lead to bad decisions, dissatisfaction in what’s been chosen or a paralysis to taking action. As Barry observes:

“…maximizers want the best. The problem that needs to be solved is what’s the best jeans, the best restaurant, the best place to go on vacation, the best marital partner – everything. Yet that requires a search of all possibilities which is…impossible.”

“satisficers aren’t looking for the best, they’re looking for good enough and good enough can be very good, it doesn’t mean people have no standards. But it means they don’t feel the need to do an exhaustive search. They just keep looking until they find one thing that meets their criteria and then they choose it.”

Consider that’s been said here: that while choice may be a good thing, it’s not always the best thing. It’s being suggested that people are tired of so many choices and that it can even paralyze them from making decisions.

So think about it from the point of marketing your specific products and services to your specific target audience. When they visit your website, what do they see? What choices do they have to make? Are there too many? Could it be that in an effort to show people everything we do that we paralyze them from taking action on something they need?

Further, how could you offer your prospects fewer choices and still grow your business?

What are you thoughts? Let’s talk about it.

And if you have a story about being overwhelmed by choice, please toss it in the coversation.

(note: image from ::: Billie / PartsnPieces ::: on Flickr, some rights reserved)

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. Fewer but bigger & fatter sleek buttons on web sites help a lot I think. Sometimes customers need a pleasing funnel to propel them along.

    Barry Schwartz makes a lot of important points (and not just for marketers). There’s also a great video of him over at TED (but come back to Dawud’s blog after!).

    Important topic!

  2. This is a question we’re constantly asking our clients, Dawud! With Online Ordering for restaurants, many of our clients wish to duplicate the complexity of their in-store menus online.

    We’re continuing to collect data, but I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that our clients with the least choices have some of the best sales!

    Great post!

  3. Well said, Dawud.

    I won’t be able to expound a simple idea better.

    I read somewhere that decreasing the number of items in the menu actually increases order.

    That’s also the reason why one page and long sales copy works so well. Sell one thing at a time..

    Confused readers don’t take action.

  4. I completely agree! I recently noticed three new types of Mountain Dew… I decided to try them and I didn’t like any of them. I think some of these products are being created just to be created… they don’t maintain any sort of quality !

  5. Phil,
    I’ve seen the video at TED, it’s pretty good.

    Barry does make some great points. Things that marketers/business owners should be considering as they want to optimize how their business is running.

    Douglas,
    Makes sense to me.

    Watch someone at the supermarket. Do they sit and stare at all the choices for mustard or toothpaste or coffee? No. They move in, the find and they grab what’s familiar to them. I wonder if they even see the options. Moreover, I wonder if they see all the options as an impediment to finding what they want. Interesting question.

    Hendry,
    Sounds exactly what Doug said above.

    Marketing, ultimately, is about getting people to focus. And it’s difficult to focus people’s attention when you give them dozens of possibilities.

    I think this is why today, more than ever, it’s important for a small business owner to market to a very highly refined niche. That way, it can be easier to help people focus.

    Joshua,
    Thanks. What will you take away from it for your business?

  6. I would buy/ choose the first one which caught my attention.

    Customers are just like kids, if you give a lot of options they will be confused. But if you gave two/ three things to choose from, they will easily come to a decision.

  7. good post. Choice is always a burden and the biggest task when you are running a business where you have to satisfy customer’s needs and wants. Thats very tough and i can understand.

  8. The number of brands also leads to feirce competition for the buyers dollar and keeeps the price competetive.

  9. I think in this day and age people no longer have the luxury of time to spend on making decisions. The quicker the solution to the problem the better.

    If I need to buy a hammer, I don’t want to spend my time looking through all the available options. I don’t have time to waste on that. I’ll buy the first hammer I see because they all serve the same function – to hammer things.

    When we bought our new car I didn’t want to spend time going through all the choices available. I knew we needed a car that was fuel efficient and had room for my wife and I and future children. Typed in – Fuel Efficient + Car + Room for Children and up popped a few choice of automobiles. Went with the top three and ended up choosing the 1st one – Nissan Versa because it met our requirements. In – out – done – and driving home.

    The is value in having choice but too much choice can lead to spinning wheels – in my opinion.

    I can think of no better example of being overwhelmed with choice than the options and choices available for social media applications. With all the toys like Plurk, Twitter, FriendFeed, and StumbleUpon available, I feel sorry for anyone beginning their social media education. Take this website for example – http://www.go2web20.net – I call it the Mall of America of Web 2.0. A great resource but where do you begin?

  10. This type of thing is the very reason I use a little local shop for most of my shopping. On top of having all natural and organic food choices they don’t have 2000 different brands for the same basic foods. Lately, its just getting ridiculous.

  11. Dawud – As usual you’ve posted a piece that makes one think. What’s with that?
    I feel that sometimes we have too many choices – which could lead to making the wrong choice or no choice at all and I think that this truly confuses the older generation who abhor change.
    It seems that the younger aged people, say 20-40 years old demand change. They’ve got to have the newest, the slickest, the cutting edge of whatever product in which they’re interested.
    Here’s a read that might just interest you – which, in a way, addresses the issues you’ve raised: “Consumed” by Benjamin R. Barber.
    And, in closing, if they ever stop selling Breyer’s Ice Cream at your local supermarket – give me a call and I’ll send some to you.

  12. Choice is an important and delicate balance. When your objective is to allow people to feel they are making a decision then some choice is necessary. Using behavioral analysis, you can sculpt visual and auditory tools that will drive people towards the choice you want them to make.

    I find that by leaving the door part way open to some other option, people feel empowered and more comfortable in making a decision. It is in this comfort that we build trust.

    Now to your point on too many options, this is the death rattle from the collapsing body of many a lost sale. Sales people tend to fear giving people less options as they want to make sure they are hitting the right buttons. By casting this proverbial “wide net” they tend to scare off the people that would buy if they focused on the best option.

  13. Tamal,
    I think a crafty marketer understands about choice confusing their audience and acts as a guide to get their audience to exactly what they need. Research is key here, don’t you think?

    Kristin,
    There are markets where companies compete on choice simply because their competition does. Interesting, huh?

    security,
    How does your business meet your customer’s needs?

    Discount,
    On the mass market scale, that’s true. But at the small business level, it’s rarely about price. More often than not it’s about perceived value and relationship. Why else can someone sell an ebook for $89 that would be discounted at Borders from $19.95?

    DaveMurr,
    Time is certainly a factor. But what about stimuli saturation? How much input can we really take before we’re overloaded to the point of not being able to choose at all.

    MorganLighter,
    First off, it’s my job to make you think. I tend to look at the world, a life, and at business through a different set of eyes than most people I know. Doesn’t make my perspective any better than anyone else’s, but it does provide me an opportunity to dig into an issue and create a space to think about it differently.

    I know it would be interesting to study the shift in consumer consciousness and marketing strategy from the past 3-4 decades. I know some things, based on changing education models, for instance, but haven’t done an exhaustive study – yet. But why do you think there’s been such a shift to a high-consumer marketplace?

    And for the Breyer’s…will do and thanks. We have to one vice, don’t we?

    Bowtrol,
    Exactly. We don’t need 2000 different versions of mustard. We need only two – regular and spicy, don’t you think?

  14. Yeah, I have lately been tending towards “only the most necessary” stuff on the homepage and other pages and creating easy to notice and follow conversion paths. Content + call to action + link, etc, peppered with inspirational pieces of another content (photos, facts, testimonials, etc).

    While I admire NY Times for their homepage effort, I’d rather keep mine as simple as possible.

  15. Great thoughts here, Dawud and everyone.

    Many websites get it wrong by displaying stuff horizontally (all laid out immediately) instead of vertically (pick one of these few choices and then we’ll show you what lies beneath). It’s like if a library took all of its books, ripped every page out and stuck it to the ceiling/walls/floor. So much better to just see the titles.

  16. I think you have hit the nail on the head. Promoting only a maximum of a couple of products on each page is such a better option than packing the page with ‘choice’

  17. i like choice because if 1 brand stinks i can try my luck with another. it also creates competition so the companies strive to give you the highest of quality product for the price, and makes things more affordable. granted it can be a hassle and a waste of time looking at all the options, but i think its for the best.
    -Ingram

  18. Hey Dawud,

    I kind of did a double take when I read this :-); I’ve been thinking along the same lines of this article.

    I actually wrote a post about it here: http://www.ayoswebdesign.com/2008/06/to-increase-sales-dont-be-just-another.html

    The similar problem I was focusing on is that, ‘A good website needs to do more than just offer yet more choices.’ A good website or a good business in general needs to help a customer narrow down his choices and hone in on one product or service. Otherwise, the customer may not buy anything out of analysis paralysis.

    Ideally that product or service you help the customer choose is your own, but if you really want to build trust, you’ll tell the customer the truth even if that points him to someone else’s product or service.

    We’re just overwhelmed with choices, and sometimes we want a company to help us make a decision instead of just giving us yet another option.

    Again, thanks for your thoughts. This is a great post!

  19. Sales Trainer,
    First off….”death rattle from the collapsing body of many a lost sale” – I’ve never heard that put better. Okay if I use that in a future post?

    I’m right with you on choice…it is a delicate balance. You want your customers to feel empowered as though they’ve make the ‘right decision.’ Yet, doing so is more about marketing and less about actual choice, don’t you think?

    Yura,
    Yeah, I wasn’t even thinking about blogs and other websites when I was writing this post, but you’re right. I redesigned my own blog months back so that I could offer fewer choices on my site. Great point that I missed. Thanks.

    Easton,
    True. One site I think does this really well is FreelanceSwitch. There’s a lot in their sidebar, yet it’s organized and displayed in a digestible manner.

    Trucker ID,
    That’s the real crux, it’s it. How do we offer choice for greater competition – and hence better products and services – while not overwhelming the marketplace?

    Affiliate,
    Personally and professionally, I think it’s better to only have a few products and then market the hell out of ’em. Depth is so much more effectively than breadth, don’t you think?

    Ayo,
    I think this is one of the major reasons we’re seeing such a shift to highly refined niche marketing. That way it becomes about offering a specific solution to a specific problem and those with that specific problem can find exactly what they need.

  20. Too much choice for your visitors on one page equals too many distractions for your visitors on one page

    Firm believer in having a limited number of pitches per webpage of blog post

  21. This reminds me somehow bout the southpark episode with wa**mart, i dont like it wehn big companies try to confuse us with what we should buy.

  22. Interesting. I was wondering if I was giving too many choices on my services page and whether I should pare them down. Hmmm…food for thought. Thanks for that! I guess the question is how you know if you have too many or not?

  23. @Marcel: That episode was hilarious.

    I think choice is great but having 5 options of essentially the same thing drives me crazy. Ultimately I’m going to choose the one with the lower price.

  24. Niche,
    Exactly. Don’t overwhelm people. Rather do the work as the business owner to refine your offering so that it’s meeting the specific need of that page/post.

    Michael,
    How?

    Marcel,
    And they do it all the time, don’t they?

    Nicole,
    If you decide to offer fewer choices, let me know how it works.

    Purity,
    Always?

  25. This is an incredibly interesting approach to the concept of expansion. When people think of expansion, they think of adding new products and services; more choices. But choices can be confusing and only inhibit one’s decision. Quite a conundrum.

  26. Oh yes choice infact leads to confusion in most of the times. Indeed a conundrum but I have a solution. Only selected brands must be stocked by any supermarket or whatever the case may be as this will result in an optimum situation for both consumers as well the businessmen.

  27. Great article! I see this every day in my Real Estate business. There is so much information, so many opinions that buyers and sellers get lost in the details. Buyers want to see every home available and then are afraid to make a decision. Sellers too get overwhelmed by the news.

  28. Tommy,
    I think choices are confusing – especially if you’re interested in trying something new.

    Bluetooth,
    Who selects those brands?

    Colleen,
    I can understand that. We’re going to be in the house market ourselves in the near future. And after owning our first house together, we certainly have an idea of what we want, and don’t want, in our next home.

    Yet I also think we have a ‘perfect house’ in our mind that we’re just not going to find. That plays directly into Barry’s point.

    Kerstin,
    But what makes it hard?

  29. There is definitely a sweet spot. I have a business that had thousands of options for my customers. In the beginning it seemed like a good idea to have so many options. A one stop shop kindof idea. However, it was way to overwhelming. It made my customers question too much. Since I have narrowed down our product line sales have increased significantly.

  30. Choice is definitely a consumer’s right. Often brands have their loyal followings. But yes unfortunately, excessive choice as can be seen in supermarkets all across the country can lead to wasteful spending. Consumers might spend more to buy an expensive product hoping it would give better results or they might spend less hoping to get the best bang for their buck.

    In both cases, they might get disappointed and switch to a brand they previously used or keep resorting to trial and error until they find their perfect match.

  31. A very nice and interesting article. You are right in you points. To many options for buyers, thats realy hard.

  32. Very good food for thought. People seem to like websites that are simple and very easy to use. The motto is “don’t make me think” and they shy away from complex choices or pages where they have to hunt for the best option.

  33. Well, Its not bad to have choices, that only proves that there is a cometition on who is the best. Aside from that, having some options is good since this means that we still have our decisions.

  34. Too much of any thing is not good but that doesn’t always holds true for product marketing on websites. But If the website and the products are categorized properly, even large range of options wont hurt.

  35. Great post, what you said is really helpful. I can’t agree with you anymore. I have been talking with my friend about, he though it is really interesting as well. Keep up with your good work, I would come back to you.

  36. The clarity in your post is simply spectacular and i can assume you are an expert on this field. Well with your permission allow me to grab your rss feed to keep up to date with incoming post.

  37. It is proven that offering people less choices increases conversions of offer/product. It also strengthens brands.

    Regarding websites, my opinion is, the simplier and clearier ui is, the more convertions (clicks, subs) you get.

    P.S. Nice ebook, gives ‘head start’ for anyone intersted selling more.

  38. Dawud jan,

    first and foremost, i hope i’m not too late into the conversation 3 years later (lol?)…with that said, i must agree to disagree, if had the choice of having many choices or fewer choices, any rational person would most certainly choose more choices.

    The individuals that make bad decisions isn’t necessarily due to the fact that there are too many choices, but that they are either impatient or careless.

    just my 2 cents.

    cheers
    ~ Jake

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