Consumers must like lots of choices – why else would there be hundreds of shampoo brands and variants on a typical supermarket shelf? Actually, its been known for years that too many choices can reduce consumer purchases. A 2000 study at Columbia University compared consumer behavior when confronted with a selection of either six or 24 gourmet jams in an upscale grocery store. The bigger selection did indeed cause more customers to stop and check it out – 60% vs. 40% for the limited selection. The interesting part, though, was the purchasing behavior. While 30% of the customers presented with the limited selection made a purchase, a mere 3% of those who saw the extensive selection bought something. [See When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing? Iyengar, S. S., & Lepper, M. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 995-1006. (2000).]

Now, additional research conducted by Kathleen Vohs at the University of Minnesota shows that choices can sap one’s stamina and ability to stay focused. Of particular interest to Neuromarketing readers, choices caused subjects to have more difficulty when they needed to make a risky decision later.

In one experiment, 18 women were told to choose among a variety of products, including T-shirts, scented candles, shampoos and others. Another 20 women didn’t make choices but were asked to consider their preferences.

Both groups were then asked to drink an unpleasant-tasting concoction — an orange drink mixed with vinegar and water — in return for a nickel for each ounce consumed.

“We found that when people had been making choices, they drank less than when people had just been thinking about their preferences,” Vohs said.

This suggests that those who didn’t make choices had more capacity for “self control,” Vohs said.

In other experiments, the researchers found that making choices made it tougher for participants to perform well on a math test, avoid distractions and take action regarding a malfunctioning videotape. [From HealthDay – Choices Sap Your Stamina, Self Control: Study by Randy Dotinga.]

The “risky behavior” effect found by the researchers is interesting, since often a purchase decision carries some risk – dissatisfaction with the product, finding a better deal later, etc. This would be particularly true for large purchases like automobiles, which involve a high cost product that the consumer will use for years. Buy a shampoo you don’t like, and you can buy a different one the next day with little economic loss; you can’t do that with a car purchase.

The trick, it seems, is finding the sweet spot for your product: offering enough choices to ensure that a customer can find a satisfying product, but not so many that the customer will be bewildered or demotivated.

Customer guidance may help, too. In the Columbia study, almost nobody purchased jam products when the selection was huge. What if a salesperson had been on hand to ask customers a question or two about their preferences, and then make a strong recommendation? “If you like strawberries, then you’ll absolutely love our strawberry ginger jam… it’s full of fruit flavor, but has really interesting spicy notes, too. A group of chefs rated it their favorite choice from our full range of jams.” Likely, a bit of effort to help the customer decide (and validate that decision with additional data) would go a long way toward slicing through the confusion and frustration caused by too many choices.

Even in a self-service setting, guidance in the form of labels, shelf talkers, etc. may help by directing consumer attention toward products that may be suited to their needs and wants. The general message doesn’t change, though: choice isn’t always good, and more choices can actually reduce sales.

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