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When Choosing is Confusing

On a recent visit to a souvenir store in Surabaya, Indonesia over the Christmas period, I experienced something close to a choice paralysis. I was looking for a short-sleeved batik shirt. The trouble was, there didn’t seem to be any system as to how the shirts were organised. My suspicion was that the store grouped them by brand – and nothing else – so sizes would be mixed together in one area. There were no signs or posters that would help me find the right size, shirt type, or material. I started to sequentially scan through the rows before I gave up. I bought other things but I didn’t buy any shirt in this particular instance.

The notion of choice paralysis was popular in the early to mid-2000’s with the publication of a journal paper by Iyengar and Lepper and the release of a book by Iyengar, The Art of Choosing. They argued that smaller selection is better for us, rather than being presented with too many options. In one of their experiments, Iyengar and Lepper invited research participants to enter a supermarket where two tables were set. On one table, six jars of jam were placed – and on the other one, they put 24 jars. They observed that research participants were attracted to the table with more options, but more participants ended up making a selection from the table having only six jars. Iyengar and Lepper conclude that people would be confused when presented with too many options, no matter how desirable it may seem. Fewer options would be better. This study along with the publication of The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz created a lot of buzz in business circles.

But, here’s the needle that pops the balloon.

The experiments failed to replicate, when conducted by independent researchers. An extensive meta-analysis on the subject also does not give conclusive evidence of the adverse consequences when consumers are given many options. Subsequently, these findings made it to the public through an article at The Atlantic: More is More: Why the Paradox of Choice Might Be a Myth.

In the now-removed post in LinkedIn in 2013 called ‘Choice and its Vicissitudes: A Lesson in How Science Works’, Barry Schwartz himself conceded, “With too few options, there is the risk that none will be satisfactory, whereas with too many, there is the risk of paralysis, confusion, and dissatisfaction. The trick is to find the middle ground – the ‘sweet spot’ – that enables people to benefit from variety and not be paralyzed by it.”

Despite the replication failure and the backtrack, it is interesting that many marketers still support the original assertion. The revised position is that choice paralysis is not merely prevented by providing small selections and fewer options.

Rather than focusing on selection size, we should focus on better categorisation instead. Help consumers to make a decision more efficiently. Clear categorisation and cognitive aids have been reported as being useful for consumers, regardless of the selection size. Think about it – have you ever got lost and paralysed for hours in a ZARA store or Walmart, overcome by the thousands of product options? In a ZARA store, we know we should ignore the area stocking kids clothing, when we are after a new pair of jeans. When shoppers go to Walmart, they would quickly zip past irrelevant aisles, if all they want to buy is a box of breakfast cereal. The hanging signs, labels, and visual directions help us to narrow down our focus — regardless of the total size of the selection.

It’s the same principle with product portfolio.

Shoppers need clear categorisation and cognitive aids to find the products they need. Researchers in this space also introduce terms where choices can be more easily made: ‘alignable’ and ‘unalignable’ options. Alignable options are choices that are laid out in the same continuum, for example: waist size, weight, volume, or fat content. It is easier for us to zero in on the option we want based on a quantifiable factor. Unalignable options are more difficult to evaluate as the options are essentially non-quantifiable. For example, picking a flavour of Baskin-Robbins’ ice cream to buy. Things can get complicated when manufacturers offer product options that are harder to process – for instance, features and flavours that only come in bulk packs and other features and flavours exclusively in small packs. The situation would force consumers to make a judgment on the product aspects they care more, e.g., whether they have a stronger preference for flavour or pack size.

Brand owners may argue that these complexities would entice consumers to try and buy different SKUs from the portfolio, when alignable and unalignable options are juxtaposed together. What is missing from this argument is that consumers are essentially cognitive misers – we don’t want to think too hard and spend too long deciding what to buy, especially for something as trivial as toothpaste, shampoo, or peanut butter. In such situations when brands offering complex choices, choice paralysis may be a real possibility. Now, what if the biggest competitor produces options that make it easy for consumers to choose through clear categorisation?

There’s still a lot to unpack about product portfolio and its role in business growth. Along with other researchers focusing on innovation, package design, and other related areas, it is my research focus at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute – so stay tuned!

2 thoughts on “When Choosing is Confusing”

  1. This is VERY insightful. May I please share this link with my clients(most are in FMCG & Retail)? I am a market researcher (Shopper and Consumer).

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