Can offering too much choice to consumers be damaging? And how much is too much?
Can I state something obvious here? There is too much choice. There are too many Uni courses, too many options on the menu (not always a bad thing), too many gym classes, food delivery services, cheap car rentals, Netflix movies, milk (yes, too many types of milk!). Remember when you ordered your toasty from the local café and had the choice of white and brown bread? And now you have sourdough, quinoa bread, multigrain, extra-seeded, your extra everything? Don’t get me wrong choice is great, I love choice. But if one thing is certain, a lot of choice sure does make choosing difficult.
How many times are you confronted with too many options that you end up either walking away or choosing something you know already? We are humans after all, and humans are creatures of habit (we also love stress-free). How many times do you go back to your favourite lunch spot? Or re-watch Stranger Things on Netflix? It seems that fewer options make it easier to make a decision.
Take my local coffee shop for example. They have around 8 different coffee beans to choose from, sourced from different parts of the world, roasted in different ways, paired with Oat Milk or Almond Milk or Soy or Skinny. And then you choose your style of coffee; your Cappuccino, your Flat White, your Latte, your Iced, the list goes on. And yet every morning I go for the same Skinny Capp from the same Robusta bean because choosing my next favourite is just too difficult. And I love coffee! I love trying new coffee. But with a hundred options to choose from, I just don’t know where to start.
And as a consumer with a billion other things on my to-do list, I don’t want to spend my time choosing. I want everything in one place, I want easy access, a clear understanding of what is where. I want easy to view, good value and at a low cost.
I want enough choice but not too much.
But how many is the right many?
Colin Camerer is the professor of Behavioural Economics at Caltech and published a study in the Nature Human Behaviour journal. Volunteers were given a choice of scenic paintings that they could choose to be printed on a souvenir (like a coaster or a mug). Some were given 6 options, some 12 and some 24 while the researchers analysed their brain activity while making these decisions.
There are two parts of the brain that become active when making decisions. The first is called the Anterior Cingulate Cortex for when we need to weigh up the costs, and the second is the Striatum, which is the part of the brain that identifies the value. An easy, stress-free choice would mean that both parts of the brain are active.
Interestingly, results show that these two parts of the brain were most active for those who had 12 landscapes to choose from. Six was too little and volunteers were not getting what they wanted but 24 was too many, making around 12 options the sweet spot.
So how can you apply this?
Clearly humans possess neurological limits when it comes to the ability to make a good (if not good then stress-free) choice when there are too many options, which means you need to be smart when you offer your products and services.
Your approach to choice should be to collaborate with the consumer to ensure that their choice is right for them. Four examples to help you do this are:
- Offer fewer choices
Less is more, and whether this means the products you sell or the amount you have displayed, the choosing experience will become less stressful with fewer options.
- Categorise your options
Make it easier for the customer to understand what you are offering by simplifying your browsing experience and signposting your products and services.
- Recommend your products directly
It sounds simple but it’s true. I know when I walk into a shop or browse a website, I head straight to the ‘picked for you’ section. I don’t need to do the work because it’s already been done for me. It also screams confidence and certainty in your product.
- Condition your consumer
Start simple and work your way up to more choice. Take the time and allow your customer to build on their previous choices. This works especially well if you offer products that can be customised.
These approaches to choice will revolutionise your business. Rather than leading your customer into a maze of mass alternatives, you provide an easy and stress-free browsing experience which will increase consumer engagement and ultimately make more sales.
In today’s fast-paced, interconnected world, I will be looking at how I can find ways to simplify my life. And part of that process will be looking for retailers who can assist me in my mission for a less complex existence. I think I speak for many consumers when I say retailers should tone down the busy-ness and choose simple and easy.
About Helen Turnbull
Helen is the Content Lead for the Retail Learning Channel, sourcing and developing quality and valuable knowledge for retailers across Australia and New Zealand. She co-produces the Channel’s Retail events and collaborates with Australia’s leading retail experts to deliver essential learning resources. Before Helen joined the Channel, she produced professional events for executive leaders spanning several industries including Finance, Retail, Project Management, Policy, Government and Data Management. She is now a passionate retail enthusiast working every day to connect and inspire the industry, and to produce valuable content to upskill retailers everywhere.