By Shannon McFarland
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked into the grocery store and ended up staring at the number of options available for a single food item. Mesmerized by the different jars of salsa, or lost in thought contemplating varieties of coffee.
Have you ever stood for so long in the grocery store aisle, at a loss for which is the best option? Wondering if you look as lost and overwhelmed as you feel? I’ve definitely caught myself doing this.
The more options we have available — whether it’s in the grocery aisle or the direction of your marketing strategy — the easier it is to get overwhelmed when making a decision. When our brains are stressed and overwhelmed by the option available, it’s useful for us all to understand how to recognize and overcome that… or make sure we don’t overload our employees and customers with too many options.
When too many options paralyze our decision making
This “choice overload” effect was actually demonstrated at a grocery store in California, in a research study. The study published in 2000 by psychologist Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper showed a striking pattern of behavior when we face many or limited options.
On an average Saturday, shoppers at an upscale food market in Menlo Park, Calif. saw a display table with a variety of gourmet jam available to taste. Anyone who sampled the fruit jams received a coupon for $1 off any of the jams.
But every hour, the jam display changed slightly. In one hour, 24 different flavors of jam were available. The next hour, the same table would have just six jars to taste.
Of those who saw only six jams, 30 percent left the store with a jar of jam in their grocery bag. In comparison, only 3 percent of the customers who saw 24 flavors of jam bought one. It was ten times easier to make a decision when there were fewer choices.
We want variety
Despite the fact that the jam display with fewer options had higher sales, more people were attracted to and stopped at the larger display. We want lots of options and variety!
Researchers taking notes on the shoppers’ behavior observed that of those walking by, 60 percent paused to check out and taste jam. When there only six options, just 40 percent of passing customers stopped.
If you’re a marketer, you might jump to the conclusion that the extensive-choice jam display was more successful. This is a crucial reminder about keeping your goals (and metrics) straight. Is your goal to get more attention, or actually sell more jam?
Especially when you’re considering the fact that while many people were attracted to the larger display, they chose to buy nothing. When there are too many choices available to us, we may make no choice at all. No jam for us.
Avoiding choice dissatisfaction — know what you want
While extensive choice can produce this “choice paralysis,” additional research shows that it can also reduce people’s satisfaction with their decisions. That includes people who made good decisions. The dissatisfaction as a result of choice overload can impact people in innocuous areas like food flavors or as important as jobs. We get buyer’s remorse.
How can you know you got the salsa flavor? Maybe you would have been happier with a different one. How can you know you accepted the right job offer? There are lots of jobs out there that could be better.
If I’m intentional about my choices, such as grocery shopping, I might avoid this dissatisfaction being more specific when I decide simply to write “salsa” on my shopping list. I might be happier deciding ahead of time that what I really want, is Newman’s Own Mild Salsa.
We lean on our habits
When we’re overloaded with choices, we’re likely to choose nothing or to fall back on our habits. We choose the same jam every time, because it is what we know. We trust this jam because we have eaten it before. Why would we take up the mental energy by choosing between jams? Why take a risk on a new jam?
While a grocery store seems like a simple example of choice architecture, it’s a fascinating economic scenario that most of us encounter on a regular basis.
Published Jan. 4, 2018