shopper research: the paradox of choice

by: Sarah Kneebone


Today’s shoppers are overwhelmed by choice. In a world fixated on freedom of choice, we have ended up with a severe case of ‘analysis paralysis’.

Brands want to make shoppers happier but instead, are often creating a psychological burden which turns shoppers off and results in decreased sales.

So, why is too much choice a problem?

Our minds are constantly looking for shortcuts (less time, less effort) and ways to reduce the risk of regretting our decisions.

Having to choose between a barrage of similar options induces feelings of anxiety, stress and even fear. Due to this, in many cases we opt for what is familiar or we run away from making a choice at all.

The JAM Study

The Jam Study is one of the most referenced experiments in consumer psychology. The study found that shoppers were 10 times more likely to purchase jam on the shelf, when the number of jams displayed was reduced from 24 to 6.

The Jam Study findings have since been supported by research in the Journal of Consumer Psychology and are cited by Barry Schwartz in his influential publication, The Paradox of Choice (2004).

The book refers to the problem of ‘choice overload’; there are too many products to choose between to either maximise value or satisfy our needs.

Although it satisfies our desire for freedom of choice, essentially too much choice is inconvenient and risky.

Are you a maximiser?

This problem is particularly stifling for ‘maximisers’ (people are either ‘satisficers’ or ‘maximisers’). This type of shopper feels compelled to weigh up every option to make the best decision possible (rather than selecting the first option which satisfies their needs).

The fear of not making the right decision will often lead a maximiser to complete indecision or repeated dissatisfaction with each choice they make... not great for your brand.

Think about when you look at a restaurant menu with far too many options and you’re trying to make the right choice to avoid food envy... stressful, right (or is that just me?!)?

Feeling the FOMO

It’s been 13 years since the release of psychologist Barry Schwartz’s book and these principles are increasingly valid in today’s world.

Social media, online shopping and smart phones have only exacerbated the problem – cue self-doubt and comparison, nobody/nothing being good enough and serious bouts of FOMO!

Could reducing choices boost sales?

In follow-up research, psychologists have found the scenarios when reducing choices for your customers is most likely to boost sales:

  • When people want to make a quick and easy choice (effort-minimising goal)

  • When making the right choice matters or you are selling complex products (the decision task is difficult)

  • When you show options that are difficult to compare (greater choice set complexity)

  • When your customers are unclear about their preferences (higher preference uncertainty).

Things to consider

It’s not always as simple as reducing options to increase sales and customer satisfaction though.

In supermarkets, for example, proliferating your options means less shelf space for the competition.

Another consideration is the
pressure on brands to innovate constantly, to keep up with the pace of competition, technology and the ever-more demanding shopper.

This considered, should our focus be on making these choices easier, rather than cutting products out of a brand’s range?

Perhaps brands should invest in helping shoppers compare their options or create a product with a bundle of features, to reduce search time.

So, could brands do better for themselves and their customers if they offered fewer choices or worked on making those choices easier?

Over to you

Let us know what you think!

Our shopper research solutions help you create a complete view of the path to purchase; helping you understand shoppers’ pre-store influences, trip missions, planning process, impulses, triggers, switching behaviour and final conversion to purchase. Check out our solutions HERE.

P.S. Check out The paradox of choice | Barry Schwartz’ on the TED YouTube channel for more!The Paradox of Choice TED Talk.jpg

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about the author

Sarah Kneebone

Sarah is PLAY’s go-to content writer with a passion for marrying creativity and communication with clever strategy. A former marketer with PLAY and for international brands such as QBE Insurance and General Motors, Sarah moved home to the UK to raise her little family and start a health coaching business. Luckily for us, she continues to share her talent for the written word with the team in Australia.

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