Spoilt for Choice

These days there is an abundance of choice in almost everything from ice cream flavors, global cuisines, phone models, TV channels, investments, or even romantic partners. Companies aim to produce different variants of one brand in an attempt to meet the particular needs of consumers, protect shelf space, and even sometimes create a consumer need. Has the world become a better place because one can pick from among 10 different variants of shampoo or is it a little too overwhelming?

In 2004, psychologist Barry Schwartz published “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less”. He argued that the ever increasing array of choices in almost every sphere of life has made us more anxious and overwhelmed, and the decision making process more complex. Conventional wisdom says more choices are better but Schwartz argues that dealing with excessive choices is overwhelming. We end up either completely ditching the complicated decision making process (buying what is already familiar, postponing the purchase or giving up entirely) or enjoying little to no satisfaction in the final choice afraid that a better option is still out there. 

It’s little more than a decade later and the options available to us have only grown. Was Schwartz wrong? Research in the field yields conflicting findings. In 2010, Benjamin Scheibehenne, a research scientist at the University of Basel in Switzerland, co-wrote a meta-analysis of research on choice. Sometime there is paradox of choice and sometimes there is no paradox of choice. The study points to parameters such as product categorization, information overload and time pressure as conditions that exist along with choice paralysis. But separating the effect of the number of options and the preconditions such as information overload is not yet understood. 

Sheena Iyengar, Professor of Business at Columbia Business School and author of the book The Art of Choosing, proposes four ways businesses can make choosing easier:

1. Reduce the amount of redundant options

2. Explain the consequences of each choice in a manner that strongly resonates with the consumer

3. Categorize products and ensure that these categories make sense to your consumers

4. Start with easy decisions and move to more complicated decisions after.

Each of these suggestions work to reduce the pain of picking and lead to happy consumers and effective marketing. These play into brand or product differentiation. The very idea behind differentiation is to set apart the product in a way that creates a valuable distinction in the consumer’s mind. There is no actual change to the product but a change in the consumer’s perception. Changes such as a simple re-structuring of shelf display or the presence of a comparison chart on the shelf.  In a world of dizzying options, it’s important to find a balance between the expanding market share and meeting demand by offering choices and helping the consumer understanding all the options so they actually buy.

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