Finding the Balance Between Choice and Satisfaction

Choice is good, but too much choice can create consumer anxiety and frustration that leads to less sales, not more. Market research can help find the optimum level of choice that satisfies your consumers.

Choice is good, but too much choice can create consumer anxiety and frustration that leads to less sales, not more. Market research can help find the optimum level of choice that satisfies your consumers.

Could offering too much choice lead to fewer sales? Apparently, yes.

One marketer wrote a blog about his frustration encountering a gelato stand with more than 100 flavors. He paced in front the glass counters assessing the assorted choices until, in a fit of frustration, he left without trying or buying anything.

A kissmetrics blog cited a Columbia University study of jam samples. More people stopped when they were more offerings, but more people bought jam when fewer choices were on the table.

How can that be? Isn’t consumerism all about choice? Yes, and no. Choices please consumers, but don’t always satisfy them. Finding the balance, which requires fine-tuned market research, is key to understanding how to make choice satisfying, not confounding..

Some analysts believe too much choice can lead to consumer confusion and stress. Some retailers agree and have begun to limit the amount of choice on their shelves. For example, one retailer reduced 224 air fresheners to just 12, so consumers could see the entire range without packing up and down the aisle.

Actually, the idea of shrinking choices isn’t avant-garde. It is based on psychological studies that suggest consumer choice doesn’t operate independently of consumer satisfaction. If too many choices create anxiety, customer satisfaction is challenged. Sales suffer.

"Choice is good for us, but its relationship to satisfaction appears to be more complicated than we had assumed,” Barry Schwartz wrote in 2004 in a piece appearing in Harvard Business Review. "There is diminishing marginal utility in having alternatives; each new option subtracts a little from the feeling of well-being, until the marginal benefits of added choice level off.”

"What’s more,” Schwartz adds, "psychologists and business academics alike have largely ignored another outcome of choice: More of it requires increased time and effort and can lead to anxiety, regret, excessively high expectations and self-blame if the choices don’t work out. When the number of available options is small, these costs are negligible, but the costs grow with the number of options. Eventually, each new option makes us feel worse off than we did before.”

This suggests that marketing strategies based solely on delivering choice may fail to achieve their promise.

"Choice can no longer be used to justify a marketing strategy in and of itself,” says Schwartz. "More isn’t always better, either for the customer or for the retailer. Discovering how much assortment is warranted is a considerable empirical challenge. But companies that get the balance right will be amply rewarded.”

Market research is one way to get inside a consumer’s head to see the optimum amount of choice, so you satisfy consumer demand, not reduce it.