Too Many To Choose
I like yoghurt, and so when I’m doing the grocery shopping, the yoghurt aisle is a place I always linger. I probably spend upwards of 30 seconds pondering and inspecting my options before making a choice. 30 seconds is a long time when you consider most other items in my trolley are a ‘grab and go’ decision of 2-5 seconds.
One of the problems I face when making my yoghurt purchase is that there is a lot of choice. Do I want it greek, flavoured, fat-free, low in sugar, gourmet? With bits of fruit or muesli? To match the list of options available to me, I also have an impossible list of requirements I want from my yoghurt. I want it to be low in fat but not so high in sugar, or fake sugar, that it tastes foul. It needs to be not too runny, and fit a reasonable price point.
So whilst standing in the yoghurt aisle, no doubt looking like a tad gormless and spaced out, my addled mind is actually doing some complex thinking: which of these options fits best with my list of impossible requirements? Which on my list of ‘ideals’ will I compromise? After a certain point (I’m sure there’s a quantitative science behind this too) my mind will give up, I declare an internal ‘screw it’, and grab which ever seems to be the best option. Some days I’ll have compromised on price, and a tasty low fat yoghurt but expensive product will have won out; other times I’ll reside myself to a week of cheap, but watery yoghurt.
I was reminded of my yoghurt dilemmas after reading ‘The Tyranny of Choice’ in The Economist.
The article argues that too much choice is actually detrimental to product sales. It’s possible there is a kind of ‘saturation point’ for consumer choice. ‘As options multiply, there may be a point at which the effort required to obtain enough information to be able to distinguish sensibly between alternatives outweighs the benefit to the consumer of the extra choice.’ This argument makes good sense. Consider the last time you tried to buy a simple product like shampoo, and the myriad of bright, colourful options you were presented with at the supermarket aisle. Ultimately, our requirements of something like shampoo are quite simple: to make our hair look nice and clean. But today we can choose everything from the colour of the detergent itself, the scent, packaging, through to having a shampoo ‘specially designed’ for our hair colour (the mind boggles at any science behind this). You may well leave dazed and confused, without buying anything at all, mindlessly mumbling to yourself ‘all I wanted was some shampoo…you know…just normal shampoo.’
These vast amount of choices make our decision as consumers harder. We have busy lives, and have a finite amount of time to give to each decision made in the grocery store, the computer shop or the chemist. The article also cites situation in which we opt for the choice to be completely removed from our hands, such as the swanky Paris restaurant which offers diners no option in what they eat. There are other examples of this too. The mac book comes in black or white, take it or leave it. This limited choice option suggests exclusivity (our product is so good that you don’t even need choice), with a touch of maternal care (there confused consumer, we’ve taken all the work out of your decision: there is no decision). It’s surprising that such limited choice is not more popular. But then the customer is always right, and I for one will continue to mull over my yoghurt options until that magical product that fits all my requirements, hits those chilled supermarket fridges!