When Baskin-Robbins, now the world’s largest ice cream chain, opened in 1953, its line of 31 flavors — one for every day of the month — was a novelty. At the time, such variety was unheard of, and Baskin-Robbins used it to stand out from other chains. Cofounder Irvine Robbins said, “We sell fun, not just ice cream,” and part of the fun for customers was the experience of seeing and tasting so many new flavors. The company continues to emphasize variety; it has developed more than 1,000 flavors of ice cream to date, 100 of which are rotated through its stores in a typical year.
Today it seems obvious to offer consumers more choice — but the experience is no longer a novelty, or nearly as much fun. Whereas in 1949 the average grocery store stocked 3,700 products, the average supermarket today has 45,000 products, and the typical Walmart has 100,000 products. There are even more options online, including 27 million books on Amazon and 15 million date possibilities on Match.com. Heinz was long famous for its “57 Varieties,” and Burger King for letting you “Have It Your Way,” but newer businesses have upped the ante. Starbucks, already known for its 87,000 drink combinations, recently launched the However-You-Want-It Frappuccino, with “thousands of ways to customize your blended beverage.” Cold Stone Creamery claims that its menu of mix-ins provides more than 11.5 million ways to “customize your ice cream treat.” Long gone are the days when an array of 31 flavors knocked our socks off.
Consumers have grown accustomed to having a lot of choice, and many people still express a strong desire for having more options. But that doesn’t make it a good idea. There are neurological limits on humans’ ability to process information, and the task of having to choose is often experienced as suffering, not pleasure.
That is why, rather than helping consumers better satisfy their preferences, the explosion of choice has made it more difficult overall for people to identify what they want and how to get it. Thus, if the market for your product is saturated with choice, you can’t gain a competitive edge by dumping more choices into the mix. Instead, you can outthink and outperform your competitors by turning the process of choosing into an experience that is more positive and less mind-numbing for your customers. You can design a more helpful form of choice.
The goal of a new approach to choice should not be to manipulate consumers into making choices that aren’t right for them, but rather to collaborate in a way that benefits both the consumer and the marketer. Although people tend to be skeptical of any attempts a business makes to “guide” them, when it comes to choosing, you truly can help consumers help themselves. To accomplish this, here are four actions you can take:
- Cut the number of options.
- Create confidence with expert or personalized recommendations.
- Categorize your offerings so that consumers better understand their options.
- Condition consumers by gradually introducing them to more-complex choices.
Offered together, these actions can distinguish your company. Rather than trapping people in a morass of alternatives, you’ll be one of those rare companies whose offerings rise to the top by raising customer spirits.
The Multiple-choice Problem
The peculiarities of consumer choice have been evident for some time. For example, in the mid-1990s, one of us (Sheena Iyengar) conducted a well-known study of shopper selection at the Menlo Park, Calif., location of Draeger’s — a specialty grocery store renowned for its huge selection of produce, packaged foods, and wine. Iyengar initiated the experiment after she realized that although she greatly enjoyed visiting the store, she often walked out empty-handed, unable to settle on just one bottle of mustard or olive oil when she had hundreds of options. Might other shoppers be experiencing the same problem, she wondered?