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strategy and business
 / Winter 2010 / Issue 61(originally published by Booz & Company)


A Better Choosing Experience

3. Categorize their options. You can also help novices by teaching them to emulate expert judgment. For an expert, there is no completely unique product or service; rather, each offering is a distinctive combination of attributes that the expert has seen before. Thus, where the novice sees 100 different items, the expert sees maybe seven or eight relevant qualities interacting in novel ways, with one or two important features that immediately stand out. The trick is to get the novice to see things as the expert sees them.

The easiest way to do this is to categorize. For example, Best Cellars, Wine Enthusiast’s Retailer of the Year in 2009, makes the choosing process a breeze for its customers by consulting with oenophiles in advance. It draws on their advice to limit its variety to 100 high-quality, reasonably priced wines. Since 100 wines could still be an overwhelming number for novices, Best Cellars divides the wines into eight simple categories, such as “fizzy,” “juicy,” and “sweet.” The novice has to deal with only eight units of information now, which can be managed fairly easily. Once the novice has chosen a category, he or she can choose a wine within that category by reading the detailed labels that accompany all the bottles.

To be sure, wine experts may not use the same categories that Best Cellars uses, but they apply the same principle when they make their choices. By pre-sorting the wines into categories, the retailer helps novices look at the world through expert lenses. Best Cellars cofounder Joshua Wesson says, “We all want simplicity when it comes to these types of decisions…. We try to make wine shopping as much fun as wine drinking.” Note that this is the flip side of what Baskin-Robbins did in its heyday. Both retailers thrived by creating a better choosing experience. Back then, this meant giving customers more choice; now, it means giving them less.

To simplify the choice process, limit your categories to no more than 20, with 10 or fewer options in each. When you hold to these limits, consumers are likely to feel empowered by the number of choices, and are unlikely to miss any offerings that weren’t included. Iyengar and her collaborators, Cassie Mogilner and Tamar Rudnick, discovered this when studying the magazine aisles in several Wegmans supermarkets. The number of magazines available at various branches ranged from 331 to 664, but this number had no effect on buyer satisfaction. What mattered was the number of categories, such as “Health & Fitness” and “Home & Garden,” that each display provided. Arranging the magazines under a wider range of subheadings created the perception that the store offered more choice, even when the number of magazine titles was comparatively small. Customers in these stores also reported greater enjoyment of their overall shopping experience.

For novices, who may not be able to create categories on their own, the categories established by a marketer or retailer provide a framework for making sense of a large assortment, thus keeping consumers from being discouraged by the daunting task of choosing. Because these categories often make the same distinctions between products that experts make, they also provide a general overview of the field, which catalyzes consumers’ understanding of it and the development of their preferences within it.

4. Condition them for complexity. For certain kinds of decisions, you can set consumers up for success by encouraging them to learn from, and build upon, their own previous choices. This is especially valuable if your product is customizable.

For example, Iyengar and her collaborators, Jonathan Levav, Mark Heitmann, and Andreas Herrmann, conducted a study with a major German car manufacturer. This automaker allows its customers to design their new cars from a long list of options, choosing everything from the engine to the rearview mirror. In the study, researchers presented the first eight design choices in different sequences to different groups of car buyers. One group had to first choose interior and exterior color, with 56 and 26 options, respectively. From there, they chose features in descending order by number of options, ending with interior decor style and gearshift style (which were each limited to four options). A second group of buyers encountered the same choices in reverse order, starting with the design elements that offered the fewest options and ending with the ones that offered the most. Although both groups eventually saw 144 total options across eight categories, the buyers who moved from high choice to low choice had a much harder time. They began by carefully considering every option, but they soon grew tired and settled for the default. In the end, they wound up less satisfied with their cars than the buyers who had progressed from low choice to high choice.

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  1. Matthew Egol and Christopher Vollmer, “Major Media in the Shopping Aisle,” s+b, Winter 2008: On the growth potential of in-store media, and better use of this critical consumer choice touch point.
  2. Bridget Finn and Michal Lev-ram, “Recent Research: The Downside of Choice,” s+b, Summer 2009: Corroborating research about the consumer dissatisfaction that stems from too many choices.
  3. Nicholas Ind and Majken Schultz, “Brand Building, Beyond Marketing,” s+b, 7/26/10: Moving branding practices toward a connecting strategy that promises to make consumer choice easier.
  4. Sheena Iyengar, The Art of Choosing (Twelve, 2010): By describing the psychological impact of having too much choice, too little choice, and varying levels of autonomy, Iyengar shows how the conditions of choice influence business, society, and personal fulfillment.
  5. Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less (Harper Perennial, 2005): Another leading work on the “darker side of freedom”: the limits of the human mind in managing a surfeit of options.
  6. For more thought leadership on this topic, see the s+b website at
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