The Myth of Too Many Choices
Ever since the well-publicized “jam” experiments published ten years ago, product managers have been cautious about assuming that more choices generate higher sales. The investigators of the research found that more consumers purchased a jar of jam if the sampling table offered six varieties instead of 24. And there has been a healthy literature and many new experiments since that time exploring what has come to be known as “the paradox of choice.”
But there have been a number of studies and a good deal of retail research documenting the opposite as well. Indeed, it makes sense to think that offering more choice will maximize the chance of meeting individual consumers’ needs.
A recent article published in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests that idea of choice overload may be overblown. The authors analyzed results from fifty published and unpublished experiments on the topic. They concluded:
Although strong instances of choice overload have been reported in the past, direct replications and the results of our meta-analysis indicated that adverse effects due to an increase in the number of choice options are not very robust: The overall effect size in the meta-analysis was virtually zero. While the distribution of effect sizes could not be explained solely by chance, presumably much of the variance between studies was due to a few experiments reporting large positive and large negative effect sizes. The metaanalysis further confirmed that “more choice is better” with regard to consumption quantity and if decision makers had well-defined preferences prior to choice. There was also a slight publication bias such that unpublished and more recent experiments were somewhat less likely to support the choice overload hypothesis.
So the evidence that too many choices hurts sales is generally weak. Moreover, there appear to be two well-established situations in which more choice is clearly better:
(1) Consumers are more likely to buy if they have more choices about how much to buy (size, quantity, etc.)
(2) Consumers who already know what they want are more likely to buy the more choices they have.
If you are struggling with the question of “How many choices?” the article is worth reading because it outlines the many dimensions and factors that affect decision-making. It is also worth calling Versta Research because we keep current on the latest scholarship, and because are eager to help you think about the smartest approaches to answering your questions.
—Joe Hopper, Ph.D.