Shopper Wants Fewer Choices

Discussion
Feb 21, 2005
George Anderson

By George Anderson


Georgi Davis wonders just how many varieties of lettuce are absolutely essential to have in the produce department. Like others, she sometimes feels overwhelmed by the sheer number of product choices that confront her when she walks into a grocery store.


Her husband, she writes in the St. Petersburg Times, loves to shop, so spending 10 minutes in front of the pickle section or olives doesn’t bother him in the least. She, on the other hand, would be perfectly fine if the store offered three types of pickles (dill, sweet or bread and butter) in one or two brand choices. By Ms. Davis’s reckoning she’s confronted by 10 brands and the varieties have gone well past her basic three.


The retiree and former schoolteacher writes, “Maybe all these choices are not really good for people. I know that when my husband and I are finished shopping, I can’t even remember what we bought for supper that night. We usually end up going out to eat.”


Moderator’s Comment: How is the issue of choice affecting consumers and retailers?


For us, the issue has not been so much that there are too many product choices but that there are too many me-too product choices. The ability to pay for
shelf space and the need by retailers to have shelf space paid for has resulted in extended sets of multiple brands selling essentially the same thing. This combination adds up
to boring and confusing — a deadly combination in retail.

George Anderson – Moderator

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17 Comments on "Shopper Wants Fewer Choices"


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Warren Thayer
Guest
16 years 11 days ago

Well said, George and Art. And I know Bill Bishop has done great work in this area, establishing that shoppers often buy less when given too many choices.

Kelly Gibson
Guest
Kelly Gibson
16 years 11 days ago

In my opinion, the produce department is the only place in the grocery store where too many choices are a good thing. The entire supermarket industry, along with factory farming, has led to the demise and extinction of many breeds of heirloom fruits and vegetables.

Where we do have too many choices are the grocery aisles, where CPG companies who, with their practice of rotating brand managers onto new brands every year or 18 months, introduce new features, packaging, sizes, etc., that are only confusing and only rarely offer any new real benefits to the consumer.

Herb Sorensen
Guest
16 years 11 days ago
Making a decision is a psychologically costly endeavor for a customer. What people want is the RIGHT product; they’re just not sure which one that is. It is the marketer’s responsibility to “select” the right product for them, convince them that it is the right product, and then congratulate them and tell them that they did make the right choice. Too many choices are a dereliction of sales and marketing duty. What kind of strategy is this? Throw enough mud on the wall and see what sticks? There is a place for a “warehouse” display of hundreds of choices. Amazon is partially successful because of its unrivaled catalog of available books. But typically, I’m only interested in just the one I want right now. If Amazon offered me the entire list and said, just pick the one you want, they wouldn’t do much business. Rather, they pre-select for me what they think I will want, and adjust instantly when I indicate a preference by my search or browsing. This is the principle behind what we… Read more »
Peter Fader
Guest
16 years 11 days ago

This seems like a good opportunity to point out the book “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less” by Barry Schwartz.

I think his observations and conclusions are a bit extreme (e.g., “too much choice can lead to clinical depression”), but it’s worthwhile to read this book and form your own opinion about where to draw the line…

Karen Kingsley
Guest
Karen Kingsley
16 years 11 days ago

I agree with Art and Al. It’s not about limiting choice; it’s about providing the right choice. True variety makes a difference. And while there are plenty of studies that show too much choice is only baffling, consumers are making trips to multiple outlets in order to get the specific items they desire. The more we’ve been exposed to variety, the more we seek out unusual products. No one seemed to need salsa at all 40 years ago, and now we have over 50 SKUs of it in every super. Who’s going to say they’re not taking on a unique new product when it might be the next salsa they’re missing out on?

Joe Leathers
Guest
Joe Leathers
16 years 11 days ago
I would like to think that all this variety in every category in the Supermarket is good for business. Or does it just widen the gap for many companies to make it or break it? How many different kinds of H2O do we really need? The difference is very plain and simple marketing. Whoever has the most for marketing will come out on top. Doesn’t necessary mean it’s the best product nor the best price – just what catches the consumer’s eye. But I guess its no different than TV. When I grew up, we could get 2 channels and, sometimes, if the wind was in the right direction, 3. Today, 200+. Look at the industry I am involved in: we have a multitude of further processed items to select from. Just how many brands and flavors of bacon are there? Then look at the fresh meat counter. Really hasn’t changed much except for some more varieties of chicken parts. Beef and pork pretty much look like it did 10 years ago. What’s new and… Read more »
Dave Wendland
Guest
16 years 11 days ago
Too many choices? Too much variety? Too many brands? It’s simply too much!! Retailers have fallen into the trap of filling space on never-ending shelves with products rather than a system that helps consumers find the product they are truly seeking to fill whatever need they specifically want to fill. As our organization celebrates its 25th year in retail healthcare management and effective category management approaches, we have reflected on some of the challenges that have fueled this unruly shopping experience: 1) supercenters – more, more, more!; 2) consumer goods product manufacturers – proliferation of product introductions – some of which should probably never been developed; 3) differentiation – if more brands can be put on the shelf than consumers have more choices … isn’t that what they wanted?; and 4) non-sophisticated category management – using sophisticated software to manage the physical space by making sure every square inch of shelf space has a product on it. The answer? As many contributors have previously stated, less can be more. Incorporating consumer-oriented messaging that helps guide… Read more »
Al McClain
Guest
Al McClain
16 years 11 days ago

I don’t think we can blame retailers or manufacturers for having too many choices. The fact is that the mass market of 30 years ago is long gone. Consumer tastes have been segmented and divided, and competition has driven suppliers and retailers to seek ever more complex niches. There are certain channels of retailers like dollar stores, clubs, and specialty (Trader Joe’s, Aldi) that can be successful with limited assortment, but I think consumers demand variety from broad line retailers like drugstores, supermarkets, and department stores. Most shoppers probably have a handful of items in their basket that they absolutely have to have, but their market share is miniscule. Take away those slow selling items and I think supermarkets lose a few more trips per year. So, I wouldn’t be too quick to cut variety if that might be one of my few competitive advantages.

Michael Richmond, Ph.D.
Guest
Michael Richmond, Ph.D.
16 years 11 days ago

Consumers are more fragmented than ever and, as a result, many want more choices for a variety of reasons, including value, cost, product performance (taste, if food), loyalty, sustainability practices and the ethics of the company, i.e. do they do animal testing, etc. Some want choice and some don’t. Now the problem: How can you tell what is what? Everything looks the same. I come home with a product I always buy only to find out I bought Fat Free, or reduced fat. Package and graphic differentiation is a problem for the people that want choice. For those who don’t want choice, go to a limited assortment market. The solution is better package differentiation.

Rochelle Newman-Carrasco
Guest
Rochelle Newman-Carrasco
16 years 11 days ago

It’s President’s Day, so I had a little extra time to attempt a pseudo-limerick related to today’s topic. Groaning is allowed:

At retail we get too much choice
Says Ms. Davis, with tears in her voice.
If they offered me less
It would clear up this mess
Right now, it’s a whole lot of noise.

It’s either too much or too few.
A shopper knows not what to do.
You need a Masters in shopping
Just to choose ice cream topping
At least that’s Ms. Davis’ view.

It’s quality that we all want,
Not masses of meaningless quant.
Pare it down to the best
And your store will be blessed
And Ms. Davis she won’t rave and “rahnt”.

M. Jericho Banks PhD
Guest
M. Jericho Banks PhD
16 years 11 days ago

Slow news days always spawn stories of this type. “Too many choices, Oh my!” How these comments continue to get ink baffles me, but we have the choice to read or not to read, don’t we?

Would this writer reduce new car choices to dill, sweet, and bread-and-butter? What about sliced, relish, and gherkins? The laws of supply-and-demand and of good business limit choices to what the traffic will bear. Products disappear from store shelves for a variety of reasons – incursion of store brands, slotting fees, etc. but lack of sales velocity is still primary. Ms. Davis needs to get out more.

Bernice Hurst
Guest
16 years 11 days ago

Sure, people who are overwhelmed by too much choice can go shop somewhere else. But most of the choices available in large format stores strike me as being there because the manufacturer (quite understandably) is trying to get a bigger chunk of market share. Not (equally understandably) because customers demand more and more variety. It might be much better all around if, when sales of an old product begin to flag, the response is to replace it rather than adding yet another alternative to the selection already weighing down the shelves (and consumers’ minds). I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again – the secret of life is knowing when to call it quits.

Art Turock
Guest
Art Turock
16 years 11 days ago

Let’s reframe the discussion from “more or less” assortment, to “nail it right” for your target customer, and thereby earning an “editor status.” Think of Starbucks. 19,000 different coffee based drinks — huge assortment. Think of Whole Foods, with enormous numbers of items which have been tasted and screened for their health promoting attributes. Think of Costco, with only 4,000 items in its large warehouse and Trader Joe’s, which has limited assortment. The common factor among these great brands is they’ve achieved editor status among their customers. When they stock a product, it automatically registers as a good buy in the minds of loyal customers. Trader Joe’s delivers products that always taste great. Costco shoppers count on quality products at the best price; in fact they even pay $45/year for a membership fee for this procurement service.

Ian Percy
Guest
16 years 11 days ago

The lady is indeed right – and it’s not a matter of reducing duplication or the ‘me toos’. It’s a matter of reducing choices, period. And there’s pretty solid research to back her up – people are more likely to buy something when there are fewer choices; e.g. more likely to buy a jar of jam if there are five to choose from than if there are 36.

I remember one drug store bragging about having over 400 different perfumes. Only trouble was that about 90% had been sitting on the shelves since 1954. Choices may give you bragging rights, but it’s not likely to give you profitability.

Art Williams
Guest
Art Williams
16 years 11 days ago

George is right on, in my opinion, in that what is needed is true variety, not endless line extensions and me-too products. Category managers in many cases don’t seem to understand the difference and are catering to a few select manufacturers. We find ourselves shopping at more stores than we want because they don’t have the true varieties that we are looking for. One of the biggest differences between club stores and discounters can and should be the variety that a supermarket is able to carry, but they just don’t seem to get it. This is a great opportunity for independents or anyone wanting to differentiate themselves.

Mike Spindler
Guest
Mike Spindler
16 years 10 days ago

Wow, this sure spawned a great deal of interest and commentary.

Naturally, the perspective of the commentator seems to be anchored in the background of the commentator.

If you have a retail or CPG background, the gating factor seems to be shelf space and holding power. If your background is category management, much the same holds true. If your background is the consumer…well then saliency is king.

The fact is, that with loyalty cards, personalization tools, store specific plan-o-grams and alternative supply options such as our Endless Aisles program, both the retailer and the consumer can achieve all of these desires. Is anyone doing it right today…no. Are there folks starting down the right path…yep.

What fun eh?

David Locke
Guest
David Locke
16 years 6 days ago
When I shop, I hardly ever make a decision. If I’m making a decision, it will be budgetary tradeoffs. It won’t be the particular items I purchase. If the usual jelly isn’t on the shelf, I don’t buy jelly. Brand preference is about not making decisions. You could have 200 varieties of pickles on your shelf. I’m going to pick the same one every time. I’ve had more trouble when GIS-based micromerchandising changes the planogram and moves my usual, typical items. I will find it and, while I’m at it, I won’t be making a decision. I do make decisions when I browse, when I have an unlimited budget; when I go to a high-end, amusement park, grocery store. I can spend hours looking at every item and wondering what kind of shopper would buy that. I do this when I have to kill time. I’m not shopping. I might buy something that strikes me, but that sort of thing is an emotional buy. I’m not going to get stressed out by it. The thing… Read more »
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