Marketers Take Note: When too many choices are a burden, not a benefit

Americans love having lots of choices. Just visit any gas station beverage cooler or grocery store cereal aisle to see examples of retailers catering to that preference.

Yet Sarah Whitley, a recent recipient of a PhD in marketing from Boston University Questrom School of Business, suspected there were plenty of situations in which lots of choices felt exhausting rather than helpful. “For ice cream? The more flavors the better,” she says. “But if I see 35 types of trash bags at the store, that’s [overwhelming],” she says.

In a recent paper published in the Journal of Consumer Research by Whitley and Associate Professor Remi Trudel and Assistant Professor Didem Kurt, the trio explored that paradox. What made people want more or fewer options to choose from when they were making a purchase decision—and why?

The team discovered that people typically want more choices when they’re buying for pleasure. They’re more likely to be happy with fewer choices when they make a purchase for strictly utilitarian or functional reasons.

Through a series of five experiments including more than 2,000 people, the authors asked participants to consider similar purchases motivated by different reasons. For example, they asked participants to consider buying a documentary for fun or for a class assignment, or to choose the paint color of a car used just for work or just for pleasure. Then, they asked participants how many options they wanted to see before making a decision. In general, those making a choice based on more functional or utilitarian reasons preferred fewer options, while those with hedonic or pleasure-driven motivations wanted more.

Their studies found that people are more likely to want more choices when buying for pleasure in part because they want to make sure their decision reflects their unique preferences. For example, study participants who chose a business book to read for pleasure wanted to see more options than those who chose it for a class assignment. But when study participants were told that the business books offered for pleasure reading would be recommended using an algorithm designed to match their exact preferences, participants were content with fewer options. The results suggested participants’ were most interested in a perfect fit, rather than a larger number of choices.

The takeaway, says Whitley, is that businesses can be strategic about the array of options they offer shoppers, given what they know about what motivates the buying decisions of their customers. “For product categories where people feel that they have unique preferences, it may be worth it to have more variety.  It may be fine to reduce the number of offered products where this is not the case,” she says.

Read the complete paper in the Journal of Consumer Research.

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