The Paradox of Choice, or All I Wanted Was a Loaf of Bread

“If you can find bread, buy it!” My friend’s advice seemed almost comical as we sipped tea and enjoyed scones, strawberry jam, and cream on a fine spring day in 1990 in Bristol, England.

But he’d already been where I was headed: an earthquake relief effort in Leninakan (now Kumayry), Armenia. And he was right. Amidst the devastation, when I did manage to find a loaf of bread in a rundown store, I bought it without hesitation. It was the fourth shop I’d tried. It was the last loaf on the shelf, the bag was split, and some of the pieces had spilled out. But it was the only bread available, so I scooped up the pieces and paid for it.

Back home in England some months later, my first visit to the local supermarket to buy some staples was a bewildering experience. An entire aisle was crammed with bread, cakes, confections, and pastries, not to mention people squeezing and inspecting the packaging to check freshness, sell-by date, ingredients, and prices.

“Does anyone really need so many choices,” I thought, “when all you want is a loaf of bread?”

And that brings us to the paradox of choice.

More Choice, Fewer Sales

You probably want to offer your customers as many choices as possible. But too many choices can be overwhelming, confusing, or just plain off-putting. And overwhelmed, confused, or off-put customers may spend their money elsewhere.

In an oft-cited study from Columbia University, a display of jams and preserves was set up at a gourmet food shop. On Day 1 of the test, the researchers displayed six flavors. On Day 2, they displayed 30. The display of 30 flavors attracted more attention than the smaller display. But – and here’s the shocker – shoppers were only one-tenth as likely to make a purchase when faced with the 30 choices.

The results of this study support other studies and examples I’ve come across in business and my personal life. When faced with too many options, people become paralyzed by “analysis paralysis.”

Just recently, for instance, while shopping online for digital picture frames, the Philips website was so confusing it stopped me dead in my tracks. I shifted over to Kodak’s to find and buy what I was looking for. (That’s a $250 sale that Philips lost.)

Think back to the last time you went car shopping – wading glassy-eyed through model after model and feature after feature. A decision that could have been made in minutes probably took weeks.

And consider the plight of a first-timer perusing the Starbucks menu and trying to make a decision. (Milk, alone, comes four ways – regular, low-fat, no-fat, and soy.) I’m guessing most of them give up and say, “Er, um – just give me a plain coffee.”

Choice. Way too much choice.

Barry Schwarz’s book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less offers up more examples and demonstrates further how too much choice can be a bad thing.

Let’s say you have an online business. You want to give your site visitors enough information about what you’re selling to make it possible for them to make a decision, but you do not want to give them so much that their eyes “glaze over” and they leave without buying. So how much is enough?

Here are three suggestions that have worked well for my clients.

• Offer only one version of your product – which means you’re giving people two choices: Take it or leave it.

• Give them three options. That gives you three ways to target your prospects. More than that might be confusing.

• Offer only one product, but give your prospects an upsell or add-on option. (”Buying the pen? How about a nice leather-bound notebook for only $10 extra?”)

If you must offer multiple products or options, at least make it easy for your customers to comparison shop. The Honda website, for example, allows you to compare the features of their vehicles against those of other Honda models… and even against similar vehicles from other companies.

You could also allow your customers to narrow down the number of products displayed by having them select characteristics that are important to them (color, size, price, etc.). AT&T does an excellent job of this in the wireless-phones section of its website. When I selected PDA + International, my choices were reduced only to products that suited my needs.

More Important Than Choice

Regardless of how many options you offer people for what to buy, it is imperative to give them only one clear choice on how to take the next step and make the purchase. Confusing or overwhelming a customer at this point will translate into fewer sales for your business.

Not sure how to present that step? My recommendation is to do a series of simple A/B split tests, where you match two possibilities against each other. Or you can use multivariate testing to see how different combinations of elements impact response. In a shopping cart checkout process, for example, this could include placement of text, images, buttons, security logos, padlocks, and confidence items like guarantees and company contact details. Over time, the multivariate test will indicate which combination of elements will likely give you the best conversion rate – the highest number of people performing the specific action you want them to take: buying your product.

It may sound strange… but offering your customers fewer choices can result in more sales. It is true that you must provide enough information for “fact-finder” types. But even fact finders, once they’ve made up their minds, want an unfettered decision and action process.

[Ed. Note: Too much choice is a turn-off. So give your customers one to three great options – and that’s it. For more advice on how to make your website more customer-friendly, come to ETR’s 2008 Info Marketing Bootcamp. David Cross and 11 other experts at making money have agreed to reveal exactly how attendees can make at least $100,000 in 2009.]