Wednesday 5 January 2011

Overcoming the tyranny of choice

Do too many brands and too many choices on store shelves really make customers unhappy? Sounds like a profit opportunity for somebody to run a store offering fewer choices with more editorial discretion on which products make the cut. I wonder who could do that...aha.
Swapping selection for value turns out not to be much of a tradeoff. Customers may think they want variety, but in reality too many options can lead to shopping paralysis. "People are worried they'll regret the choice they made," says Barry Schwartz, a Swarthmore professor and author of The Paradox of Choice. "People don't want to feel they made a mistake." Studies have found that buyers enjoy purchases more if they know the pool of options isn't quite so large. Trader Joe's organic creamy unsalted peanut butter will be more satisfying if there are only nine other peanut butters a shopper might have purchased instead of 39. Having a wide selection may help get customers in the store, but it won't increase the chances they'll buy. (It also explains why so often people are on their cellphones at the supermarket asking their significant other which detergent to get.) "It takes them out of the purchasing process and puts them into a decision-making process," explains Stew Leonard Jr., CEO of grocer Stew Leonard's, which also subscribes to the "less is more" mantra.
Trader Joe's spends a lot then on figuring out the best few items to stock.

But what about all those other pesky choices where you can't control your impulses? Oh, if only I could stop wasting time on the web, texting while driving, spending too much.... Ah.
Dan Nainan can’t trust himself to work at his computer without clicking on distractions, so he uses an Internet-blocking program to shut down his Web access twice a day.

“I’m sorry, but try as I might, I could never, ever do this on my own,” said the New York City comedian who’s struggling to finish a book. “I wish I could, but I just don’t have the discipline.”

Nainan’s system of two, two-hour blocks is one example of how Americans are trying to control their impulses using technology that steps in to enforce good behavior.

With the new year days away, many tools are now available to help people stay in line, including a GPS-enabled app that locks down texting once a car gets rolling and a program that cuts off credit-card spending. Another device monitors your workout and offers real-time voice feedback.

Have we entered an era in which electronics serve as mother, cop and coach because we can’t manage our own desires?

Yep, said Ann Mack, a trend-watcher for JWT Intelligence, an arm of the marketing giant. She named “outsourcing self-control” and “de-teching” as two top trends for the new year.
Markets interpret deadweight losses as profit opportunities, with entrepreneurs routing around the inefficiency. In the world outside the blackboard.

Update: And via @acoyne, an ignition interlock app for your phone to stop drunken posting to social networks.
Mobile developer Imperial Penguin is announcing the release of Social Interlock 1.0, a new app for iOS and Android devices that is designed to make the morning after a heavy night of drinking just a little less stressful. When you replace the official Facebook, Myspace, and Twitter apps on your phone with this app, you can lock yourself out if the app determines that you are too intoxicated to post your status and/or message your friends responsibly.

The app works by requiring the user to take a simple motor skills test when they are sober. After the sober test is taken, the user can lock the app to prevent themselves from accessing the three supported social networks. In order to unlock the app, and gain access, the motor skills test must be taken again and a score of near the sober amount must be earned. The difficulty of passing the test can be adjusted in the options, so each user can adjust the app for their specific tolerances.
It costs $0.99.


  1. Great post. How many people would have read this: "Do too many brands and too many choices on store shelves really make customers unhappy?" and immediately answered "Sounds like an opportunity for government intervention!"

  2. re: Update -- if I quit posting while drunk, I wouldn't have much of a blog left. :-)

  3. I use LeechBlock for Firefox which blocks all the sites I'm tempted to waste time on combined with Temptation Blocker to block Chrome and other distractions when I need to get work done.