The Challenge of Too Much Selection

Choice is great. Choice is what drives the economic engine of our country much of the time. The freedom to choose what we like, when we like it and how we like it is part of the fabric of our culture. That’s why there is a proliferation of mega stores dotting the country’s landscape.

The average mega grocery store has thousands of products lining the shelves. Barnes and Noble and Borders Bookstores have in the neighborhood of 100,000 different titles or more per store. Per store!

Go online and the numbers become exponentially higher. The scale of choice online has far surpassed anything a brick and mortar store can manage, mainly because of the limitations presented by physical space. If you desire choice – you’ve got it. But it’ll kill you in the process. Or at least it will kill your desire to make the actual selection.

There are a number of marketing philosophies based on the “more is less” principle. The main stance is that if you have too many choices, you will make no choice at all. Of course, there is the premise that making no choice is just that. You are choosing not to participate.

It is enough to send people scurrying to discover their “niche” and their opportunity to reduce their target audience. In turn this lowers overhead. And, of course, that then reduces the risk involved in the decision.

Ultimately, this idea that too much selection is a detriment (although no one has qualified exactly what “too much” means) is backed by the intuitive sense that consumer behavior prefers to follow smaller patterns.

Think about where you live. Do you go around the entire city to find a bag of chips, or do you return to the same string of stores nearby. Besides the practical sense that it takes more time and effort to go across town to get a bag of chips, the likelihood is that you feel more comfortable returning to the same locations. Whatever the reason may be – is a vast selection really a trigger to not move at all? In his book, The Paradox of Choice – Why More is Less, Barry Schwartz argues that exact point vehemently.

Human instinct drives us to stick pretty close to the same number of ten or twelve channels rather than flip through all 500 every time we turn on the television. It is the prospect of coercing our mind to operate at its peak, while trying to digest and navigate enormous volumes of choice, that somehow turns on a switch in our brains. That switch says, “No. I’d rather not, thank you very much.”

Perhaps, though, it is not so much we prefer not to stare the huge volume of selection in the eyes, but that so much of the selection is similar, uninteresting and just plain not worthy of consideration.

Think about this as an alternative: What if instead of being paralyzed by the choices in front of you, your mind is simply and effectively eliminating non-substantial brands and concepts? Think about how we process information on the Internet with an application like Apple’s iTunes. Our brains don’t become paralyzed; instead, our minds search for relevancy, simply ignoring the ignorable.

Now how’s that for scary premise? Kind of shifts the burden of accountability, doesn’t it? Instead of becoming a victim of our minds, it seems the marketer has to come up with a relevant, timely, non-ignorable brand to capture our attention.

There will always be choice – and the movement is towards more selection and options, not less. How will your customers navigate the waters of your service, brand and web developments? If you can identify a distinct selection instead of just another selection, chances are better that a customer will navigate your way and not appear so “choice challenged.”

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