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Are you turning customer freedom into un-freedom?


Caroline sent me out to buy hummus the other day.

It was more complicated than I expected.

Turns out, more than 50 different hummus options awaited me in Aisle 2. The photo above represents about half of the total offering. (The pic is blurry? So was my head.) I stood staring for awhile before Ally finally announced, “This is the one Mom gets.”

I might still be looking for hummus if not for an 11-year-old.

Ours is a world of almost unlimited choice.

Our supermarkets now carry an average of 43,000 items, according to the people who track this stuff, more than five times the number in 1985. On the same shopping trip last weekend I had 26 choices for tuna. (What the…?) Whether it’s toothpaste, TV channels, golf balls, coffee, investment funds, vacation options… practically anything we buy… we have more choice than ever.

We might think this is a good thing.

But is it?

Too much choice paralyzes us.

Faced with so many options, we often have trouble making the best choice. So we become indecisive, unhappy, and even refrain from making any choice at all. Back in 1971, Future Shock author Alvin Toffler called this over-choice… in which “the freedom of more choices ironically becomes the opposite — un-freedom.”

Toffler was ahead of his time. In a recent experiment at a California grocery store, researchers set up a sampling table with 24 different jams; a day later the selection was cut to six. When it came to buying afterwards, 30% of the samplers at the six-jam table bought something, while only 3% bought at the 24-jam table.

Too much choice is demotivating. The vast majority of shoppers faced with 24 jams simply chose… not to buy at all.

There has to be a better way.

Hasn’t this gone too far? Don’t we run the risk of taking flexibility and choice to the extreme?

So here are two simple ways to make it easier:

  1. Eliminate redundant choices. Just as salespeople typically recommend only one or two products, we should offer only those products or services that most interest our targets. When Procter & Gamble slashed its range of Head & Shoulders shampoos from 31 to 12, sales increased by 10%. I’ve written this before, but it’s worth repeating: less is more.

  3. Make choices more manageable. These guys cite a study of corporate retirement plans where a default option automatically selected an investment portfolio, saving employees the chore of picking their own asset mix. Participation spiked from 9% to 34%. Not only does fewer options make more sense, we need to help our targets navigate the options we do offer. Is it any wonder we find the cozy café with a one-pager of ‘chef selections’ more welcoming than the roadhouse with a mini-book for a menu?

The bottom line?

We might think we’re helping customers by offering lots of choice, but we’re just as likely increasing their stress. Too much of a good thing is un-freedom.

Successful businesses, especially smaller ones, develop a niche expertise rather than try to be a one-stop-shop.

They keep choices simple, focused and manageable.

So ask yourself:

  1. Are you delivering freedom… or un-freedom?
  2. Are you fine-tuning your niche?