"The art of choosing"

Can too many selections scare off customers?

By Becky Schilling, Editor

Over a bottle of pinot noir this weekend a couple of my friends and I started discussing our tastes in books. I said history. Another friend said history and fantasy. My roommate said books dealing with health and psychology. She then started telling us about a book she recently read about choices and how people make them.

The book was “The Art of Choosing” by Sheena Iyengar, a Columbia University professor and an expert on choice. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment on it. What I did find interesting, however, was the jam study and how the results could affect foodservice.

In the study, conducted in a grocery store in 1995, a table was set up from which the store’s customers could sample different types of jam. At various times, the table either displayed a large assortment of jams—24 to 28 varieties—or a small number—six. More people were drawn to the large sampling: 60% tested a jam when more varieties were offered compared to 40% when only six were offered. However, only 3% of customers who sampled the large assortment made a jam purchase, compared with 30% of those who sampled the small assortment. To Iyengar and her team, the customers who had the larger assortment of jams to sample were so confused and overwhelmed that when it came to actually making a selection for purchase they instead opted to not purchase a jam at all.

“These studies…have found fairly consistently that when people are given a moderate number of options (4 to 6) rather than a large number (20 to 30), they are more likely to make a choice, are more confident in their decision, and are happier with what they choose,” Iyengar wrote in her book.

That got me thinking about non-commercial serveries. When I talk with operators it’s often a point of pride when they mention how many options they have on a daily basis. According to the jam study, that could be a problem. So my question to you is: Are operators offering so many selections that it scares off customers? Are there so many choices that customers get flustered, can’t make a decision and end up going for a selection they eat all the time and are comfortable with? How do you deal with offering enough choice that customers feel they can select different options, without being overwhelmed by too many choices?

I’d love to hear from you: Does the jam study ring true in your operations? Is too much choice a bad thing for customers? Send me an email at bschilling@cspnet.com and let me know what you think.

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