Too many choices paralyze buyers

Shutterstock_32991415 When television was first introduced, there were 3 black and white channels.  Today, 500+.  Many in my baby boomer (I would like to point out that I am on the very tail end of that demographic!) demo grew up reveling in the idea of many choices because it was new territory.

But fast forward to today and you see those same baby boomers being overwhelmed at the array of decisions (based on choices) they have to make every day.

Walk into any mobile phone store and just count the number of phones available.  It's staggering.  Then, you have to figure out what each one does…and why it matters to you.

No wonder it is often easier for us to check out, than to check all the options.

Consumer research shows that the American consumer is suffering from choice fatigue. A study (by Sheena S. Iyengar from Columbia University and Mark R. Lepper from Stanford called "When Choice is Demotivating") found too many choices actually frustrated shoppers. People were offered either 30 choices or 6 choices of jam and then given coupons to purchase what they sampled.

Of those that had the opportunity to sample 30 only 3% made a purchase, while of those given 6 choices ten times as many or 30% made a purchase. That's a huge difference.

To better understand how we all react when faced with too many choices watch this brilliant TED talk by Barry Schwartz -  author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. In this talk, he explains how and why the too many choices are paralyzing us.

So what does that mean for you and me?

It means that there is power in simple.  Our customers are time-starved and information-saturated.  Make it easy.  If you have to give your customers a lot of choices — group or organize them in a way that allows their brain to sift through the options more logically and quicker.

It also means that we need to recognize that having more choices doesn't necessarily give us an edge over the competition.

If you are going to offer lots of variety — be sure you have a good reason for doing so, and be sure you help your consumers navigate through those choices.

Or they might not choose you at all.

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13 comments on “Too many choices paralyze buyers

  1. I definitely agree with this Drew. Too many times a website will have 10+ versions of the same thing with very minute differences. Often times the website does little to help us notice the differences. Many people would get frustrated and move onto another website or store with a simpler buying process & fewer choices. Consumers like to be given 2 or 3 choices and be gently guided towards one of them. If you are still going to offer many choices, at the very least ensure you showcase 1 or 2 products in each category.


  2. Good point you’re making there, Drew!

    I have that problem in restaurants or coffee shops. If there are too many choices, it takes me a long time to make a decision. I’m actually less willing to try something new when there are 30 choices than when there are 6 choices. If there are too many choices, I usually stick with the one I’ve had before. Seems like that’s my way to minimize the risk of making a wrong decision.


  3. Jeremy,

    I think this is particularly problematic on the web — where the user’s attention span is about that of a gnat. If your website is going to have many options — you really need to think long and hard about the user experience.

    If people are unsure…they won’t click at all. As you said — they’ll simply go to the next website.


  4. Tobias,

    Hmm, that’s a very interesting observation. When faced with more choices…in an attempt not to make a bad choice, you opt for the familiar. I’ll bet you are not alone in that.

    The more “secure” we feel, the more likely we are to venture beyond our comfort zone.

    Excellent point — thanks for sharing it!


  5. Roger says:

    Hi Drew, I totally Agree! This example was also described in Chris Andersons book Long Tail. Chris comes up with an interesting point. Instead of making the choice for the consumer (as in limiting the choices) order the choises so they aren’t oppressive.

    And that can be done in lots of ways. Online far more better than offline (sort by ingredients, brand, price, recommendations, most popular ans so on…). Help me find the way (and what it is that I’m truely after) instead of limiting the choices.

    Thanks for bringing it back to the table 🙂

  6. Matt Beckman says:


    I agree that less is more. What do you suggest an acceptable number of options should be? I heard it should be an odd number…not sure if that is correct or not.

    I am in the sports industry and I am relating this to ticket packages as we are looking to branch out from season tickets.


  7. Decision making is a skill . I have learned that in a restaurant, I can probably choose anything and be satisfied. The consequence of NOT choosing a better dish is outweighed by the fantastic dish I did choose.
    I do my best to give clients ONLY two or three choices, but some people just can’t be satisfied! Those are the people who are looking for something specific and will only be happy with that.
    I believe it all comes down to your outlook on life. If you just have to have the best, nothing else will do, and you’ll drive others nuts until you find it! These people should never buy a house with someone else.

  8. Kamy Herbst says:

    Perfect! You hit the nail on the head… too many choices. My mother & I are very indecisive, (both from different generations, she is 57 and I’m 28) I want to know as much as I can about every single option out there before I make my decision. I mean, that is an educated decision right? Wrong, when there are too many choices & people are so concerned with the “right” one you may never decipher what’s really the best for you and ultimately never choose to purchase. The older I get the more I realize less really is more. I agree with coffee shop analogy, If you give me too many I will never go outside the box for fear that I didn’t pick the “best.”
    However, I like choices but I appreciate a “sales” person that knows their stuff & will listen to my needs. (decipher for me) I would rather feel “secure & safe” in knowing they have given me the best option based on THEIR expertise. Anyone else agree?
    Very good food for thought, Thanks again Drew!

  9. I always unable to make up my mind at the dicisive area. Sometimes i can get help from others but its too difficult for me to be decisive for choosing frequently. and if you talk about too many choices sometimes not easy to pick up at lease one for me. Thats very right as you get older you want less thing in your life i think that is better for me to get something less so the choice will become very easy and i do the same.

  10. Tracy says:

    So true! It’s gotten to the point that I don’t even go in to stores until I know exactly what I want. It is extremely overwhelming. I know that for me and several of my friends, we no longer window shop, because you get barraged by so many different things. You can’t even go in and order a simple coffee anymore without getting asked 10 different questions about how you take it.

  11. I’d agree that too many choices can paralyze buyers, but its also important to recognize what a tool choices can be. If you are trying to sell product A, offering an inferior product B for almost the same price as product A can lead to a greater perceived value for product A.

  12. This is so true with the selection process. I had taken my son to a store the one day to pick out a new jacket. Since there were probably 400 options, he had no idea on where to start!

    I say make it simple. Give a couple styles, and make them prominently different.

  13. Hi Drew, I totally Agree! This example was also described in Chris Andersons book Long Tail. Chris comes up with an interesting point. Instead of making the choice for the consumer (as in limiting the choices) order the choises so they aren’t oppressive.

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