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A customer pushes a grocery cart through the food aisles at a Sainsbury's supermarket, in London Colney, U.K., on Friday, Feb. 29, 2008. (CHRIS RATCLIFFE)
A customer pushes a grocery cart through the food aisles at a Sainsbury's supermarket, in London Colney, U.K., on Friday, Feb. 29, 2008. (CHRIS RATCLIFFE)

Grow: Mark Healy

Tampon trip proves choice can be bad Add to ...

I recently bought my wife tampons. This is an experience no man should have to go through.

Women will have to trust me on this, it’s not worth it. It will not end well. Give your man a different errand.

Here is a brief re-cap of my harrowing journey through Shoppers Drug Mart: I enter the store at 11:45 p.m., hoping it will be nearly empty, looking around furtively. I have no idea which aisle to choose, so, thinking I am quite clever, I look up at the helpful signs marking the rows of products. “Tampons” is not on the sign.

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I select an aisle at random, then another, to no avail. “Oh boy,” I think. I break down and ask an employee where the tampons are. Embarrassing. She gives me the look I’ve been dreading – the raised-eyebrow-in-judgment look. In return, I give her the I-know-I-know-please-just-help-me look. Not trusting that I can proceed as directed, she insists on walking with me all the way over to the right section.

And then stands there. Even more embarrassing.

Now comes the hard part. I am assaulted by a sea of colours and packages and brands. Of product choices within brands. And of product variations within product choices. I am immediately overwhelmed. I have no idea what “pearl” or “super” mean. She can tell. “What are you looking for?” she asks. Huh? “Tampons,” I say.

Not helpful. She stares at me. Panic starts to creep in. I have no choice. I grab what looks to me like the most “normal” box of tampons on the shelf, and I make my exit. I am certain I have made a mistake as I drive home. This is an appropriate point to end this story.

More choice is not always better. More choice can lead to a negative customer experience.

Consumer choice is a constant source of debate with my clients. As is the idea of customization. A myth I deal with often is: “our customers want lots of choices, and the ability to customize.” Maybe. In most cases, we find that customers want fewer and better choices, and the ability to personalize – which is an entirely different orientation.

Consumers want fewer choices, not more choices, but they may not know it

Every year, the number of product categories, brands, products, marketing channels and marketing messages we encounter increases. In other words, the number of choices increases. And every year, we have less “disposable time” to consume the messages, process the information and make decisions. This concept is referred to as “consumer hyperchoice.”

Dr. Susan Broniarczyk, a marketing professor at the University of Texas at Austin, defines consumer hyperchoice as “an ever-increasing amount of buying that occurs amidst an ever-increasing amount of new products, brands and brand extensions, in the midst of an ever-increasing amount of other daily demands and an ever-decreasing amount of discretionary time.”

Dr. Broniarczyk and her colleagues’ research shows that consumer hyperchoice engenders a series of negative effects on the consumer. Confusion turns into frustration, which then leads to indecision (no purchase) or buyer’s remorse (post-purchase), and ultimately to fatigue.

The indecision effect is fascinating, and scary if you are a marketer. It is likely related to a psychological principle called “paradox of choice.” There’s a great study that was conducted by Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper at Columbia University, which was all about jam sales. In the study, two booths were set up to sell jam: at one, 24 flavours were for sale, while at the other only six flavours were for sale.

Thirty per cent of potential customers bought jam from the booth with only six flavours while a mere 3 per cent of potential customers bought jam from the booth with 24 flavours. Less is more. Think about your wardrobe – do you wear more of your clothes after you thin out your closet?

The science is backed up by real world examples. Wal-Mart, which may appear to offer lots of choice, actually limits the number of brands and products in each category compared with most grocery store chains. And Apple its famous for is streamlined product line, limited-feature products and uncluttered stores. Both of these companies have been very successful by limiting choice.

A final effect of consumer hyperchoice, which we have observed in our work on a number of occasions, is pattern-forming behaviour. The more choices a consumer is given, the more likely that consumer will fall back on old habits. We often see customers at Starbucks order the same coffee every day, for example, or go right to Coke in the grocery store, and we believe it lines up with adding more options to the menu and more soft drinks to the aisle, respectively. Our friends at Instinct Brand Equity Coaches insist that consumers use brands as a filters to ease decision making (such as the Coke example), and we think they are right.

The implications? They are quite clear. As a retailer or product producer, choice limitation can be powerful in boosting customer experience and sales. As a brand manager, strengthening brand recognition will help consumers dealing with hyperchoice.

Part two on Jan. 11: Consumers want to personalize, not customize, they may just be using the wrong word. Look for it on the home page of Your Business , the Globe’s home for entrepreneurs.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Mark Healy, P.Eng, MBA, is a partner at Satov Consultants – a management consultancy with practice areas in corporate strategy, customer strategy and operations strategy. Mark’s focus areas inside the customer strategy practice include consumer insights, customer experience, innovation and go-to-market strategy. He is a regular speaker and media contributor on topics ranging from marketing to strategy, in telecom, retail and other sectors. Mark is known as much for his penchant for loud socks and a healthy NFL football obsession as he is for his commitment to Ivey and recent Ivey grads. He currently serves as chair of the Ivey Alumni Association board of directors. Mark lives with his wife Charlotte and their bulldog McDuff in Toronto.

Follow on Twitter: @healymark

 

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