Most of us make choices every day. We choose what time to wake up, what to eat, what to wear and, to some degree, how we spend our time and resources. Decision making is at the core of individual personhood (source, source). Barry Schwartz talks about the ‘Paradox of Choice’; why too much choice can be negative (source). This is particularly pertinent to e-commerce; from the initial online search to the filtering of product listings, looking for a specific item can be a tedious and stressful process if a customer is bombarded with an unnecessary number of options.
For example, at the time of writing, if I Google a ‘denim jacket’, I am presented with the text ‘762,000,000 results’ at the top of the page with seemingly endless options in the Shopping tab. Unless I, the customer, find the ideal jacket in the first few items, I will become disinterested as the search takes longer and longer. My interest will fatigue resulting in the loss of a conversion (source, source).
Schwartz talks about this in the context of ‘the official dogma’ of modern Western society. If we are interested in maximising the welfare of our citizens, then we should maximise individual freedom. Freedom is, in and of itself, good, valuable, worthwhile, and essential to being human. Furthermore, with freedom, each of us can act on our own to do the things that will maximise our welfare, with no one making decisions on our behalf. Initially, this makes sense; the way to maximise freedom is to maximise choice (source). Social scientists have suggested for decades that, with the presence of rationality, endless choice is good for us, that it confers freedom on us, personal responsibility, self-determination, and autonomy (source).
However, Schwartz suggests that too much choice is negative. That when an individual is presented with too much choice (such as in the context of shopping online) they become paralysed by the options, resulting in a stressful and unenjoyable experience and, sometimes, no decision at all - the customer would rather make no choice than make the wrong one. This phenomenon was also found to be exaggerated with the added factor of time. When making decisions that have long-term effects, customers need to be absolutely certain that they make the correct one.
Similarly, Schwartz posits that satisfaction after purchase is also somewhat dictated by the number of alternatives offered. If a customer buys one t-shirt out of 400 possibilities, it makes logical sense that they would be more doubtful of this decision compared to if they only had to choose the colour and size of the t-shirt. These imagined alternatives induce one to regret their decision and this regret subtracts from the satisfaction you get out of that very choice, even if it was a good one. Explained another way; the more options there are, the higher our expectations of the result, so the easier it is to regret the decision based on small problems that we discover with the purchased product.
Some retailers have made the decision to cut down the number of items they show to their customers in order to increase satisfaction. For example, in 2015, Tesco’s Chief Executive, Dave Lewis, removed 30,000 of the 90,000 products on Tesco’s shelves (source). This resulted in a more streamlined and less confusing experience for the customer. By presenting consumers with only the products they actually want, the decision takes less time and post-purchase regret is reduced (source).
Schwartz’s research drives the developments at BOON, where we make sure our clients' customers are recommended only the products that are absolutely perfect for them. By shortlisting the best items for each individual, we are able to emulate Mr Lewis’s success.