WHEN MORE IS LESS?

The other day, I was shopping in our local supermarket for some essentials (usually Richard and I do this together, but this time I was by myself). Richard had asked me to pick up a box of his favorite crackers, so I found myself staring at shelves full of them. I recognized the brand he likes, but—oh my goodness—which flavor? There, staring at me, were so many choices: Original, Sundried Tomato & Basil, Spicy Buffalo, Zesty Salsa, Ranch, Honey Mustard, Chili Cheese, and Smoky BBQ.

The same was true in the mustard section. Once again, I was getting Richard his mustard and was confronted with a conglomerate of choices: Super Yellow, Classic Yellow, Sweet Yellow, Spicy Yellow, BBQ Mustard, Dijon, Spicy Brown, and Honey Dijon. And that was only in a single brand; other brands had still additional varieties.

Next, in the dairy department I was presented with a wide variety of Yogurt (8 different flavors), and even milk (Whole, Fat-free, 2%, 1% fat, Organic, Lactose-free, Soy). Talk about being confused.

And it got worse. Over in the Pharmacy Department, if you wanted a pain reliever, there are the name brands and generics, low-dose, extra-strengths, extended release, and various combinations for back pain, arthritis, migraines, you name it. How about cough syrup? There are countless brands and formulations; Robitussin alone has 15 variations. It’s daunting trying to decide, and the choices seemed never to end throughout the store; try breakfast cereals and toothpaste.

When we shop, most of us expect lots of choices, even if the differences among the products are tiny or nonexistent. An article in the Journal of Consumer Research described the American passion for unlimited options as the “Swiss-army knife of actions . . . it allows people to express themselves and to experience themselves as active agents who control their destinies and influence their worlds. Perhaps most important, a choice is a sign of freedom.”

Really; then why was I experiencing confusion, not freedom?

Actually, other research suggests that instead of increasing happiness, an overabundance of choices can reduce it. Having too many options can lead to indecision and stress about making the wrong choice. You may end up buying more stuff than you need, or become exasperated and walk away empty handed.

In still another study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers set up a tasting table with exotic jams at the entrance of an upscale grocery store. Sometimes there were 6 bottles of jam, sometimes 24. The larger display attracted more consumers, but the smaller display resulted in far more actual purchases. This was a sign of “choice overload,” the researchers concluded, meaning that people, when faced with too many choices, freeze up and lose the motivation to buy.

There’s also some evidence that most consumers are happier when they have more limited options. It makes life easier. After all, is one aspirin or ibuprofen really better than another? No, and generics are just as good as the name brands.

You can’t do much about choice overload, stores will continue to stuff their shelves with multiple choices, however, you can make your decisions easier by tuning out the distracting claims and promises and by being an informed consumer.

I have certainly now resolved that the next time Richard wants me to buy his crackers, or anything else for that matter, he tells me in advance the specific variety he wants.