A collection of short stories and journalistic commentaries depicting my simple life
and how I fit in with the modern day universe of our times


Last week I found myself entering my idea of hell…
A PC World store.

Now I’m sure they’re a very good retailer, and that they sell excellent products at really competitive prices, but the problem is that they don't sell a single thing I seem to want to buy, or even look at. The cacophony of sound and myriad of flashing screens makes me just want to run for the exits instead. And that’s what I would have done if I hadn’t been there to help someone else choose a new laptop.

And what a job that was!

Row upon row of identical looking (to the untrained eye at least) boxes – all with a bewildering list of features… and prices which I’m sure would make better sense if you know what you’re talking about. But I don’t. And if it was up to me, I’d have given up and gone home in an instant. And if a piece of research I just read is anything to go by, I’m far from being alone in this.

Conventional wisdom suggests to us that the more choices you give people, the better because, if they have more items to choose from, then they’ll be more likely to buy. PC World certainly seems to subscribe to that view. But conventional wisdom is sometimes wrong, and this is probably one of those times.

In an experiment in California, a team of scientists set up a display of jams in a supermarket.

Sometimes there were just 6 jams and other times there were as many as 24. If you tasted one of the jams, you got a discount voucher to buy any jam in the store. The results were surprising to the researchers. The greater the choice of jams, the less they sold.

People simply became confused when faced with too wide a choice, and fell back on their default position of buying no jam at all.

And that was with a non-technical, easy to understand, product. Choice still led to confusion, fear and ultimately, inertia.

This doesn’t surprise me in the least.

I know that making a purchase is a stressful activity for many people. They worry about making the right decision and not getting good value for their money, and the more choices there are for them to pick from, the greater the likelihood that the decision they make will be wrong. The safest option often becomes to simply do nothing.

Likewise, one of the biggest mistakes I see made in direct marketing businesses is to send out a catalogue to potential customers. The thinking behind it is fairly straight forward in that the more products you tell people about, the more they’ll collectively buy. 

But as we’ve just seen, it doesn’t always work like that. People simply become confused and fearful, and retreat to the safe harbour position of doing nothing.

Most of us are lazy and risk averse.

By effectively choosing a single product that you think is right for your customer, and then making the strongest possible case for it, you’ll sell far more than by the scattergun catalogue approach.

But another piece of research I saw recently, suggests there may be an even better way…

A kitchen equipment store decided to start selling a bread-making machine. Sales of the unit were poor, until the store added another, more expensive, machine to sit alongside it. Consumers now had something to compare with, and were no longer expected to make a decision in a vacuum. As a result, sales of the original machine improved dramatically.

So this may be the best of all worlds… just enough choice to give a point of comparison, but not so much that the buyer becomes fearful or confused. And what’s more, it may be that there is an optimal number of items to give the consumer to choose from, before adding another leads to a fall in sales.

To suggest that this ‘optimum’ amount of choice holds true for all products… that it’s the same for cars as it is for cornflakes… would be a little too over simplistic though, I think. So you may need to do a little experimentation of your own.

But as a broad principle, you’re probably already giving your customers too much choice, rather than too little. So if you do some of the work for them, by cutting down their options, they’ll probably more readily thank you with their hard-earned cash.

And going back to those jams for a minute, what are you people thinking? Marmalade has to be the only real choice I fear.

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Its my own fault really, its all about what I see in the world, and how it all translates for me.

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