Limiting Choices

November 03rd, 2016

Charles Gaushell


We love choice! We’re all different and have different needs, so clearly we want choices.

But is it actually true?

How often do you find yourself having angst over purchase decisions? Do you find it is hard to clearly differentiate which car you should buy; what shirt to wear? Should I have ordered one of those 20 other entrees?

The truth is that we actually want limitations. As crazy as that sounds, we are happier when we have fewer choices, not more.

Take the jam study conducted by Sheena Iyengar in 1995. Her team setup a booth and switched every few hours between offering 24 jams vs 6. On average, potential customers tasted 2 jams (in both offerings) and each received a coupon. 60% of the potential customers said they preferred the large assortment, while only 40% preferred the small assortment.

So choice did work!

But here is the problem – 30% of the people that preferred the smaller choice samples bought the jam. Only 3% of the people with the larger choice bought. 10 times the difference with fewer choices!

So choice didn’t work! People with fewer choices, bought more!

How does this play out in highly successful brands you ask?

Well, they tend to focus their brand story and brand personality to show that they are not for everyone. They limit their target audience and then they limit choices for you.

By brand, we mean a connection with like-minded customers. They agree with your story and believe it confirms what they already believe about themselves.

Apple has clearly been one of the most successful brands in the world and they have a huge following. But they aren’t for everyone. In fact, if you factor in all Android phones, you’ll see the market is nearly split in half.

Samsung is their closest rival, but they give customers a very different choice experience. And I’m not talking about the Samsung “fire sale” (if you’ve been living in a hole, they are having a problem with phones catching fire – not good for future sales).

Back to my point - take the Apple iPhone 7. There are 5 main models to choose from. Only 5, with minor variations in color and memory. Samsung on the other hand currently has 27 base models for sale.

I’m not saying one phone is necessarily better than the other, (fire issues aside) but one of them has a cult following.

Apple builds great products, but they also limit choices both before and after you enter into their brand.

Limit 1 – Brand - Their messaging is clear and doesn’t appeal to everyone. They think differently, they challenge the status quo, and the promise to keep things simple and make your life better. It’s more about how each iPhone user sees themselves more than it is about the specs.

Limit 2 – Options - you can’t go crazy with customization and you have very few models to choose from. Take it or leave it, they don’t try to be everything to everyone.

Result – happy and loyal customers…who don’t have phones on fire – we’ll save that for another blog.

One of the reasons that people are loyal to brands is that they know what they are getting and they believe the brand “fits” them.

How about razor blades? The Dollar Shave Club has 3 blade options. 3 limited choices and it works. It works really well too! It is easier for them to tell a story and easier for the consumer to make a choice.

Will everyone use them? No, but it doesn’t matter. They save their clients time and money, they have fun branding so everyone that chooses them believes in them.'

Many restaurants have learned that if you limit the menu it strengthens your brand and increases sales. Though not everyone will like what you have, you will build a loyal brand because they know what to expect. And isn’t that the point? You want customers that align with your brand. Otherwise, you are trying to please everyone and we all know that really doesn’t work.

Think about your own experiences when you are overwhelmed with choice. It can be incredibly frustrating. It literally hurts the brand experience and your sales in the long run because “something” didn’t feel right to your customer.

Your brand must be true and consistent.
AND the choices should be limited.

This can scare some companies as they want to spread a wide net. Unfortunately, study after study shows that a targeted approach works better.

To put it another way, choice is good, but how that equates to satisfaction is something completely different. There are diminishing returns as we add options. Each new option subtracts a little from the us feeling good about our choice. Choice can also require more time and lead to anxiety, create unrealistic expectations, and lead to regret.

Consider limiting your customer’s choices in two areas - brand messaging and offerings (services or products). You will probably find happier and more loyal customers.