Give Customers Options — But Not Too Many, According to Science

Presenting buying options to customers isn’t as easy as showing them everything you’ve got in stock. Research shows there’s a fine line between too many and too few options.
Photo Credit: ATA

Author: Jackie Holbrook

Customers can be finicky. People like options. They like to make choices. But too many options can hinder decisions and be overwhelming, causing indecisiveness. Patrons can’t choose if there’s too much on the table. This is the customer conundrum for archery shops. How do you present enough options to allow people to find the right fit, while not overwhelming them, which can lead to selection anxiety. What’s the sweet spot? Research reveals it’s somewhere around seven.

Research has revealed that the optimal number of options to provide a customer is seven. Photo Credit: ATA

It was once believed that having unlimited options was a good thing. But over the years psychologists and business professionals began to cast doubt on that theory. In 2000, psychologists decided it was time to study the science behind product selection. Psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper published a landmark study, “When Choice Is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?” They set out to test whether the “popular notion that the more choice, the better,” was true for human nature.

The study used gourmet jam to test the theory, in a setting known for hosting an overwhelming number of choices. On the first day, grocery store shoppers saw a display with 24 varieties of gourmet jam. If they sampled the spread, they would receive a coupon for $1 off any jam. On the second day, the table was smaller and had just six varieties of gourmet jam. These shoppers were also given $1 off for sampling jams.

The study found that the larger table with more options attracted more attention. However, when it came time to make a purchase, people who saw the larger display were only one-tenth as likely to buy jam as those who saw the smaller display. This experiment wasn’t a fluke. Similar studies have confirmed the result that too many choices create a barrier to buying.

Customers like options, as long as they're not overwhelmed. Photo Credit: ATA

In a 2018 study in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, researchers looked at how choice overload affects human behavior. Volunteers lay in an MRI machine and viewed pictures of scenic landscapes. They were shown either six, 12 or 24 pictures and asked to choose one to have printed onto souvenir memorabilia. The MRI scanned brain activity as the volunteers were making their selection. The results showed that brain activity was the highest when subjects had 12 options to pick from. The researchers wrote that this suggests the optimal number of options to present during the study was 12. They went on to determine that the ideal number is “probably somewhere between 8 and 15.”

Psychologist George Miller’s research further narrows the number to around seven. In one of the most cited papers in psychology, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information,” he argues the number of objects the average consumer can process is seven plus or minus two.

Barry Schwartz, psychologist and author, addresses this issue in his book “The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.” Schwartz says that Western society believes the best way to maximize freedom is through maximizing choices. But this attitude of unlimited options has created stress and anxiety among consumers, he says. Excessive choices can overwhelm decision-making to the point where it prevents people from even choosing at all. Schwartz also says that in a society with unlimited choices, people are expected to be happy. So when consumers make a choice they later regret, it can lead to negative emotions and even struggles with depression.

With so many studies pointing to limiting options for consumers, is there a point where there can be too few? Presenting customers with a single option isn’t the answer either. Too few options create the illusion that you don’t care about the customer.

A study titled “Single-Option Aversion” looked at how consumers reacted in the face of one choice. Volunteers were divided into three groups. The first group was given the option to buy a Sony DVD player. The second could buy a Philips DVD player. The third had the option to choose between both players. The study revealed that when given a single choice, less than 10% of consumers showed any interest in buying. When presented with two options, about 30% of consumers said they planned to make a purchase.

All of this research goes to show that customers want options, just not too many. They want to make comparisons and feel empowered to make a decision. However, if you offer too many choices you risk creating confusion, anxiety and even buyer’s remorse. To apply these principles in your shop, organize it in a way that keeps it clutter-free. Getting to know the customer also helps. If you know what they’re looking for, you can show them a variety of models that suit their price point and needs, and not overwhelm them with options they can’t afford or don’t want.

The ATA is here to help. MyATA Learning Center is full of on-demand resources that can help you address important business topics. The Resource Library is another great tool that’s free to members.

Share This Story