So the Times is reporting that online sales are starting to stall/ (Jack Shafer disagrees.) This trend certainly jives with my own shopping experiences. While I still buy most of my things online – the only thing I will never buy online are pants – I’ve grown disenchanted with the vast majority of online retail sites. Simply put, they offer me way too many options.
Take flip-flops. A few weeks ago, I decided to get a new pair of flip flops. I dutifully went to Zappos (free shipping!) and looked in the “casual sandals” section. There were 1590 options. Just for men. In my size. So then I searched for “casual sandals” that were between $39.99 and $69.99. I had narrowed down the list to 652 items. I did a wee bit more narrowing, scrolled through the pages, and, after a few minutes, decided to get the flip flops at my local shoe store. The endless number of online options was aversive. I wanted fewer flip flop possibilities.
Why did Zappos’ vast selection turn me off? Excessive choice. When online stores like Zappos are determined to have something for everyone they end up having too much for anyone. The long tail is just too long. As Barry Schwartz, a psychologist at Swarthmore, writes in his book The Paradox of Choice:
“As the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear. As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates.”
The classic experiment demonstrating excessive choice was done by Sheena Iyengar, a professor of business at Columbia University. In 2000, she set up a booth in an upscale supermarket with a variety of gourmet jams and jellies, all of which scored about equally well in taste tests. Sometimes, her booth showcased 6 different jams, and sometimes it had 24 different jams. Economists assume that more choices lead to increased consumption, since everyone can try out the different jams and find their favorite. (They can maximize their subjective utility.) But when Iyengar increased the number of jams on display, purchases of jam decreased dramatically. When her booth only had 6 different jams, 30 percent of people who stopped by the both ended up buying one of the varieties. However, when she put 24 different jams on display, only 3 percent of people bought a product. All the possibilities short-circuited the brain.
In my own experience, many online retail sites are in danger of not heeding the psychological lesson of excessive choice. Zappos, for example, didn’t do a particularly good job of steering me to the product I actually wanted. (I ended up getting Reef flip flops. Expensive, but very comfortable.) Some sites, of course, have learned how to counter the pernicious effects of excessive choice. Netflix and Amazon both come to mind. But unless more online retail sites learn how to make shopping for flip flops a less exhausting and annoying experience, I’ll still be shopping at my local shoe store.