The Frontal Cortex

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.

Comments

  1. #1 brtkrbzhnv
    June 20, 2007

    This negative effect of having too many options only comes into effect when the consumer has a particular vendor in mind but not a particular product. When the consumer has decided on the product but not on the vendor, vendors with more products to choose from will be at an advantage. This latter scenario is of course much more frequent online than with old-fashioned retailers, so perhaps Zappos are actually acting wisely.

  2. #2 MattXIV
    June 20, 2007

    On the other hand, Iyengar also found that subjects presented with more choices reported enjoying the process of choosing more. This corresponds much better to my subjective experiences of large numbers of choices, where I’m ultimately much happier with extensive options (when buying beer for example, I will drive an extra 5-10 min to visit a store with more extensive choices, even if I’m not looking for anything in particular) chose even if it takes longer and is more difficult.

    There’s also an information costs dimension to this that seems to get ignored in discussions of it. Restricting a set of choices is also a means by which the seller is providing the customer with a form of information. Constrained by the number of the choices they can offer, sellers will be assumed to be chosing what they think is the choice that will best satisfy the consumer. Since sellers are often more knowledgable about the products than buyers, it often makes sense to differ to their expertise, especially in competitive markets, where their ability to use asymetric information to mark up less expensive options is constrained. Stocking 6 jams is equivalent to saying to the customer “this jam is one of the 6 jams I think you’re most likely to like” about each of the jams while by stocking 30 jams is only telling them that the individual jam is in the top 30. A lot of resturants get around the info/choices tradeoff not by constraining choices, but by marking certain options on the menu as “favorites” or some similar expression to provide a more constrained set for those who find considering all the choices to be too effort-intensive.

  3. #3 Daniel
    June 21, 2007

    It is funny, ironic that is, that MattXIV has concluded his comment by mentioning restaurants, because this post made me think of restaurants and menus.

    Often when I am in a restaurant, reading from a menu, I feel that I must be “dyslexic” even though I am not, in most other circumstances. My difficulty in ordering from a restaurant menu is not just that it is too “effort-intensive.” I find it to be a truly over-whelming ordeal. When I am with others in a restaurant, I am often embarrassed because I feel that this difficuluty I have selecting from a menu takes away from the “worldly” and “sophistocated” image, that I am trying to project.

    When I am with a close friend or love one, I often tell them what I want, and then ask them to order for me. Other times, I just order what someone else has ordered. And if the wait-person seems friendly, I sort of confide my problem, and ask for a little help.

  4. #4 cephyn
    June 21, 2007

    Perhaps dating sites are a good example of this. Too many people reject everyone they see simply because they think there are so many choices out there, one has to be perfect. Eventually. Someday. Maybe. So many choices, any little flaw is enough to reject. By having so many to consider, they can never actually narrow down.

  5. #5 B80vin
    June 21, 2007

    Maybe my vernacular is off (as is this response as far as subject), but flip-flops, as I define them (supported by Jimmy Buffet) are cheap rubber and cost about $1 or less. I would call your quest one for sandals. Or at least, I hope there are no versions of “flip-flops” that cost more than $5.

  6. #6 LC
    June 22, 2007

    When it comes to books, I still prefer the local bookstore – especially when it comes to science, technical subjects, financial guides, etc. Why? Because I want to leaf through them, check out the TOC and Index. Yes, part of this is doable online, but one is limited to selections that the vendor has permission to provide.

    With respect to things like “personal electronics”, my problem with online shopping (besides the fact that, for example, one can’t compare TV picture quality) is how difficult and time-consuming it is to identify and compare functions and features. I’ve started downloading manuals from those sites that provide them, but this is slow and cumbersome, especially on dialup. In short, what used to take maybe an hour at most at a local electronics store can take 8 or 10 hours or more online.

  7. #7 Steve
    June 22, 2007

    Of course the problem of excessive choice only comes when you HAVE excessive choice. After reading the passage of this blog entry quoted on Andrew Sullivan’s blog, I excitedly went to Zappos and searched for men’s sandals in MY size: I had 21 options, 20 of which were identical-but-for-color Birkenstocks. My local store wouldn’t have any in stock.

  8. #8 Matt Z
    June 28, 2007

    Did Sheena Iyengar have free samples? If so, maybe the folks who got 24 varieties ate so many samples were so full of jelly they didn’t want to purchase any.

    Also, if the larger variety attracted more total visitors, but the number that purchased jelly was the same, it could give the same numbers.

  9. #9 w d gann forum
    November 14, 2011

    I liked Headsweats on FB! Thanks for the giveaway!

  10. #10 fog light bmw e46
    November 18, 2011

    If you people dont stop being so loving and unbelievably supportive, I may start crying after all. Im seriously moved by everything posted here, cant believe how lucky I am that for such a selfish endeavor as a stupid running blog I get all this sweet spirited warmth from people I dont even know. I feel like Im in the middle of a giant group hug and its

  11. #11 www.volluma.net
    November 24, 2011

    Obamacare, deficit & national debt-adding stimulus bills, terrorists in our own homeland, tax cheaters in the cabinet, tax exemptions for unions and not for anyone else in the country all of these things and much, much more happened on Obamas watch. Stick with the facts, okay?

  12. #12 Stealth Auto
    December 2, 2011

    Being Irish and living in St. Emilion since 1988, I understand the Parker predicament. In my first decade here locals were astonished at my ability to recognize and remember wines and vintages.22 years on and it is much more difficult as quite simply I have more references to select from. Parker initially had few references and this increased his percentages of success in blind tastings. The Parkerisation of wines has added to the difficulty of properly assessing wines and vintages. We drank Vieux Chateau Certan 2006 this weekend and it was lactic. Parker rated this wine 96 points and it sells for €150 plus. It was disappointing to say the least, in fact, one of our Spanish wine-makers was with me here in St. Emilion for the weekend and he preferred an organic Cotes de Francs at under €10 a bottle! Parkers rating system is a good tool but is nonetheless based on his palate, which is American, and is certainly not flawless.

  13. #13 wan accelerator taiwan
    December 5, 2011

    The boys were far more violent. They would fight anyone who accused them of being gay. One went into the military and was able to settle down some. But he never came back to the area that knew his family. The other is in jail and probably always will be.

  14. #14 probate property ownership
    December 11, 2011

    IF RACE ISSUE is not important. Then why are ONLY White countries being flooded with 3rd world countries. Why does the Jewnited Nations push immigration for white countries?

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