In favor of fewer products

November 15, 2018

Offering too many products is confusing your customers and costing you sales.

I feel a mild headache coming on every time I leave the supermarket. The same thing happens when I visit a department store or a large discount store like Walmart. There are so many products, prices, brands, and images to process. I feel drained afterward.

Decision Fatigue

This is a real phenomenon for lots of people. It’s called decision fatigue. Every choice we make throughout the day — whether that be which shirt to wear, what tasks to prioritize, or which podcast to turn on during our commute — requires a certain amount of “mental capital,” if you will, and that “capital” isn’t an inexhaustible resource. 

In fact, it runs out over the course of a day and is only reset by sleep. This is why studies have shown that judges dole out harsher sentences in the afternoon. It’s also why you are more likely to have a medical complication when you have an afternoon procedure than a morning one. Ever get frustrated that you and your partner can’t choose where to eat dinner after work is over? Yep, you guessed it — decision fatigue is to blame. Doctors, judges and all humans run out of decision-making power as the day goes on.

These insights have driven many successful people to design their lives around minimizing their choices. They save their limited decision-making power for the day’s most important choices. President Obama only wore two colors of suits during his presidency. He also had a recurring rotation of meals — so that he didn’t have to waste energy on small decisions. Steve Jobs also was known for his uniform wardrobe. These guys were on to something.

Choice and Jams

I shop for most things online. Even digitally, I've noticed myself overwhelmed with an abundance of choice. I can get distracted very easily by comparing product features, or checking out other products I wasn't aware of. Sometimes I even forget to complete the purchase I originally intended to make. Research is saying I'm not alone.

Sheena Iyengar, a professor at Columbia Business School, is an expert on matters related to choice. She conducted an experiment on consumer choice that is fascinating. 

The experiment was fairly simple. Her team set up a table selling different combinations of jam at the entrance of a grocery store. Customers were encouraged to stop and sample the different jams. First, the researchers only presented 6 different kinds of jam at their table. They encouraged customers to sample the jams with the hopes that it would lead to a purchase. On a separate occasion, the team set up the exact same environment, but with 24 different kinds of jam for customers to sample and again, hopefully purchase. 

When it came to the number of visitors who stopped by to sample the jams, the table with 24 jam options won. They had roughly 20% more visitors sample the products. But when it came to actual sales, the table with only 6 options had the most success. At that table, 30% of samplers purchased a jam, compared to only 3% of the samplers from the table with 24 jam options.

Customers were more than 6 times as likely to make a purchase when they were given fewer options! These findings have been replicated in multiple studies. 

Make Choosing Easier

Choice isn't bad. Affluent societies provide us with lots of choices. Not all parts of the world have that privilege. But it isn’t necessarily true that the more choices, the better. Psychologist Barry Schwartz says it like this:“Some choice is better than none, but it does not follow that more choice is better than some choice.”

When possible, we should seek to simplify our product offering and make choosing easier. This will make our customers’ lives easier, make their buying experience more pleasant, and increase the probability of them purchasing our products.

Professor Iyengar has conducted a variety of studies to learn what can actually make the decision-making process easier. Below I’ve made some recommendations for e-commerce brands based on her research.

1. Cut Options

When Proctor and Gamble went from 26 versions of their Head & Shoulders product to 15, they saw an increase in sales by 10%. More is not better. In most cases, it’s actually worse. Having too many options for your customer to choose from will decrease actual purchases of your product.

In reality, cutting products is difficult. Brands fall into the trap of assuming they can sell more by creating more. Maintaining a minimal product offering is especially hard when your company is growing. It's hard to resist the alluring opportunity — an add-on here, a complimentary product there. You may be creating more revenue options when you create new products, but you are significantly decreasing your sales. Not to mention that you are probably killing your brand's focused differentiation. Cutting is good and as a bonus, it lowers your costs.

2. Make it Concrete

It’s easier for customers to make a choice if they can actually understand why they are making it. Paint a picture of the consequences of choosing your product vs other companies products. What are the differences that this choice will make in the customers' life? What is possible if they choose this product? What kind of community will they be part of, what kind of life will they be able to live, what are the functional and emotional benefits of choosing this product? Don't make the customer figure it out.

When it comes to some of the practical parts of your e-commerce site, use compelling messaging that speaks to customers problems. Call out the tangible benefits of your product. Use tasteful imagery of happy customers using your product. These are all small things you can do to make the choice easier for your customer to understand.

3. Categorize

We can handle more categories than we can handle choices. You can actually give consumers less overall choices, but separate them into multiple categories and they will think they have more options. 

Sort your products into helpful categories. The keyword here is "helpful". Use categories that actually make sense and serve the customer. Facilitating a card sorting exercise with a sample of your customers is the best way to find natural categories for your audience.

4. Conditioning

Choice is easier for us if we warm ourselves up to it. If we are requiring our customers to make a series of choices involving our product, we need to start small and gradually increase the options as we go. 

Pretend you are customizing your ideal car online. Let’s say the customer has to make 10 different choices during the process— you need to choose things like wheel types, the type of engine, external color, radio features, interior design options, etc. Customers are more likely to complete the entire group of questions if they start with whichever question has the fewest choices. From there, work your way up to the question with the most choices. 

Alternatively, if you make the customer start with the question that has the most options, you are more likely to lose them before they complete the entire process. This has implications for how you design your checkout experience, regarding things like size, color, or other product variables. 

Be Different

If you are selling online — make the bold step to sell a smaller number of products. Stay cognizant of the amount of choices you are making your customer complete on their journey to checkout. Stay focused! Take the energy you could've spent creating new products and channel it towards making one of the best damn products in the world. 

Need some examples? Here are a couple of focused product brands that we are big fans of: 

2023 - Zach Janicello

2023 - Zach Janicello