We all want customized experiences and products — but when faced with 700 options, consumers freeze up. With fascinating new research, Sheena Iyengar demonstrates how businesses (and others) can improve the experience of choosing.
Do you know how many choices you make in a typical day, in a typical week? I recently did a survey with over 2,000 Americans, and the average number of choices that the typical American reports making is about 70 in a typical day. There was also recently a study done with CEOs in which they followed CEOs around for a whole week. And these scientists simply documented all the various tasks that these CEOs engaged in and how much time they spent engaging in making decisions related to these tasks. And they found that the average CEO engaged in about 139 tasks in a week. Each task was made up of many, many, many sub-choices of course. 50 percent of their decisions were made in 9 minutes or less. Only about 12 percent of the decisions did they make an hour or more of their time. How well do you think you're doing at managing those choices?
Today I want to talk about one of the biggest modern day choosing problems that we have, which is the choice overload problem and some potential solutions.
So when I was a graduate student at Stanford University, I used to go to this very, very upscale grocery store Draeger's. Now this store, it was almost like going to an amusement park. They had 250 different kinds of mustards and vinegars and over 500 different kinds of fruits and vegetables and more than two dozen different kinds of bottled water — and this was during a time when we actually used to drink tap water. I used to love going to this store, but on one occasion I asked myself, well how come you never buy anything? Here's their olive oil aisle. They had over 75 different kinds of olive oil, including those that were in a locked case that came from thousand-year-old olive trees.
So I one day decided to pay a visit to the manager, and I asked the manager, "Is this model of offering people all this choice really working?" And he pointed to the busloads of tourists that would show up everyday, with cameras ready usually. We decided to do a little experiment, and we picked jam for our experiment. They had 348 different kinds of jam. We set up a little tasting booth right near the entrance of the store. We there put out six different flavors of jam or 24 different flavors of jam, and we looked at two things: First, in which case were people more likely to stop, sample some jam? More people stopped when there were 24, about 60 percent, than when there were six, about 40 percent. The next thing we looked at is in which case were people more likely to buy a jar of jam. Of the people who stopped when there were 24, only three percent of them actually bought a jar of jam. Of the people who stopped when there were six, well now we saw that 30 percent of them actually bought a jar of jam. Now if you do the math, people were at least six times more likely to buy a jar of jam if they encountered six than if they encountered 24.
Now choosing not to buy a jar of jam is probably good for us — at least it's good for our waistlines — but it turns out that this choice overload problem affects us even in very consequential decisions. We choose not to choose, even when it goes against our best self-interests. So now for the topic of today: financial savings. Now I'm going to describe to you a study I did with Gur Huberman, Emir Kamenica, Wei Jang where we looked at the retirement savings decisions of nearly a million Americans from about 650 plans all in the U.S. And what we looked at was whether the number of fund offerings available in a retirement savings plan, the 401(k) plan, does that affect people's likelihood to save more for tomorrow. So in these plans, we had about 657 plans that ranged from offering people anywhere from two to 59 different fund offerings. And what we found was that, the more funds offered, indeed, there was less participation rate.
Well, over the past decade, we have observed three main negative consequences to offering people more and more choices. They're more likely to delay choosing — procrastinate even when it goes against their best self-interest. They're more likely to make worse choices — worse financial choices, medical choices. They're more likely to choose things that make them less satisfied, even when they do objectively better. The main reason for this is because, we might enjoy gazing at those giant walls of mayonnaises, mustards, vinegars, jams, but we can't actually do the math of comparing and contrasting and actually picking from that stunning display. So what I want to propose to you today are four simple techniques — techniques that we have tested in one way or another in different research venues — that you can easily apply in your businesses.
The first: Cut. People are always upset when I say, "Cut." They're always worried they're going to lose shelf space. But in fact, what we're seeing more and more is that if you are willing to cut, get rid of those extraneous redundant options, well there's an increase in sales, there's a lowering of costs, there is an improvement of the choosing experience. When Proctor & Gamble went from 26 different kinds of Head & Shoulders to 15, they saw an increase in sales by 10 percent. When the Golden Cat Corporation got rid of their 10 worst-selling cat litter products, they saw an increase in profits by 87 percent. The average grocery store today offers you 45,000 products. The typical Walmart today offers you 100,000 products. But the ninth largest retailer, the ninth biggest retailer in the world today is Aldi, and it offers you only 1,400 products — one kind of canned tomato sauce.
Now in the financial savings world one of the best examples that has recently come out on how to best manage the choice offerings has actually been something that David Laibson was heavily involved in designing, which was the program that they have at Harvard. Every single Harvard employee is now automatically enrolled in a lifecycle fund. For those people who actually want to choose, they're given 20 funds, not 300 or more funds. You know, often, people say, "I don't know how to cut. They're all important choices." And the first thing I do is I ask the employees, "Tell me how these choices are different from one another. And if your employees can't tell them apart, neither can your consumers."
The second technique for handling the choice overload problem, which is concretization. That in order for people to understand the differences between the choices, they have to be able to understand the consequences associated with each choice, and that the consequences need to be felt in a vivid sort of way, in a very concrete way. Why do people spend an average of 15 to 30 percent more when they use an ATM card or a credit card as opposed to cash? Because it doesn't feel like real money. And it turns out that making it feel more concrete can actually be a very positive tool to use in getting people to save more.
The third technique: Categorization. We can handle more categories than we can handle choices. So for example, here's a study we did in a magazine aisle. It turns out that in Wegmans grocery stores up and down the northeast corridor, the magazine aisles range anywhere from 331 different kinds of magazines all the way up to 664. But you know what? If I show you 600 magazines and I divide them up into 10 categories, versus I show you 400 magazines and divide them up into 20 categories, you believe that I have given you more choice and a better choosing experience if I gave you the 400 than if I gave you the 600. Because the categories tell me how to tell them apart.
The categories need to say something to the chooser, not the choice-maker. And you often see that problem when it comes down to those long lists of all these funds. Who are they actually supposed to be informing?
My fourth technique: Condition for complexity. It turns out we can actually handle a lot more information than we think we can, we've just got to take it a little easier. We have to gradually increase the complexity. Let's take a very, very complicated decision: buying a car. Here's a German car manufacturer that gives you the opportunity to completely custom make your car. You've got to make 60 different decisions, completely make up your car. Now these decisions vary in the number of choices that they offer per decision. Car colors, exterior car colors — I've got 56 choices. Engines, gearshift — four choices. So half of the customers are going to go from high choice, 56 car colors, to low choice, four gearshifts. The other half of the customers are going to go from low choice, four gearshifts, to 56 car colors, high choice.
If you keep hitting the default button per decision, that means you're getting overwhelmed. What you find is the people who go from high choice to low choice, they're hitting that default button over and over and over again. We're losing them. They go from low choice to high choice, they're hanging in there. If I start you off easy, I learn how to choose. Even though choosing gearshift doesn't tell me anything about my preferences for interior decor, it still prepares me for how to choose. It also gets me excited about this big product that I'm putting together, so I'm more willing to be motivated to be engaged.
Cut — get rid of the extraneous alternatives; concretize — make it real; categorize — we can handle more categories, less choices; condition for complexity. All of these techniques that I'm describing to you today are designed to help you manage your choices — better for you, you can use them on yourself, better for the people that you are serving. Because I believe that the key to getting the most from choice is to be choosy about choosing. And the more we're able to be choosy about choosing the better we will be able to practice the art of choosing.