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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Are There Too Many Choices?

The following post comes from Christy Stadelmaier and addresses a topic that consumers constantly struggle with: too many choices. It is based on presentations made at Surfaces and Coverings '06. I unfortunately missed the presentation, but experienced it virtually and was overcome with the relevance of the message to help create an amazing consumer retail experience!

Christy has a rich background in interior surfacing materials -- since her first work-study design job in a floor covering store, to various design, sales and marketing roles for major manufacturers such as
Armstrong and American Olean. She currently consults in product development, marketing and merchandising of interior finish materials for an international roster of manufacturers, distributors and homebuilders. You can find Christy at Living In The Box where she shares her insights into tomorrow’s design trends and influences.

Thousands of stores, hundreds of catalogs, hundreds of thousands of choices and not a thing to wear! Whether it is fashion or finishes, the problem is the same – too many choices.

It may not be as frightening as a head-spinning horror movie, but today's proliferation of consumer choices in the home furnishings arena can bring one to mind. If your showroom is bursting at the seams, if each additional product you add brings diminishing returns, then you probably offer too many choices. If you can't afford to hire therapists with design degrees for your showroom, how do you help consumers navigate the many product choices that you offer? Therein lies the opportunity.

If you want to end the chaos, complexity and confusion over product selection for your customers, it is time to focus your product offering with a rigorous editing process that is as individual as your business. High-end boutiques in every category have always relied on editing. Pottery Barn and Crate & Barrel have done it successfully. Trader Joe’s combines the editing process with great service. The iPod is the ultimate “edited” product and research shows that it works!

First - The Research [by Sheena S. Iyengar from Columbia University and Mark R. Lepper from Stanford University titled "When Choice is Demotivating" 2000]:

Consumer research shows that the American consumer is suffering from choice fatigue. The study above found too many choices exasperated shoppers. In the research, consumers were offered either 30 choices or 6 choices of jam and then given coupons to purchase what they sampled. Of those that had the opportunity to sample 30 only 3% made a purchase, while of those given 6 choices ten times as many or 30% made a purchase. Harvard Business School followed up with a study that showed that a grocery retailer increased their revenues by 11 percent simply by reducing their assortment in various categories anywhere from 20 percent to as much as 80 percent.

To really understand how consumers react in the face of too many choices listen to this podcast with Barry Schwartz - sociology professor at Swarthmore College and author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. In this talk, he persuasively explains how and why the abundance of choice in modern society actually makes us miserable.

Second - Shaping Factors:
In this time of both rapid and constant change, creating the perfect product mix requires more consideration than just bringing in the latest offerings from your suppliers. A variety of cultural, demographic and psychographic, as well as aesthetic trends affect what your customer will choose for their homes.

+ The overriding trend that affects consumers’ choices in their homes is the paradigm shift from the Industrial and Information ages to the Biological age. Natural materials are now the most important drivers of the aesthetics of the entire built environment. We can no longer agree on a color derived from a pigment box like “hunter green” or “burgundy,” but get our color inspiration from a wide range of natural stones.
+ Homes and home furnishings have moved from being needs based to desire driven products. The income curve is flattening creating a new mass affluent market that can afford exactly what they want.
+ Boomers are still driving the home market and will continue to do so as they build and furnish their retirement homes.
+ The “new” always engages and technology continuously creates new aesthetics that intrigue the desire driven consumer.

Third - The Solution:
There is no magic pill or potion to cure the choice fatigue of today’s consumers – it is essential that you take a holistic approach. Edit your product line for the “best of”:
1. The most compelling new products.
2. Products that offer the greatest benefit to your customers
3. Products perceived as the best value

Fourth - Editing Help for 2007: Choices driven by Change Photo courtesy of Ceramica Bardelli.
Some of these trends in interior finish aesthetics can help in editing the choices you offer customers:

+ The play of light is the new color and pattern. Light bounces off interesting textures, shimmery materials and frosted metallics.

+ The “limestone” palette remains important because limestone fits today’s lifestyles. Created by evolution’s first mobile home - the shell - it is a true natural material and the light, soft and soothing color range is an antidote to our over stimulated lives.

+ With our concern for the environment, nature greens remain in the palette.

+ Fun and decoration are returning to interiors, driven by Tord Boontje’s inspired decorative motifs and bright colors for a contemporary market.

+ Consumers expect products that can be customized. (The iPod is the ultimate example)

+ The “local” element remains important.

For further reading:
+ The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less by Barry Schwartz
+ Trading Up: Why Consumers Want New Luxury Goods... And How Companies Create Them (Revised and Updated) By Michael J. Silverstein and Neil Fiske
+ The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness (P.S.) by Virginia Postrel

Thank you, Christy!

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Valeria Maltoni said...

Another intriguing topic, thank you. Schwartz teaches at the local Swarthmore College and I was familiar with his writing and thinking. Postrel's book was introduced to me by Dan Pink a few years ago. A couple of thoughts to consider:

* we tend to edit down naturally as we progress in age, especially when encountering difficult circumstances (a divorce, a death in the family, an illness, etc.)

* we as marketers, writers, bloggers, etc. have a moral (ethical) responsibility to filter the information so that when something is presented to the end reader/customer/user it has been considered and transformed by it passing through our thought process (skill, talent, training, etc. play here)

So yes, providing a suggested way to navigate your store, book, body of work, interpretation is the reason why they're paying you (even attention is a form of payment) and you're serving them (customer, readers, etc.).

The exchange them becomes valuable beyond experience to meaning. Together you can take the conversation (point of meeting) to the next level or a new place, as I'm fond of saying.

CB Whittemore said...

Valeria, excellent points. The first falls into what Schwartz describes as "satisficing". Age provides us with experience which -in my mind- means that we use better criteria for making decisions so the decisions are better. The second is the enormous opportunity that we have as marketers. I hope to address both of these points in my next post. Thanks!

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