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The Paradox of Choice in COVID Shopping: Is less more?

Some brands have been restricting their offering during COVID

As the world went into lockdown, retailers found their supply chains being stretched to breaking point and, as stores reopened, they worried about coping with demand from customers. Some responded in dramatic fashion by focusing on just key parts of their offering, reducing the choices available to the public:

  • Coca-Cola and Mondelez trimmed SKUs as their supply chains sought to reduce complexity to better operate in volatile market conditions (link).
  • McDonald’s initially reopened branches with a “limited” menu (link) and later suggested that it could keep “dozens of items off the menu for the foreseeable future” (link).

This drive to simplify is not driven solely by the current pandemic – Mattel announced last year that they would be cutting SKUs by 30% (link)  but it has been accelerated by COVID.

The explosion of choice (50 different types of soap anyone?)

It’s generally agreed that choice is good. The guiding principle of much market innovation over the past twenty years has been that if consumers can’t find exactly what they want from your product offering, they’ll go and get it from someone else.   

As a result, we’ve seen a massive proliferation of choice, the multiplication of flavours and the diversification of product lines with huge numbers of subtly different variants, allowing the consumer to find the one that fits their requirements exactly.

American psychologist Barry Schwartz describes a trip to his local supermarket (“not a particularly large one, at that”) in which he encountered:

  • 285 varieties of cookies
  • 61 varieties of suntan oil and sunblock
  • 80 different pain relievers
  • 230 soups, including 29 different chicken soups

I could go on. You get the picture.  Whatever product category you want to browse, there is a lot to choose from and, if anything, over recent years , it has grown even more bewildering.

Growing choice gave rise to the ‘long tail’

At around the same time that Barry Schwartz was thinking about choices, another phrase “the Long Tail” entered the marketing lexicon. Popularised by Wired’s Chris Anderson, it explained how digital marketplaces could make it possible for suppliers to make money from the many millions of items (such as Spotify songs, or Netflix videos) that only sell in very small quantities. The long tail has created another justification for providing more and more choice to consumers.

The idea of choice is tied in with the rising aspiration of perfection, and perfection takes time

With so much choice, consumers have to invest time in making decisions. The more choice, the longer the time to choose.  According to research from Vision Direct, the typical online purchase now involves up seven steps and can take over three hours (link).

Navigating choice doesn’t just take time, it is stressful too

It is not just time, though. Schwartz and others have suggested that too much choice is bad for us. We put too much pressure on ourselves when we make decisions and excessive choice creates a spiral of rising expectation, post-purchase disappointment and stress. In fact, there is evidence that having restricted options makes choices easier and reduces stress and that seeking an option that is “good enough” is often better for us than holding out for the best.

COVID has forced consumers to lead a simpler life

Throughout lockdown, especially is in the early days, consumers were prepared to lower their expectations because of the context of COVID and accept reduced choice in favour of better availability and quicker delivery, effectively accelerating the shortening of the long tail.

Research from Google suggested that consumers who bought new brands, or tried new retailers in 2020, were not overly concerned about quality or recommendations from other shoppers. for shoppers in the U.K, the most important factors at the forefront of purchase decisions were availability (44%), price (43%), convenience (36%), and speed (33%).

Will this persist or will shoppers demand a return to limitless choice?

Will the tail stay short? Probably not. More than likely consumers will start to pressurise suppliers to revert to pre-COVID norms and offerings. Why do we expect to see this? There are at least three driving forces:

We can’t help ourselves

Although consumers may enjoy more simple choices and processes, over time we can almost certainly expect their innately demanding nature to reassert itself and for the appetite for differentiated and nuanced products to reappear.

“Man is a perpetually wanting animal.”

Abraham Maslow: A Theory of Human Motivation, 1943

A chain as strong as its weakest link

Even if manufacturer A decides to reduce its SKUs, if its competitors X, Y & Z keep their tails long, then A will likely soon succumb by gradually reintroducing all of the products it had cut, out of fear of losing sales and/or market share.

Sub-contracting the difficult and time-consuming tasks

Even if choice sets are increasingly complex, it doesn’t necessarily follow that consumers have to spent increasing amounts of time navigating that complexity. AI-driven algorithms are emerging that can do the due diligence on our behalf. In this kind of environment, consumers will have less and less exposure to the difficulties of choosing and therefore less interest in a shorter tail. Services likeLook After My Bills, which automatically shifts consumers onto cheaper energy suppliers and tariffs is a good example of this trend.

Keeping the tail short

There are distinct logistical and environmental reasons for reducing your product footprint, though there could also be high risk that by eliminating products from your range you concede valuable ground to your competition. Following this route represents a gamble but one that offers considerable potential for messaging gains.

Play hard in restricted parts of the market and avoid others totally

Rather than, say, developing 30 niche toothpastes that cover every conceivable consumer demand, focus your efforts on half-a-dozen really excellent and well supported propositions.

Combine benefits into fewer products

Rather than creating products with single USPs create multi-functional products that offer multiple, complementary benefits.

Take the high comms ground

Explain to consumers why you are doing this, why they should support you and why this route is in the interests of all of us.

This article was written by Nick Chiarelli, Head of Trends at Unlimited