too much customer choice is a bad thing

When Customer Choice Is A Bad Thing

Gee Ranasinha Marketing 2 Comments

Back in the old days – when times were simpler, summers were longer, and there were only three TV channels – if you wanted a cup of coffee you went to a coffee shop.

There was only one type of coffee you could order – the ‘coffee’ kind of coffee. It was a hot, dark brown liquid which you could adorn with sugar and/or cream as took your fancy. If you asked for an espresso it was because you were either showing-off in front of your friends or you were European.

Today, ordering a cup of coffee is only slightly less complex than Fermat’s Last Theorem.

Today you have Lattes, Americanos, Macchiatos, and Mochas. Cappuccinos, Frappuccinos, Al Pacinos. Extra-shot, hazelnut, 1%, 3%, soy, skinny, grande, vente, grazie mille, blah, blah, blah. Yesterday you could to be frustrated in the lack of options for your daily cup of Joe. Today, customer choice has been taken to the (other) extreme.

Capitalism, commerce, supply and demand. We’re told that choice is a good thing. As a result there are numerous choices to be made with coffee – as well as jeans, car insurance, TV channels, or toothpaste.

The choice of buying a song or movie on a physical CD or DVD, or streaming it. Or downloading it to your phone, tablet, games console, PC, or TV. There’s the choice in where and how you work. How your kids are educated, or whether you have kids at all. How you vote.

The Paradox Of Choice

The Paradox Of Choice book cover
There’s a book called “The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz that I’ve been re-reading recently. To save you the ten bucks that it’ll cost you from Amazon, the author argues that when we as consumers are given too much choice when looking to buy an item, our brains fry and we end up choosing nothing.

For instance if a group of shoppers are asked to taste five different types of ice-cream, they’ll end up picking out their favorite. However, if those same shoppers are offered samples of TWENTY different types of ice-cream they end up confused, undecided and walk away with nothing (probably because they’re feeling sick after having eaten all that ice-cream).

Most companies feel that more customer choice always equals better. They say that “The Customer Is King”, and offering flexibility is part of that. If customers say that they want more choice, then this is what we should be giving them, right?

Not necessarily.

Too Much Choice Is No Choice At All

Adding too many options has a detrimental effect on our ability to make choices. As the number of possible options grow, the mental effort needed to work out which is the “best” choice overtakes any benefit that the extra choice had in the first place. As Barry Schwartz says in the book “choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize.” Just because a little choice is seen to be a good thing, it doesn’t follow that giving more choice is better.

Too much customer choice overly complicates the buying process. On the one hand you’re happy that you have a variety of options to choose from. Conversely, all of this choice raises expectation levels. With so many choices, options, and variables the chance of regretting what you didn’t choose grows exponentially.

The result is that customers become too overwhelmed with making sure that they choose correctly that, often, they end-up choosing nothing.

Alternatively they end-up ‘selecting’ rather than ‘choosing.’ They know that they absolutely need to choose something, so they choose anything.  It’s as if they were sticking a pin in a piece of paper and hoping for the best. In which case it would’ve been better not to offer them any choice at all, wouldn’t it?

Apart from bewilderment from a customer perspective, there’s another issue. Take into consideration the environmental impact that comes with manufacturing/updating a product line, a food and drink menu, or an options list that’s clearly longer than it needs to be.

With the current interest of all things green – of sustainable manufacturing, environmental responsibility, and so on – are we on the cusp of realizing that having choice for choice’s sake is actually no choice at all?

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About the Author
Avatar for Gee Ranasinha

Gee Ranasinha

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After founding a successful media production firm, Gee became worldwide director of marketing for a European software company. As well as CEO of KEXINO he's an author, lecturer, husband, and father; and one hell of a nice bloke. He lives in a world of his own in Strasbourg, France, tolerated by his wife and young son. Find out more about Gee at

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Comments 2

  1. Avatar for Gee Ranasinha

    Gee, excellent essence out of the daily habits of most of the companies out there.

    Did you experienced the same when it comes to ask for the reason of this behaviour?

    I don’t mean the overwhelmed not selecting Customer after he received the “all is possible” message from a Company of Shop.

    Why changed the companies behaviour from offering targeted, convinced recommendations to a devot-esque “I can offer you all”, but please buy here behaviour?

    Tailored products are what people like, real recommendations. They ask an expert for guidance not to show the milky way of infinite possibilities.

    Is it the fear to guide or inability? Customers like clear statements. Sure, sometimes this statement is not what they like to hear, but the truth.
    How big are the chances when just come back to the habits like tailors to recommend two to three fabric choices after asking the right questions with knowledge of what their profession needs, that noone likes you?

    I would bet that trying this path relates to more success, and moreover happiness on both sides. Or?

    1. Avatar for Gee Ranasinha Post

      Hi Christian,

      I think that most businesses want to do “the right thing” for their customers but – for whatever reason – they simply don’t know how.

      It’s as much a social-cultural evolution as anything else. Everyone makes decisions based upon their own unique past experiences, and buying decisions are no different. The disconnect lies in many business owners and marketing professionals assuming today’s social-empowered, “always on” consumer is deciding in the same way as ever. Clearly, that’s not the case. For example, most “millennials” don’t want to buy houses, preferring the flexibility of renting. Another example is buying a car – in the USA 70% of new car sales are to over 50s (begging the question why car brands continue to focus their advertising on under 30s). Clearly the concept of car ‘ownership’, and how people will pay for them, will completely change within our lifetime.

      To effectively compete in this connected, social economy businesses are left with one simple task: become customer-obsessed or lose. For some this shift will be easy. For others, a reframing of business model will be necessary in order to remain relevant in the minds of their customers.

      Thanks so much for taking the time to leave a comment.

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