In every aspect of life, spanning supermarkets to health insurance to career options to superannuation funds, consumers have an astonishing luxury of choice. It’s generally cited as a sign of freedom, but is a dizzying array of choices a way to liberate or debilitate?
What if there’s such as thing as choice overload, where consumers are confronted by so many options that they start to panic? Could it push them away and cause them to defer their purchases or make no purchase at all?
If choice overload is unavoidable, how could consumers better handle it? And would the managers who present these assortments be able to help consumers make decisions rather than scaring them away?
These issues inspired a series of experiments in China by Zixi (Veronica) Jiang, a lecturer in marketing at the Australian School of Business, Jing Xu from Peking University and Ravi Dhar from Yale School of Management.
In five experiments involving up to 630 Chinese university students, participants were put through a series of choice exercises on products ranging from preserved plums to coffee, tea and beachside hotels. A key aim was to see if the mental state of the participants had any impact on their views on assortment.
Participants were asked to indicate their choice, and then rate the difficulty of choosing. Their tendencies to think abstractly or concretely were measured separately after the choice exercise.
The hypothesis was that when faced with a large assortment of product choices, consumers who looked at the assortment with an abstract mindset perceived their options to be more similar than those with a concrete mindset, who attempted to differentiate products as part of their choice process. Consequently, those with an abstract mindset would find it easier to choose, while those who looked at the assortment in a concrete way would become bogged down trying to make comparisons.