Choices, choices.

March 21, 2009

I’m continuing to work my way through the Marketing and Psychology issue on assortment variety and choice. Today I’m reading Reutskaja and Hogarth*, who discuss the various costs and benefits that come into play in making a choice, and how the size of a choice set can affect how these costs and benefits are calculated.  Their experiment actually concerns something directly relevant to me (a rarity in this literature, I’m finding): shape and color.

They do an excellent job of presenting the fundamental issues. I’ve been going around in circles with “a big product assortment is good because….but on the other hand it’s bad because….AAGH!”. Lather, rinse, repeat.  Well, yes. In fact, it’s all true: these are the benefits and the costs. The benefits include economic benefits (finding the best value for the price), increased satisfaction, feeling positively about the situation/product/brand, feelings of control and autonomy.  Costs include cognitive effort, time spent, anxiety, and regret after purchase as you worry that you didn’t select the best choice.  The authors point out that, alas, the advantages and disadvantages of added assortment do not accrue evenly: at some point, the benefits plateu and the costs increase at a greater rate.  In the graphs, it’s an inverted U-shaped curve– as the product selection increases, the benefits go up, up, up…then suddenly down, down, down.

In the experiment, they had people choose a gift box they would use to give a gift to a friend. Participants were presented with a set of gift boxes of either 5, 10, 15, or 20 different boxes. (This is nice– usually experimenters just go with either a small or large assortment). These boxes varied either in color, shape, or both (e.g., a set of red boxes in 10 different shapes; a set of square boxes in 10 different colors, a set of 10 boxes of different colors and different shapes).  They then rated their levels of satisfaction with the process of making the choice, and with the outcome– how satisfied they were with the box they ended up choosing. Turns out, when it comes to shape vs color, there’s a big difference in how people respond to variety.  The responses to shape clearly showed that inverted-U curve– a rapid increase in satisfaction peaking at 10 options, followed by a  decrease once they hit 15 options.  For color, the satisfaction levels increased markedly between the 5 and 10 option levels, but didn’t decrease with15 or 20 options.  It just plateaued.  In other words, if you’re thinking about adding options to a product line, adding too many new shapes can really count against you, while adding more color options will help to a certain point and then above and beyond that, won’t do any good (or harm) with respect to satisfaction.

Of course, this doesn’t give us much insight into the too-much-choice problem, since in this study participants had to choose, and the measurement was of satisfaction; in the too-much-choice scenario, what’s measured is whether a choice is made at all.  And although the satisfaction levels drop off or plateu with added choice, what we don’t know is, for example, how brand perception is affected. Perhaps added color variety doesn’t continue to enhance satisfaction beyond a certain point, but it may continue to enhance brand perception (especially if the brand in question is an artist, as opposed to a toaster, but that’s another empirical question). 


*Reutskaja and Hogarth. 2009. “Satisfaction in choice as a function of the number of alternatives: when ‘goods satiate'”. Psychology and Marketing 26(3): 197-203.


Too much choice? Nah.

March 17, 2009

The March issue of Psychology & Marketing was a theme issue on assortment variety and choice. Lots of good stuff therein– I hope to slog through it in short order.

First up is an article trying to identify boundary conditions on the too-much-choice effect– the much-ballyhooed (well, somewhat-ballyhooed) finding that too much variety will lead people to freeze up, say to hell with it, and leave without purchasing anything– a refusal to make a choice.  Researchers are still picking at this problem– when, why, how, for whom does an increase in the available choices cause decision overload?  Just how much choice is too much, anyway?  5 choices, 20 choices, 50 choices…? Where’s the line?

Gearing up for the art show season as I am, these questions have been on my mind as I try to figure how much to make in preparation, and how much to display when the time comes.

Good news (sort of) from the first article from the volume that I read*:  There are just no clear answers. They did three experiments in two countries, looked a a whole bunch of variables, and found that none of them correlated very reliably with a too-much-choice effect as lower reported satisfaction with the assortment.  Much of the time, the effect was not even in evidence, even when the choice set was rather large (79 items). Even if people reported that they found the decision difficult, it didn’t mean that they necessarily experienced choice overload.  Now, this is annoying if you really want to make sure you aren’t causing it in your own product display– but it’s also kinda nice to know that this effect isn’t all that robust, and in any case no one knows yet what causes it, much less how to prevent it.  One less thing to worry about for now.  In general, the benefits of offering a large variety (increased satisfaction with the variety; increased consumption of items from a large assortment) are more clear than any negative effects.


* Scheibehenne, Greifeneder, Todd. “What moderates too much choice?” Psychology & Marketing 26:3: 229-253.

orange jelly

March 15, 2009

Orange jelly was my jamming project this week. I love all things citrus (comes from growing up in Florida), and while marmalade has its rewards, I wanted to make something a little easier and different.  The result is like a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice in jam form.  

I used Pomona’s Universal Pectin in order to be able to reduce the sugar and get the tart flavor I was seeking. It’s a 2-part pectin consisting of a powder and a calcium water mixture that activates the gelling properties of the pectin– that’s what the pectin pwder and calcium water are doing in the recipe below, so no substitutions, please.  You will get nowhere if you try to substitute another pectin for the powder in this recipe. Pomona allows a couple of things that I find very handy: the ability to reduce or substitute sugar by as much as you like, and the ability to make very small test batches of new recipes so you don’t get stuck with a dozen jars of something you’re not even sure will turn out right.  I don’t think this recipe would be quite as wonderful with regular pectin since you’d have to use a lot more sugar to get it to gel.

Orange Sunshine Jelly

2 c. freshly squeezed orange juice

juice of 1 lemon

finely grated zest of 3 oranges

1/3 c. sugar

1/4 c. honey

2 sprigs rosemary (3-4 inches long)

2 tsp calcium water

1 tsp pectin powder

In a pan, combine the juices, calcium powder, zest, and rosemary. Bring to a boil. In a small bowl, mix together well the sugar, honey, and pectin powder.  Stir into the juice mixture, bring back to boil, and stir well for 1-2 minutes to dissolve the pectin. Remove the rosemary sprigs, and pour into hot sterilized jars. Process in a boiling water bath 10 minutes, or keep in the refrigerator. Makes 3 half pint jars.

Ahhh, gelato

March 12, 2009

This week I discovered the technique of making gelato with a milk and cornstarch base– a lot less work and a smidge healthier than an egg-based ice cream custard.

Was going to try avocado gelato today, but discovered once I had already gotten most of the ingredients mixed in the pan that my avocado was, alas, no longer fit for human consumption.  What to do?

Orange, Honey, and Rosemary Gelato

2 c. milk

pinch salt

1/3 c. sugar

1/4 c. honey

2 Tbs cornstarch

zest of 1 orange (long strips are easiest)

1 sprig rosemary

In pan, combine 1 1/2 c. milk, salt, sugar, honey, orange zest, and rosemary. Bring to a gentle boil. In a cup, stir together the remaining milk and the cornstarch.  Stir into the pan. Bring to boil. Let boil 1 min. Pull out the citrus zest and rosemary; completely cool milk mixture in bowl over ice water before freezing in ice cream maker.

I’m going to have to try these flavors in a jam, too, I think…

March 5, 2009

I know, I know, I haven’t been here in a while. I haven’t given up! I keep thinking I should do another marketing post, but I just haven’t. Ok? That’s all. I just haven’t. Soon, I promise.

In other news, I am putting together a tea order from Upton. It’s spring, the new teas are arriving, and this means I’m tempted by all sorts of things I can’t afford. Like the Competition Tie-Guan-Yin.  Someday, maybe…but not now, for sure. What I mainly need right now is my morning Assam.  Last time I got some Koilamari and some Madoorie; no complaints, and I may go with them again this time. If you’re looking for a good Assam, you could do worse than one of those.