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.

In that last posting on assortment variety and quality inferences, we saw that product variety within one product category counted for a lot more in terms of perceptions of quality and expertise than product variety that spanned several types of items. That led me to wonder about what the relevant category distinctions in the arts really are–medium, style, function?

This article*, while not dealing with the arts specifically, shed some additional light on the subject for me.  They were looking at how different kinds of product organizations on a shelf or in an online store affected perceptions of variety.  Two main patterns fell out of this: there was a difference between shoppers who used the item on a frequent basis and those who seldom to never used the product. When the product layout matched the shopper’s internal organization– the existing schema that frequent product users already had in their minds– they judged there to be a better product variety than layouts with a bad mismatch between internal schema and product layout. There was no real effect for shoppers with no experience with the product, though.

Another type of organization is by shopping goal — people who aren’t very familiar with the product category tend to rely on this when searching for an item.  Now, the researchers found that when the product layout matched shopping goals, people were able to find what they wanted to buy more quickly, but also perceived less variety.  And, interestingly enough, if the shop filtered out (by a search function, for example) items not matching the shopping goal, the customers were much less satisfied with the product variety– even though they managed to find exactly what they wanted!

Ok, back to the issue of categories of art. The most useful information I got out of this was that there really is more than one way of categorizing  things– there may be an existing schema for some experienced shoppers like art show regulars, gallery buyers, collectors, other artists.  But for many, many casual browsers, the categorization may be directed by shopping goal.  They’re looking for a gift for their niece, a housewarming gift for a friend, whatever. They don’t necessarily have any concept of Fiberart, Paper arts, or whatever.   Mixing items of various functions even within one medium may seem to these folks more like a hodgepodge than a display of artistic prowess.

 I’m really just thinking as I type, here– even the most inexperienced arts buyer probably has some sort of internal schema for art, even if it’s just based on useful vs. for display only, or what is it made of?  I’m really no closer to understanding how the average person thinks about these things or whether artists have any more leeway than other types of businesses.  I guess I’m just trying to talk myself out of the conclusion that I should separate my 2D work from my jewelry!  What do you think– same body of work, or oddly incongruent?


 * Morales, Kahn, McAlister, and Broniarczyk. 2005. Perceptions of assortment variety: The effects of congruency between consumers’ internal and retailers’ external organization. Journal of Retailing 81: 2, 159-169.

Mere Categorization

December 11, 2008

Here’s an interesting one: apparently there’s some evidence that just putting things into more categories makes shoppers happier, even if you don’t actually change the numbers of things on offer. They* call it the “Mere Categorization Effect”.  So yes, you don’t have to actually increase the variety of options in order to make people feel like they have a good choice and afterward feel good about their own choice– all you have to do is divide things up and give them a label. If the category happens to be informative and useful, so much the better.  But it doesn’t need to be in order for there to be an effect. 

The researchers think it’s a perceptual cue that helps people identify differences among things. Too much variety all mushed up can make it hard on people (especially those who aren’t already familiar with the choices) to see the differences between similar things, which makes them not feel as in control of their choice. That’s a big turn-off, and sometimes leads to the result that they feel overwhelmed, give up, and leave without purchasing– but a shopper who feels fully informed and in control of the implications of their decision is a happy shopper.  And the simple act of dividing things up a little more can make them feel that way.

 This seems easy enough to implement by artists and crafters, whether the display is bins of prints, trays of pendants, a table filled with scarves or vases. For me, as I mentioned, I use frames to display my work. Some of them can hold a large number of items– in particular, my earring display usually holds over 80 pairs.  I thought that the more I had out, the easier it would be for someone to find the right pair for them.  But it sounds like I’d do better dividing that one display into several smaller displays–  if I do it right, it might seem like I have more variety even if I don’t actually have as many pairs out.  Nifty!


*Mogilner, Rudnick, and Iyengar. 2008. “The Mere Categorization Effect: How the presence of categories increases chooser’s perception of assortment variety and outcome satisfaction”. Journal of Consumer Research 35: August. 202-215.