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…and finding a pair of jeans is one! (bear with, the title will make sense in a moment)

My shop floor colleagues are a mixed bunch. They’re all really friendly, a good laugh and are fantastic team players yet they all have developed their own shop floor savants (so to speak). There’s the one that knows pretty much everything about anything relating to the shopfloor/company, the one who is highly skilled at putting outfits together, the one who’s very good at link-selling, the one who is amazing at creating a fantastic customer relationship really quickly etc etc And then there’s one who has a skill I am most highly jealous of whilst I am at work…she has an incredible memory for denim jeans.

A green eyed monster (see what I did there!)
My colleague’s skill really does amaze me. She has offered her brain to science if anyone would like to look into whether she has a part of the brain specialised in recognising denim jeans.

See the thing is we don’t have just a few pairs of jeans where I work we have six different styles, in 3 different leg lengths, in about 15 different colours (including about 5 types of blue) some have detailing and of course there’s the ‘magic varieties’ as well (see previous post). On my recent count we had 23 different styles of jeans out on womenswear alone, probably a further 15 styles up in the stockroom and countless other options available to order. Can you see why I envy my colleagues unusual skill – locating jeans, selecting some for a customer, and putting jeans back out on the shop floor is a nightmare!

But hey, customers are happy right? After all they have so much choice over a humble pair of denim trousers. Until I think about how many times a shift I get asked to find “just a pair of blue jeans” or “what’s the difference between these?” – it becomes apparent that we may be offering too much choice. The age-old adage is ‘the more choice individuals have the better’. Having choice is empowering, it’s a chance to express individuality and creates a perception of control. However whilst a large variety of choice maybe seen as desirable in can also proves to have a negative effect. This is typically referred to as the choice overload hypothesis and studies have shown how it can affect customer behaviour, emotions and ultimately sales.

A shot from the film ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ in which the assistant presents the two belts with the line “It’s a tough call, they’re both so different.”
Choices are a lot harder when it comes to fashion!

A well cited paper in this area is by Iyengar & Lepper who set up a jam taster stall in a supermarket with the stall having a display of 24 jams (extensive choice) or six jams (limited choice) which changed every hour. Whilst more customers were attracted to the stall when it displayed 24 jams, they still only tried one or two jams which was the same as in the six jam condition. However by analysing the sales results they found that in the 24 jam condition only 3% of customers went and purchased a jar of jam they had sampled in comparison to 30% in the limited choice six jam condition. They concluded that there was a paradox of choice (though this term wasn’t coined until later by Schwartz); whilst a large variety of choice at first can seem highly appealing it can later deter the customer’s motivation and decision to buy.

What all good blog posts need – a scary looking child!

Further research have shown the paradox of choice for a variety of items including pens, chocolates, and even pension plans. Even the conglomerate P&G found that too much choice was affecting their sales of Head and Shoulders and, by decreasing the brand varieties from 26 to 15, their sales of the Head & Shoulders increased by 10%. Too much choice has also be shown to decrease customer’s satisfaction with their chosen option. Additionally as the number of options increases so does the cognitive resources needed to decide.

Making choices is difficult for many reasons but a lot of it comes down to the fact humans are notoriously loss aversive, we worry more about what we will lose rather than appreciate what we could gain from a behaviour. My eight year old niece demonstrates this very well when  picking a chocolate bar/ trying to get me to buy her both. For example if she picks a Twix she will lose out of the “squidgeyness” of the Milky Way, if she picks the Milky Way she will lose the biscuit aspect of the Twix, she never considers that she will gain a biscuit from the Twix or “squidge” from a Milky Way. By deciding on a pair of jeans you have suddenly ‘lost’ the other 22 choices you had.

It’s like when your Mum gets the Christmas chocolates out and you can have 1. Which one?!? (Except in my family if you don’t pick wisely on the first pick you probably would never get a Purple One or Green Triangle for the whole of the holidays. Picking a strawberry creme does come with the real loss of two of the other options!)

As a species we like to keep our options open even if we know one choice is not the right one we still will want to hold on to it. An example of research that describes this phenomenon well is by Shin & Ariely. In their experiment participants were asked to collect as much money as they could via a computer task. The task included participants simply clicking on three different doors on a computer screen with each door being worth a different amount of money. Participants were fast at learning which door produced the highest amount of profit and, in the control condition, clicked on that door for the majority of the task. However the researcher then introduced a loss condition, a piece of a door would disappear every time it was not clicked on and, after 10 non-clicks, it would disappear altogether. Even if participants had learnt this was a low cash yielding door they would still waste their precious clicks to ‘save’ the door in order to keep all their options open.

The trick for businesses is to keep a wide variety of choice to entice customers in but narrow it down when the customer comes to choose. One way to do this is to introduce categories as it is easier to evaluate a whole category then individual products. Additionally nudges can be used such as the default option. For example some stores will now advertise what their best-selling item is in a range hence that item becomes the default. Where I work if customers cannot decide which perfume to buy their female friend or relation us sales consultants often step-in to inform them of what our best-selling product is and which one is new. Customers therefore initially have the option of a wide variety of choice, which is more appealing, but when they have to make a decision there consideration set has been made much smaller which should ultimately make the decision process easier and the customer more satisfied with their chosen product.

Flow charts are another good way of helping make decisions!

In conclusion I do think my store needs to scale back our denim range, even if it’s just by reducing the colours a pair of jeans can come in, or simply categorise better i.e. all bootcut jeans are on one rail. It’s fine if you walk into Levi’s, their brand is all about jeans, sure there’s a lot of choice but you are expecting that and is probably part of the reason you chose to shop there on a particular occasion (obviously there’s considerations such as brand, location, promotions etc.). However in all areas of retail more choice seems to be about maximising customer choice, in the UK alone 6,000 new food products are launched every year. Businesses need to be aware such a wide variety, in one product area, could in fact be damaging their sales and could provide understanding into why shops, such as Aldi (which pride themselves on having a clear-cut, ‘you have two options’ set-up) are becoming increasingly popular.

What do you choose – branded or unbranded tea? (Or Gin?)

NB: I do realise this is my second blog post that has focused a lot on jam & jeans. What can I say, I love them both!

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2 thoughts on “I got 99 problems…

  1. I recently finished reading Dan Gilbert’s (2007) ‘Stumbling on Happiness’, and one of the things that rings true with all that you’ve said is that “our happiness is in our hands” (p. 235). I think that’s an awesome sentiment. And there are clear psychological benefits to increased agency and choice (Schwartz, 2000, p. 85; Iyengar & Lepper, 2000, p. 995).

    But I have to admit, I’m not a fan of it. According to Schwartz, et al. (2002) I’m a typical maximiser (i.e., someone who has to make the best choice, otherwise they feel like poo). But I think companies have recognised the problem – especially online. The popular shopping sites, like Amazon, offer a stupid range of choice, but also constrain it for you. They offer recommendations, best sellers and high rated products. And I have to admit, I’m starting to rely more on these in-built tools – because they make my life so much easier.

  2. I often feel like I have too much choice when I am shopping. Usually not with jeans, they never fit well on my silly sized ankles, but often with online shops. I just cannot narrow down what I really want and what is really a good deal. Scheibehenne, Greifeneder & Todd (2010) suggested in their meta-analytic review of choice overload, that some studies have in fact found that choice (or too much choice) can facilitate choice and even increase satisfaction. Mad contradictions! So maybe this is why I keep heading back to said online shops, as despite having too much choice, I know somewhere they must have what I am looking for- and when they do I feel satisfied with my purchase choices!

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