So, I’m standing glassy-eyed in front of a six-foot wall of toothbrushes at my local supermarket. “Can you pick up a new toothbrush for me?” my husband requested. I naively thought I’d just pick up a soft-bristle brush in a not-too-girly colour, and be on my way. Did you know there are more than a dozen Oral-B toothbrushes, all with various tooth brushing benefits and methods? And all the other brands are just slightly different.

Next door is toothpaste – entire shelves and rows of choices. Do you want to reduce cavities, whiten your teeth, freshen your breath, control tartar, combat gingivitis, attack plaque? How about if you’re older than 50, have sensitive teeth, sensitive gums or weakening enamel? What if you need help with all of that? Why are there 27 varieties of Crest?

According to Consumer Reports, between 1975 and 2008, the number of products in the average supermarket grew from an average of about 9,000 to almost 47,000.

Related: The case of the incredible shrinking food package

I used to be able to complete my bi-weekly grocery shopping in less than an hour, and that was with two preschoolers in tow. Now it takes at least two hours before I push my overloaded cart – with the wonky wheel that just wants to go left – to the checkout.

Tell me what you want – what you really want

Shouldn’t a lot of options be good for customers? Isn’t that what consumers want? That’s what the manufacturers seem to think. They want to satisfy everyone’s tastes and needs.

If fact, although customers may be attracted to a large number of choices, when it comes to making a purchase, too many options can make decision-making difficult. When consumers do make a choice, they’re more likely to be dissatisfied because they think a different item might have been better.

Choice overload

Choice overload is not limited to the supermarket. Looking at 28 varieties of gourmet BBQ sauce is one thing, but it also applies to other areas – clothing, electronics, TV channels, small appliances and other houseware items, even schools for your kids.

Investment products are another case in point. There are more than 3,000 different ETFs and 6,700 mutual funds, not to mention thousands of individual stocks. How do you decide?

Studies have shown that new employees, when faced with choosing from 156 different investment options for their company pension plan, are overwhelmed. Choosing wisely has become their responsibility. They either opt for the familiar – GICs – or endlessly defer making the choice.

What can we do?

If you find you’ve lost your ability to differentiate and decide, it may be less complicated to shop at a smaller grocery store such as No Frills, or a warehouse store like Costco. Both carry a much narrower selection within categories.

When it comes to household items it may be easier to narrow your choices by researching online. Decide on the options you need ahead of time so you won’t become tempted by features that would be useless to you.

Purchasing investment products also takes a lot of research. Know yourself. Your strategy depends on your needs and goals, timeline, funds available, and your tolerance for volatility. If you lack the time or inclination to do this yourself, get guidance from an investment professional.


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