How Much Choice Is Too Much?

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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  1. Big Cajun Man (AW) on November 3, 2015 at 7:56 pm

    With Wal-Mart and Loblaws offering curb-side pick up, maybe it can be easier if you can set up a “standard order”, or something similar. The Tyranny of choice befuddles me as well, especially when purchasing something I don’t know, such as Tampons. I don’t understand all the different stylistic and technological breakthroughs in this feminine hygiene necessity (nor do I want to), so my wife must be specific if she is foolish enough to ask me to pick them up for her (NB: she doesn’t any more).

  2. Kurt on November 4, 2015 at 7:36 am

    It’s funny, I can research and understand my way through the entire consumer fog and make informed decisions about the products I purchase with very little difficulty but when it comes to investment options… Full on helmet fire. I just can’t get my mind to care or even begin to process the myriad of products available. It was a lot easier to learn about my advisor options and hire someone to make the path a little clearer.

  3. Kathy Your Net Worth Manager on November 4, 2015 at 4:01 pm

    Sympathy on the toothbrush over load. Buying snow tires all i heard coming out of the sales guys mouth was la la la la

    in the end i looked up what they put on fire engines and brought those figuring my driving style is slower any way


  4. Robert on November 4, 2015 at 4:57 pm

    Yes, the “Tyranny of Choice” is becoming more difficult all the time as brands (both consumer packed goods and financial services) try to grab incremental market share. Accomplished by adding more and more choices that are barely differentiated and the companies provide very little help the consumer actually select a product.

  5. Beth on November 6, 2015 at 6:08 pm

    Most of the time I tame the tyranny by getting recommendations from friends, family and coworkers. I’ve discovered a lot of great products that way.

    But when it comes to money… Well, that’s taboo. So what do you do? I’m thinking of hiring a professional.

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