Here’s Part 2 to last week’s article that ended with a cliffhanger: “Why We Should Be More Like Trader Joe’s.”  (If you haven’t read Part 1 yet, take a minute to do that now.  Part 2 will make a lot more sense.)  At the end of Part 1, I shared how it surprises and frustrates me when I can’t make a choice while trying to order a simple little thing on Amazon.

Here is a recap:

I consider myself to be a quick decision maker, but there are times when I pop onto Amazon for what I think will be a simple 5-minute-or-less investment of time, only to leave the site 30 to 60 minutes later frustrated and not having purchased what I wanted because I couldn’t make up my mind.  This surprising, frustrating experience that should have been so simple leads me to ask:

What the heck just happened???

The answer is that there were too many choices and not enough information to figure out which product was the best value and fit.  This happened the other day when I went onto Amazon to buy a simple heated blanket.  How hard can that be?  Hard enough that after two frustrating visits with an empty shopping cart, I ended up grabbing one at Target a couple days later.  There were just too many choices and variations on Amazon.  This heated blanket goes under you, this one goes over you, this one has a timer, this one has a review that says it broke after 30 days.  You get the picture.  Target offered two choices, so I bought one of them.  Easy.

It seems ridiculous that a quick decision-maker like me could struggle deciding on a simple heated blanket.  But, according to Dr. Sheena Iyengar, there is a very good reason for this.

Dr. Sheena Iyengar’s Famous “Jam Experiment”

Choice is a fascinating subject – one which Iyengar, social psychologist and professor at the Columbia Business School, has devoted her entire professional life to studying.

Dr. Sheena Iyengar speaks to audiences all over the globe about the paradox of choice, a subject inspired by her famous “jam experiment.”

Iyengar is the pioneer behind what has become a famous experiment in the science and psychology of choice called “the jam experiment.”  In 2000, she and her colleague, Mark Lepper (from Stanford), set up a tasting booth for jams in an upscale California supermarket.  They alternated the choice set so that some days the tasting booth would feature 6 different types of jams and other days the booth would feature 24.  They tested for two things: when did more people stop and when did more people buy?  (Or would the number of choices even make a difference?)

Their experiment showed that the number of choices did, in fact, affect customer interest and ultimately purchase action.  They found that more people (60%) stopped when 24 types of jams were on display, while only 40% of people stopped when there were only 6 jams.  That’s not a huge difference, but when you compare actual purchases, everything does a flip-flop.  Only 3% of customers who stopped by the booth went on to purchase the jam when there were 24 different jams on display; when only 6 jams were available, 30% of the customers who stopped ended up purchasing.  In summary, a larger choice set generated more interest, while a smaller choice set generated more sales.

It would stand to reason, then, that while choice seems appealing at first, too many choices can lead to overload, resulting in “choice paralysis.”  (This is what happened when I tried to order the blanket on Amazon but left frustrated.  While considering all the possible choices, I got tired of it, and even though I really wanted a heated blanket, I chose not to buy anything at all.)  Iyengar has found that we want to have more choices, but we also don’t want decision-making to be difficult or burdensome.  She refers to this as the “paradox of choice,” noting that choice can be “both limiting and powerful.”

Reverse Choice Paralysis

With about 1/10th the SKUs of a larger-chain grocery store, Trader Joe’s customers can avoid “choice paralysis,” keeping the shopping experience simple and stress-free.  Photo by Angelica Marie Photography

What does this have to do with Trader Joe’s success?  Compare the number of SKUs (stock keeping units, or individual items) in a typical large chain grocery store – maybe 30,000 or more – to about 3,000 SKUs in a Trader Joe’s store.  This would suggest that the limit in choices or “curation” has something to do with the store’s success.

While they regularly feature new and exciting products, they will usually have replaced other SKUs that didn’t make the cut or for whatever reason are no longer being offered.  This allows them to keep the SKUs consistently around the 3,000 mark, so customers don’t feel overwhelmed with 6 million choices of every item.   While you’ll rarely find more than a few choices of toothpaste, toilet paper, or hand soap, I have noticed that there are more choices when it comes to things like cheese, wine, and chocolates – the gourmet or “special occasion” items.  I wonder if that’s part of the appeal, as well: offering fewer things that aren’t all that exciting to most of us and more things we can get excited about and spend more money on?

Whatever the reasons for Trader Joe’s success, it’s obvious that they’re keeping shoppers happy and excited.  As Dr. Iyengar (also a Trader Joe’s fan) points out, by limiting our choices, it somehow “makes us imagine greater possibilities.”

As for my heated blanket?  I couldn’t be happier.  Maybe this is partly because, when purchasing the blanket in the store, I had “choice A” and “choice B.”  In that moment, no other options existed, allowing me to more easily imagine the possibility of a better night’s sleep.

Here’s Part 2 to last week’s article that ended with a cliffhanger: “Why We Should Be More Like Trader Joe’s.”  (If you haven’t read Part 1 yet, take a minute to do that now.  Part 2 will make a lot more sense.)  At the end of Part 1, I shared how it surprises and frustrates me when I can’t make a choice while trying to order a simple little thing on Amazon.

Here is a recap:

I consider myself to be a quick decision maker, but there are times when I pop onto Amazon for what I think will be a simple 5-minute-or-less investment of time, only to leave the site 30 to 60 minutes later frustrated and not having purchased what I wanted because I couldn’t make up my mind.  This surprising, frustrating experience that should have been so simple leads me to ask:

What the heck just happened???

The answer is that there were too many choices and not enough information to figure out which product was the best value and fit.  This happened the other day when I went onto Amazon to buy a simple heated blanket.  How hard can that be?  Hard enough that after two frustrating visits with an empty shopping cart, I ended up grabbing one at Target a couple days later.  There were just too many choices and variations on Amazon.  This heated blanket goes under you, this one goes over you, this one has a timer, this one has a review that says it broke after 30 days.  You get the picture.  Target offered two choices, so I bought one of them.  Easy.

It seems ridiculous that a quick decision-maker like me could struggle deciding on a simple heated blanket.  But, according to Dr. Sheena Iyengar, there is a very good reason for this.

Dr. Sheena Iyengar’s Famous “Jam Experiment”

Choice is a fascinating subject – one which Iyengar, social psychologist and professor at the Columbia Business School, has devoted her entire professional life to studying.

Dr. Sheena Iyengar speaks to audiences all over the globe about the paradox of choice, a subject inspired by her famous “jam experiment.”

Iyengar is the pioneer behind what has become a famous experiment in the science and psychology of choice called “the jam experiment.”  In 2000, she and her colleague, Mark Lepper (from Stanford), set up a tasting booth for jams in an upscale California supermarket.  They alternated the choice set so that some days the tasting booth would feature 6 different types of jams and other days the booth would feature 24.  They tested for two things: when did more people stop and when did more people buy?  (Or would the number of choices even make a difference?)

Their experiment showed that the number of choices did, in fact, affect customer interest and ultimately purchase action.  They found that more people (60%) stopped when 24 types of jams were on display, while only 40% of people stopped when there were only 6 jams.  That’s not a huge difference, but when you compare actual purchases, everything does a flip-flop.  Only 3% of customers who stopped by the booth went on to purchase the jam when there were 24 different jams on display; when only 6 jams were available, 30% of the customers who stopped ended up purchasing.  In summary, a larger choice set generated more interest, while a smaller choice set generated more sales.

It would stand to reason, then, that while choice seems appealing at first, too many choices can lead to overload, resulting in “choice paralysis.”  (This is what happened when I tried to order the blanket on Amazon but left frustrated.  While considering all the possible choices, I got tired of it, and even though I really wanted a heated blanket, I chose not to buy anything at all.)  Iyengar has found that we want to have more choices, but we also don’t want decision-making to be difficult or burdensome.  She refers to this as the “paradox of choice,” noting that choice can be “both limiting and powerful.”

Reverse Choice Paralysis

What does this have to do with Trader Joe’s success?  Compare the number of SKUs (stock keeping units, or individual items) in a typical large chain grocery store – maybe 30,000 or more – to about 3,000 SKUs in a Trader Joe’s store.  This would suggest that the limit in choices or “curation” has something to do with the store’s success.

With about 1/10th the SKUs of a larger-chain grocery store, Trader Joe’s customers can avoid “choice paralysis,” keeping the shopping experience simple and stress-free.  Photo by Angelica Marie Photography

While they regularly feature new and exciting products, they will usually have replaced other SKUs that didn’t make the cut or for whatever reason are no longer being offered.  This allows them to keep the SKUs consistently around the 3,000 mark, so customers don’t feel overwhelmed with 6 million choices of every item.   While you’ll rarely find more than a few choices of toothpaste, toilet paper, or hand soap, I have noticed that there are more choices when it comes to things like cheese, wine, and chocolates – the gourmet or “special occasion” items.  I wonder if that’s part of the appeal, as well: offering fewer things that aren’t all that exciting to most of us and more things we can get excited about and spend more money on?

Whatever the reasons for Trader Joe’s success, it’s obvious that they’re keeping shoppers happy and excited.  As Dr. Iyengar (also a Trader Joe’s fan) points out, by limiting our choices, it somehow “makes us imagine greater possibilities.”

As for my heated blanket?  I couldn’t be happier.  Maybe this is partly because, when purchasing the blanket in the store, I had “choice A” and “choice B.”  In that moment, no other options existed, allowing me to more easily imagine the possibility of a better night’s sleep.