The Downside of Choice

A while back I listened to the ever-engaging Radiolab podcast on “Choice”. I mulled the show over quite a bit and figured a few points could easily cross over to beer – I mean, we have so many options these days, but experience relatively little growth in the marketplace as a whole. One would think, with the 2,000+ brewers we now have in this country, that craft brands were outpacing national brands (in a way, it is, but not in a way that can easily be summed up in a sentence). The lingering question I have from the show is this: do we have too many options? For many, the answer is clearly yes.

In his book, “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less” author Barry Schwarz writes:

A large array of options may discourage consumers because it forces an increase in the effort that goes into making a decision. So consumers decide not to decide, and don’t buy the product. Or if they do, the effort that the decision requires detracts from the enjoyment derived from the results. Also, a large array of options may diminish the attractiveness of what people actually choose, the reason being that thinking about the attractions of some of the unchosen options detracts from the pleasure derived from the chosen one… why can’t people just ignore many or some of the options, and treat a 30-option array as if it were a 6-option array?

Choices abound, and this obviously isn’t just a beer-related phenomena – but we’ll certainly focus on beer here. From behind the bar I am faced with confused faces every day, folks looking up at a board of 16 taps – by gawly, they just want a beer! And before you assume these are your Bud/Coors/Miller drinkers, let me assure you they are not. Craft drinkers can’t be pigeonholed, clearly, there are those that love their amber ales, stouts, porters, pilsners and everything in between. They don’t know much beyond the fact that they like these styles, too. Why should they? They’re not your passionate beer geek, they just like a good beer – much like I am not an electronics nerd, I just need a phone / tv / whatever – so long as it works.

The Radiolab show mentioned a study that is apparently well-known, performed by Sheena Iyengar of Columbia University. In this experiment, at a grocery store, she displayed jams for consumers to try and potentially purchase – some were given six choices, others were shown 30. Clearly those who like a good jam would be initially intrigued by the variety, but ultimately the plethora of jams led to fewer sales overall. Those presented with a handful of jams were far more likely to buy than those presented with many more options.

As beer retailers, distributors and reps we ought to take note of this. When displaying or promoting a brand or style of beer, or a variety of styles, it’s important to keep your options limited for casual consumers. I’ve talked about this a bit in an earlier post – if you’re at a bar with a load of options, always be ready to direct new consumers to one, two or three options – don’t just show them your beer bible and hope for the best. There’s a good reason to do this, too, from a retailer / distributor standpoint – customer satisfaction decreases with too many options. Again, as the quote above states, “a large array of options may diminish the attractiveness of what people actually choose”

This information is not just for retailers, by the way, but also for us beer geeks that love every beer style out there and love even more trying new beers. We’re the odd balls of this world, apparently. When introducing new faces to beer, maybe stick with the option you’re sure is the best fit based on your knowledge of the person. Let them enjoy that one style, don’t rush them to try similar or contrasting styles – and if they’re dissatisfied with the option you gave, be careful to not overwhelm them with everything you’ve got up your sleeve. As they become comfortable with the beer they enjoy, then maybe switch things up a bit.

All of this suggests to me that, as much as we beer geeks love new beers, it is in the best interest of craft brewers to establish and support a flagship brand – something more and more brewers seem to shy away from. This concept of too many choices is not about education, it’s human nature. We can’t just teach the general public to try every new beer we put out for them – at least we can’t expect them to appreciate it. As we grow as an industry, we must be aware – always aware – of the consumer habits that are universally true. Too many choices leads to less satisfaction. If you want to grow your brand, grow your flagship, be sure not to do it for short-term gains — and beer geeks are a finicky bunch, aren’t we?

In closing, we certainly ought to celebrate the news that America now has more than 2,000 breweries. We should also be mindful that, with all these options, we run the risk of overwhelming consumers and finding higher levels of dissatisfaction. Next time you’re in the grocery store, if they don’t have every new beer you wish they had – cut the beer manager some slack and understand that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

For retailers – bartenders, sales folks – it can be a great advantage to have a huge selection, but know that beyond the physical work required to stock this inventory, we must have easily approachable and limited choices for those needing a quick transaction. We can do this in many ways, but it must start with the basic recognition that more is not always better when it comes to variety.

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