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May 15, 2014 12:50 PM

Too many food choices?

Boston Public Radio did a segment today promoting this weekend's episode of Innovation Hub, about how humans are affected by the number of options with which they are presented. Host Kara Miller discussed the academic research about the topic, which boils down to the counterintuitive fact that people do not like having a plethora of choices. She mentions a study of a typical fair/farmer's market vendor who offers samples of a large variety of homemade jams. Lots of people taste, but the percentage making a purchase is low. When there are only 6 choices, fewer people stop to sample, but the percentage who buy goes WAY up. She also says that a key factor in the success of Trader Joe's is that they have only about 20% of the variety in typical supermarkets, coupled with a reputation for quality product. Subconsciously, their customers like the lack of choice. Want pickles? You've only got 2-3 choices, on a small section of a single shelf; you pick one and move on. No milling around comparing a confounding array of jars. It's Prairie Home Companion's fictional Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery (motto: "If you can't get what you want here, you can probably get along without it."), in your local strip mall.

Innovation Hub is produced in Boston but carried on various public radio stations across America.

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  1. The original study was carried out by Dan Ariely and in his excellent book Predictable Irrationality. He also conducted a study on how people will not necessarily order their first preference if someone in the group has already ordered it as they feel they should order something different. Link to that study if you're interested.

    1. I bet there's an application of this that applies to menus as well.

      Jungle Jim's (located just to the north of Cincinnati) is a truly cool grocery store experience. But I can't imagine shopping there on a regular basis because it's too big. If it truly was my local grocery store, I'd probably plan extremely rigid shopping lists to make sure the whole process didn't take hours. Whereas when I'm at Trader Joe's, the trip usually goes very quickly and buying a few impulse items probably doesn't feel like much because the whole shopping trip is very streamlined to begin with.

      2 Replies
      1. re: cresyd

        One of the Boston Public Radio hosts suggested this be called the Cheesecake Factory Factor. His reasons for not eating there are that the portion size would quickly return him to his former, heavier self and that the vastness of the menu choices is intimidating and exhausting. He mentioned living years ago in NYC near a small cafe whose dinner menu offered no choice. They served a different meal every day, though, and were good cooks. So while at first he thought this a ridiculous business plan doomed to failure, he soon joined the other people he knew who ate there every day.

        1. re: greygarious

          I also think of restaurants/cafes where I'm a regular - and honestly, it's mostly driven because I've found one to three choices (or variations on a theme) that I like. I like a diversity of food and like trying new places - but the places I return to, it's not because I'm trying to eat my way through a 6 page menu.

      2. << people do not like having a plethora of choices >>. I agree. I use that same thought when choosing my fly to cast to that brown trout hiding and waiting for food.

        1. Similar research exists about why video-on-demand and BlockBuster aren't the most successful approaches.

          If you know you can watch everything at any time, you end up watching nothing.

          1. The big supermarkets have, to me, gotten out of control.

            Who ~really~ wants to stand in front of 36 different brands of dried pasta and make a choice???

            Who has the time for that???

            9 Replies
            1. re: pedalfaster

              I agree. And yet they manage to fill those giant aisles with processed mediocrity, and often don't carry the real foods that I'm looking for.

              1. re: pedalfaster

                I've never seen a supermarket big enough to have 36 brands of pasta. Three to five is typical.

                1. re: GH1618

                  Really? Every supermarket around here has about a 6-foot by 14-foot pasta section. At least four brands, sometimes more.

                  1. re: sandylc

                    At least that larger here: Prince, Ronzoni, Barilla, di Cecco, del Verde, Pastene, Pennsylvania Dutch and No-Yolk (egg noodles), plus house label and other smaller-label imported lines. I think I'm forgetting another larger brand too.

                    1. re: greygarious

                      Muellers. We see all of those, too, in the larger markets.

                        1. re: GH1618

                          Pedalfaster, not I, was the one to claim 36, although it was perfectly obvious to me that this was hyperbole. If you counted product choices rather than brands, though, there would certainly be at least that many.

                          1. re: greygarious

                            Thanks for "getting it" greygarious.

                            Yes, anything more than 3-5 choices as I wheel my cart down the aisles is overwhelming for me.

                            I have limited vision and and a pretty much unlimited shopping budget.

                      1. re: sandylc

                        I just checked my Nob Hill supermarket. Four brands account for 99% of the pasta: Raley's/Nob Hill house brand, Barilla, di Cecco, and Golden Grain. There might be another boutique brand, but it doesn't count for much shelf space. I used to buy DaVinci, but I don't see it anymore. Barilla has too much shelf space everywhere.

                        Nob Hill is a small supermarket which must optimize its shelf space carefully. Six-by-14 with four or five brands of pasta is about right. That's what I meant. Pasta takes a lot of space because of the many shapes, so less room for more brands. Safeway is the largest supermarket here. I'll check it later

                        Of course some products are carried in wide variety everywhere. Dry breakfast cereals and soda beverages, notably. However even there, two or three companies provide most of the brands. All of it could disappear as far as I am concerned. My impression of available choices is based on what I buy, not on the things I don't.