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Too many food choices?

Boston Public Radio did a segment today promoting this weekend's episode of Innovation Hub http://blogs.wgbh.org/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.

                  2. Speaking only for myself, I think the more choices the better. That increases the odds that the one variety I want and think is best will be there.

                    In the last few years I've become a Trader Joe's regular not because of what it doesn't sell but because of what it does. That includes quite a few prepared foods not in any American supermarket near me, Indian for example. And the "reputation for quality product" is not an afterthought, it's near the top.

                    1. Anyone who has raised a child could tell you that, lol.

                      Rule number one with children is to limit choices otherwise its too overwhelming. Typical conversations go like this:

                      "Do you want to wear the red one or blue one?"
                      "Do you want ham and cheese or grilled cheese?"
                      "Do you want stories before or after your bath?"
                      "Do you want to put on your boots or jacket first"

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: foodieX2

                        Please tell me where you live because I need to move next door to you. None of my friends has got the "limit choices" approach.

                        Another that worked for us: "Not hungry enough for the main course, then not hungry enough for dessert."

                        1. re: Chatsworth

                          LOL, I live in the burbs south of Boston. Alas I can attest that some of my frie....er...neighbors struggle with this concept but most get it . :)

                      2. Anyone remember the Robin Williams film called (I think) 'Coming to America'? A Russian goes into an American supermarket for the first time, is overwhelmed by the vast stock and infinite choice, and faints dead away.


                        1 Reply
                        1. re: mwhitmore

                          It's "Moscow on the Hudson" - a charming film!

                        2. With regard to food, at least, this does not represent me.

                          Choice excites me.

                          The more, the better. The 75 sample jam stand would have me there for an hour and if it was good I'd buy several. The 6 sample I'd try too.

                          I'm sure it's true for other things in my life, though.

                          6 Replies
                          1. re: C. Hamster

                            What excites me is to see someone saying, "with regard to" instead of "with regards to".

                            1. re: sandylc

                              'Regardless', I agree.
                              The problem with tasting a bunch of jam samples is they all soon taste similar. Something colourful with sugar in it.
                              "That's our 'Bramble-berry' jelly. Now try our 'Bumble-berry jelly. You haven't got to the 'C's' yet.

                              1. re: Puffin3

                                Your tastebuds check out before you've finished trying them all, true...

                              2. re: sandylc

                                From Garner's Modern American Usage:

                                "The singular noun is correct. The plural form (as in 'with regards to' and 'in regards to') is, to put it charitably, poor usage.

                                1. re: GH1618

                                  It means something different. Cf. "Give my regards to Broadway."

                              3. re: C. Hamster

                                You might enjoy that hour of sampling, but how many different jars would you be likely to buy? Probably, proportionately, fewer than with the smaller selection. If I sampled 6 quality flavors, I'd probably buy the best 2, maybe 3, but not all 6. If I liked them all equally, it would probably be just one, though that's counterintuitive.

                                If you did try dozens of flavors, how many jars do you think you'd buy? If there were 48 flavors, you'd have to buy 8, 16, or 24 to make it worth the effort for the vendor to produce all those choices, as compared to offering just 6.

                              4. Yep. I like TJs for some things precisely because I find their stuff to be good quality and there is just the one. One kind of dijon mustard that I like, done. Now....I also have at least 6 different mustards in my fridge at the moment. I like options, too. But if the person/entity doing the narrowing of the selection is good at it and offers up good quality, then I'm happy to have some things narrowed. TJs reduced fat woven wheat crackers springs to mind. I like them very much with cheese and don't end up standing around pondering the seemingly couple of dozen flavors of Triscuits available now.

                                This is also, I think, part of why Chipotle is so successful. It seems like you're making tons and tons of choices....but it's really, what, 4 or so choices that are more than yes/no to an ingredient? They've narrowed the choices substantially while making it feel like you're customizing the whole thing.

                                1. I don't think the TJ comparison is apt. Ordinary supermarkets, in my experience, don't offer a large selection of similar products, but they have a large number of different products. TJ is distinguished from supermarkets by its havong a lot of interesting products found nowhere else.

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: GH1618

                                    < Ordinary supermarkets, in my experience, don't offer a large selection of similar products>

                                    What? You must live in Lake Wobegon! Just look down the bread, cereal, or snack aisle in a typical supermarket, or count the yogurt choices.

                                    1. re: greygarious

                                      It varies by product type. I agree that there are usually many brands of yogurt. But I'm chagrined that my regular supermarket dropped my particular brand and type of pickle. I have to go to three supermarkets and one specialty store to make the sandwich for my wife's lunch. I'll go to another grocery before I'll change my pickle brand.

                                  2. This has been studied extensively in terms of investment options for company sponsored retirement plans. The rate at which employees simply do not choose and thus not participate in company sponsored retirement plans increases with the number of options or plans offered. Seems counter intuitive, but maybe that's just me.

                                    Personally I like all the options. People like me are going to lose some element of choice because other people just can't make decisions.