Too Much Choice?

The other day I was asked by a colleague to name one fact about shopper behavior that most retailers are surprised to learn. Something that has emerged over the last 14 years of work, but particularly since the rise of the mobile device.  While there are a number of them, one that immediately came to mind was the obsession retailers have with choice.  Why? Because the addition of mobile adds to an already overwhelming experience and too much choice can actually work against you. People are much less interested in ridiculous numbers of product choices than they say. Our obsession with choice is a cultural construct – we’re trained to say it but the fact is that we don’t necessarily want it. At least not in every environment. Indeed, design (good design, at least) is about limiting choice and directing people to take certain actions.  You can’t make good choices if you are overwhelmed and confused. The natural response is to flee or fight.  So streamlining inventory or improving flow can completely alter how a retail space is used and understood.  As an example, the layout of IKEA seems like it would lead to cognitive overload, but it doesn’t because it designed like a Bazaar – IKEA directs shoppers through a series of visual vignettes, metaphorical “stalls,” similar to what we expect to see in an archetypal Bazaar. Consequently, shoppers are able to cope with the number of choices, to segment, categorize and compartmentalize them.  Most mass retailers simply bombard shoppers with products and signs screaming “Buy this!” The product display without a storyline attached coupled with the sheer number of options is bewildering. In-store signage that is simply loud doesn’t covert shoppers to buyers, it’s just loud.  It is the Fox News in retail design.

Shopping is increasingly an entertainment experience, a teaching experience and a means of expressing identity publicly.  As such, it is something of a three-dimensional media channel which integrates elements of digital, spatial and information design into a multi-sensory experience. So, what was once simply a matter of product overload now has the added distractions of an increasingly mobile world.  In other words, while there was always noise, the noise is significantly greater than it ever has been.  People have limits to what they can process, whether on the retail floor or elsewhere.  Simply throwing out more options in the hope it will spur purchases won’t work.  It will, in fact, work against you. Because experience is rooted increasingly in dialog between members of social groups (e.g. moms, bicyclists, rockabilly fans, etc.), the retail experience actually begins well before we set foot in the store, in conversations where people congregate. Choice is, of course, always an element but overload is a risk retailers can’t afford.

So what does it mean for the future of retail? I think we’re going to see a  return to unique goods and the stories wrapped around them. There will always be a place for the retailer with massive selection and 100,000 square feet of floor space, but they will have to put more thought into the experience. They will need to treat their stores as destinations.  For smaller venues, the nature of the brick and mortar experience will become akin to a stage, a place to entice, enthrall and engage. Products and spaces that have subtle differences and convey human ownership or production is going to replace sterile, institutional settings. People are looking to be part of the storyline. Brands and retail settings that humanize their offerings are going to become fixtures for people and for communities.

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