Barry Schwartz, a psychology professor at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, published a book in 2004 called “The Paradox of Choice: Why Less Is More.” Last year, in an interview with Business Insider, Schwartz called Trader Joe’s “the best example of how the world should be constructed.”
Now that we have one of the celebrated grocery stores in Little Rock, perhaps more Arkansas Business readers have experienced the shopping experience that Schwartz praised: a unique mix of products and consistent, reliable quality without an overwhelming number of choices.
This is an Opinion
Trader Joe’s sells about 4,000 individual products — what retailers call stock-keeping units — and about 80% of that merchandise carries a Trader Joe’s store brand. A typical supermarket stocks about 40,000 SKUs, and national brands bid for prime shelf space. That makes it harder for shoppers to appreciate the vast number of options that are theoretically a selling point while undermining — psychologically at least — the quality of store-brand items.
“Options” is my second-favorite word (after “context”), because having a viable Plan B makes my life less stressful, especially my work life. That’s good. As Schwartz wrote in his book, “Autonomy and freedom of choice are critical to our well being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy.”
Everyone has been in a situation in which we felt we had no options, and that is never a good feeling. But being overwhelmed or paralyzed by too many choices is even more familiar and almost as miserable. The Kroger store that still gets most of my grocery dollars may have products very similar to those I’ve learned to love from Trader Joe’s, but they are hidden in a sea of choices, so I find myself buying the same things so often that the Kroger app offers to populate my shopping list with “regulars.”
Think about restaurants with enormous menus. Do you find yourself struggling to decide, holding up progress for everyone in your party? Or do you find yourself going back to the same entree you enjoyed the last time you were there, effectively limiting your own choices and cheating yourself out of a promising new experience?
Some retailers are taking the hint. Sam’s Club has been deliberately reducing its SKUs, particularly by cutting back on the number of extra-extra-large packages that have fewer interested buyers and smaller margins when they do sell. Limited menus are a growing trend in the restaurant business, streamlining both the kitchen and the customer experience. In both cases, offering less really can be more — more sales and especially more profit. There’s a reason Dollar General consistently has a higher gross profit margin than Walmart.
Where else can too many choices be counterproductive? Barry Schwartz, the psychology professor, took part in that podcast I keep recommending, “The Happiness Lab,” and he and host Laurie Santos discussed other choice overloads: Netflix, our closets, 401(k) investment options. With more options than we could ever enjoy, we tend to watch and wear old favorites. Some executives, including Steve Jobs and Barack Obama, famously removed virtually all decision-making from their wardrobes. Tommy May, the former chairman and CEO of Simmons First National Bank, has done the same, and Elizabeth Warren has similarly adopted a limited wardrobe for her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Most paralyzing choice overload is relatively harmless. So what if we never watch “The Irishman”? But if having too many investment options discourages employees from participating in a 401(k) — and research says this is true — the consequences can be dire.
The Republican Party’s nomination of Donald Trump in 2016 was often attributed to having too many choices. After all, he got fewer than half of all primary votes cast. But once he was installed as the nominee and especially as president, Republicans are overwhelmingly satisfied with him — so satisfied that several state-level Republican parties have decided that their voters need no options at all.
Democrats responded by offering their party even more choices. And while their slate of candidates started out being far more diverse in age, sex and race, the paradox of choice seems to favor the familiar — old white male Joe Biden.
I’m pretty old, so I met my husband the old-fashioned way — at work. But I’m told that the paradox of choice has become a problem in online dating apps. Here’s an idea: Try looking for dates in the nice, wide aisles of Trader Joe’s.
Email Gwen Moritz, editor of Arkansas Business, at GMoritz@ABPG.com and follow her on Twitter at @gwenmoritz.