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How Does Choice Confuse Consumers?
By: Dwayne W. Waite Jr.
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We will not be the first to tell you that the consumer is not always right. But in advertising and customer service, we strive not for the consumer to be right, but for the consumer to be satisfied with their choice and outcome. Being right and being satisfied, as we have come to know, are two different positions.

The matter of choice is a groggy one. Yes, in a monopolistic economy, the players in the game use differentiation as their main weapon; for the buyers have nearly perfect information when it comes to what they are looking for, and know what each producer provides. Without clear indications of difference, how satisfied can consumers be with their choice? And more importantly for us, how we can maximize their fulfillment?

A new study being published in the Journal of Consumer Research examined how consumers feel when having to choose a product sequentially (seeing a product one at a time) versus simultaneously (seeing multiple products at the same time). The study revealed that consumers were ultimately less satisfied when they had to choose a certain product sequentially, and were therefore less committed to it. Consumers preferred to see all of the options available before making a decision.

Why? They were afraid of choosing an inferior product. Consumers want to now that they got the best deal, or the best available. Seeing selections one at a time gives them the sense that a better option could be available.

Whether that sense is wrong or not.

The flip side: remember Gladwell's Blink, in which he notes the study of choice and that as more options became available to consumers, consumers repeatedly chose the worse deal, or the inferior product?

Fascinating, is it not? Though consumers want more choices, studies reveal that consumers pick better products with less

Choice is all about perception.

So what does this mean to us in the marketing and advertising profession? Before we suggest a solution, we would like to combine the research by examining further. We want to see how consumers pick products, with fewer choices, sequentially. For example, we would like to see six rounds of products. Each round there are three different products the consumer can choose. We want the consumer to select one product from each round. Then, we want them to pick the best product out of all six rounds. 

We surmise that this will be terribly difficult for consumers, but the findings will be interesting. Would they be more satisfied with their answer? Will they pick the best product? The experiment described above, we feel, would give us better insight on how choice affects consumer satisfaction. 

And as for advertising and marketing, this insight will help us plan our product displays, our in-store promotions, and product releases. We want consumers to leave our branded locations feeling like they picked the best option available. And we're in the profession that tells them that they certainly did.

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About the Author
Dwayne W. Waite Jr. is partner and principal at JDW: The Charlotte Agency, a marketing and advertising shop in Charlotte, NC. He enjoys consumer behavior, economics, and football.
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