Recently, an article appeared in the journal Behavorial Scientist. The authors looked at choice. But, unlike the majority of choice studies that focus on choice overload (too many options), the authors focused on choice deprivation (too few options). The result of their study among 7,400 respondents across six categories and six countries was that “… choice deprivation, not choice overload, is the most common consumer experience…” and a more consequential problem.
These data showed that even though some countries, like the US and Europe, for example, had lots of choices from which to select, consumers in those countries do find that in certain categories, there is less choice than satisfactory. Having too few choices is unpleasant and considered harmful, especially when the category is one that satisfies basic needs.
As we learned from our pandemic years, lack of choice is irritating and creates negativity. Take cars, for example. When people shunned public transportation due to Covid-19, the need for a car became extremely important. But, there were too few selections on lots because coronavirus decimated the ranks of those doing the manufacturing. Factories were hobbled with too few workers. Newspapers interviewed car buyers who had to expand their vehicle search areas, some even going out of their state. Some people settled for cars that were not their first choice.
Many brands thinned their product lines during the height of Covid-19, leaving only one or two different options on shelves. Brands used the pandemic to winnow out options, offering only the most popular varieties. Viva Paper Towels focused on supplying stores with the “Select-a-Size” version rather than offering both “Select-a-Size” and full size. And, some brands are sticking with the pared product lines.
So, why is this research important for marketers? Why does this research matter in countries with abundance of branded options?
This research on deprivation relative to overload has significant implications for brands because it affects a brand’s customer-perceived value equation. A customer-perceived value equation is how we decide whether a brand is worthy of purchase. It is our mental calculation as to brand experience (functional, emotional and social benefits; brand character – values and personality) relative to brand costs (money, time and effort).
The brand experience is the nominator of this equation. The brand cost are the denominator. If the denominator is greater than the numerator, the brand is not considered worthy of a purchase.
This equation is then assessed relative to its trustworthiness. Can we trust that this brand with this brand experience relative to its costs will be delivered in a quality manner every time, everywhere? We mentally multiply the equation by trust.
Choice overload is a cost. It takes time and effort to makes decision when there are so many varieties. Sometimes the branded product differences are small. The study calls these differences “illusory.” We may believe the differences are more important than they are in reality. With choice overload, we suffer from decision fatigue. We risk settling on an option that is less than optimal. This can negatively impact our brand experience. We tend to be marginally satisfied because we feel we made a less than quality decision. We tend to be less happy.
Research indicates that fewer choices make us feel more confident. We feel more satisfied about our decision. But, having too few choices is apparently detrimental. It creates another dimension to the brand’s costs: anxiety, worry, concern and apprehension. In other words, too few choices causes unease.
Unease can overwhelm a brand experience.
Ease is a multi-dimensional concept. Innovators, brands, individuals, organizations and others must recognize that it is essential to deliver on all three dimensions of ease: ease of choice, ease of use, and ease of mind.
Ease of Choice
Choice should be easy. We want more choice and more personalization. But, we want choosing to be simple. An easy choice should require a minimum effort and not take a lot of time. Too much choice leads to decision fatigue and potential poor decisions. Too few choices means that we are not really in control of our choices. Or, worse yet, we may not find what we need. For example, what if you have a child who is lactose intolerant but there is only regular milk available? Your situation is either leave without milk or spend the time and effort trying to find a store with a lactose-intolerant offering.
Ease of Use
We should live in a user-manual-free world. Service options should not require a lot of explanation. Once we easily choose, use of the product or service should be easy. There is enough happening in our lives: we do not need to waste precious time and energy on learning how to use or navigate a product or service. It is the role of the provider to take the complexity out of choice as well as the use. Further, overly complicated products and services cause us to feel inept or inadequate, and, sometimes, cause us to feel stupid.
One of the categories that the deprivation research investigated was Physicians. The research indicates that having too few doctors to choose from could make you six times less satisfied than having too many doctors from which to choose. Now, imagine that you make a choice from among a limited number of available physicians. That physician may not be near you. The physician may not accept your insurance. Since there are few choices, this physician has no appointments for a month or more. You must see a doctor. What can you do, especially if you have limited resources? Using that physician becomes difficult. You may become anxious. Ease of use disappears.
Ease of Mind
It is not enough to be easy to choose and easy to use. We want to feel comfortable with our decisions. We want to feel reassured that we made the right choice. “Am I comfortable with the decision? Now that I am using this product or service, am I satisfied with the choice?” Am I doing the right thing for me? Am I doing the right thing for my family?
If we choose from among a limited array, we may worry that we were forced to make a decision when none of the choices were ideal. We may become afraid and apprehensive. We are uncomfortable. We are uncertain as to this choice.
One of the research’s conclusions is that too few choices is worse than having too many choices. When it came to satisfaction, too few choices was a more significant factor than too many choices. “Deprivation appears to be a more consequential problem than overload…”
Although the research looks at satisfaction and not trust, imagine worrying that your choice is the wrong choice. Trust is a feeling. It is a feeling that you can rely on the brand to deliver its promise. The unease generated from too few options is probably going to impact trust. And, this becomes a serious problem. It there is zero trust then there is zero customer-perceived brand value. Anything multiplied by zero is zero.
As brands reconfigure manufacturing post-Covid, it is worthwhile considering the repercussions of too few choices. Clearly, in some categories such as snack foods and soda, we have an abundance of choice. Maybe too much choice. On the other hand, too few options is much more consequential. Now that the automotive industry has virtually eliminated most inexpensive sedans, or sedans in general, car buying is becoming more difficult for those who need an affordable, four-door vehicle.
Having brand extensions and brand families are important ways for consumers to experience a brand. Yet, the number of brand extensions and options are significant when it comes to decision-making. Brand strategies must learn what makes the best brand-business sense when it comes to overload and deprivation.