The Tyranny of Choice

PictureActual results from my wallet search

I received an email promotion for backpacks a few days ago. They were 65% off, and while I didn’t really need a new backpack, the deal seemed pretty good. I clicked through to the site, did a search by gender and received 1429 results. Applying as many filters as I could, like “laptop” and “men’s,” dropped the selection to a mere 739 choices.Oh joy! So many to choose from! Great! Um, no. Not great.

Think about that. If I were in a store and saw 739 different types of backpacks (and I’m excluding color as a type) it would be overwhelming. It’s even worse online. First, the photos aren’t very good. Second, I have to read the dimensions for each item I’m interested in because there’s no filter for dimensions and I have to make sure it will fit under an airline seat. And of course I have to read all the reviews because review number 698 from Bob in Ohio will have the one comment that enlightens me as to why I shouldn’t buy that particular backpack.

I spent a few minutes looking at backpacks, reading reviews and sorting by various parameters like price, rating, etc. Then I quit. The site had so many options that I spent enough time realizing I don’t need a new backpack and this was just too time-consuming. They had inadvertently caused me NOT to buy a backpack by having too many choices. This reminded me of an article I’d read in The Economist magazine some time ago that cited numerous examples of how having too many choices can actually cause one not to buy a product, and how companies had increased sales by reducing varieties. You can read it here, but not until you finish my blog.

Now, back to my backpack.

There’s absolutely no need to go through 739 choices. I guess I could have decided based on photos and narrowed it down to a few, but that’s like dating based only on a photo. While that’s great for Tinder, my relationship with a backpack is intended to last longer than a Tinder date and therefore needs to be based on more than a nice photo and a couple of good reviews.  Besides, as I mentioned the photos aren’t very good in most cases, and are probably misleading just like dating site photos!

The same thing happened when I decided to look for a new wallet. I went to Amazon and searched for “men’s wallet”. How many results? 3,321,743. Read that again- out loud. THREE MILLION THREE HUNDRED TWENTY-ONE THOUSAND SEVEN HUNDRED FORTY-THREE! Yes, I’m shouting. Don’t believe me? Check out the screen capture. There’s absolutely no point in returning a result like that. If I spent 20 seconds reviewing each item, I’d spend 768 days deciding on a wallet.

I added a filter for “accessories” and got 61, 144 results. That’s SIXTY-ONE THOUSAND ONE HUNDRED FORTY-FOUR freaking wallets.  And the filters I actually want to use, like the color black and RFID protection, don’t even exist. But I can search by brand. Whoop-dee-do. I don’t even know what brand I want.

I gave up and drove to my local Target store. Certainly they’ll have a decent selection of wallets, I thought. After wandering around for some time I finally found one small shelf with 4 wallets, all the same brand and mostly the same design. None that were even remotely close to anything I’d want.

Drat. Defeated again. I took out my wallet, looked it over, and realized I don’t need a new wallet anymore than I need the backpack, and with that, left the store and abandoned my search for both.

At some point in life I’ll need a new wallet, and probably a new backpack, but for now the ones I have are perfectly functional. And every time I think about buying a new one, I’ll just remind myself that I need to set aside a 2-3 weeks at minimum to go over just some of the options Amazon will offer me.

Too bad the airlines don’t offer as many flights as Amazon and others offer for their products. That’s one industry I’d be happy to see too many choices!

But for now the same thing is happening in everything from apps to hotel travel sites. Too many choices for any rational consumer to make a decision. And that is a problem, because modern economics is based on the theory of a rational consumer.

The apocalypse is upon us……