When it comes to making product selections, homeowners not only miss deadlines, they sometimes seem incapable of making any choice at all. That's no mystery to Barry Schwartz, a sociology professor at Swarthmore College and author of an interesting little book called The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. His argument, backed by a wide variety of research, is simple: While some choice is good, too much choice is usually worse, not better.
To get a feel for what Schwartz is talking about, I took a quick tour of a prominent plumbing manufacturer's Web site, where I found no fewer than 63 choices for toilets. Some are ADA compliant; most are two-piece, but some are one-piece; and most can be had with either a round or elongated bowl. Each of them employs one of five flushing technologies, and is available in three standard rough-in dimensions and several colors.
Faucets? Similar story.
Tile? Don't get me started.
It seems obvious that the more choices we have, the more likely we are to find what we are looking for and the happier we'll be with our selection. But Schwartz demonstrates that the opposite is true: As the number of choices proliferates, choosing requires more effort, mistakes are more likely, and the psychological consequences of mistakes are more severe. Schwartz also makes a convincing case that consumers can be influenced by how we present the options.
GOOD ENOUGH It helps to know who you're dealing with. Everyone falls along a continuum between those Schwartz calls “maximizers” — people who look for and accept only the best — and “satisficers” — those who settle for something that's good enough. The distinction is subtle. It isn't that satisficers have no criteria or standards; but when making choices, they look until they find one that meets those criteria and standards, then stop looking. A maximizer, on the other hand, is never really happy with any choice because they are forever plagued by the thought that they could have had something better if they had looked longer or harder.
Everybody displays both tendencies, but most people fall clearly into one camp or the other. In his book, Schwartz includes a 13-question quiz, courtesy of the American Psychological Association, to help make a positive ID. A sample question: “When I am in the car listening to the radio, I often check other stations to see if something better is playing, even if I am relatively satisfied with what I'm listening to.” Imagine how much easier product selection would go if this quiz was a regular part of your client interview.
NO HELP WANTED It also seems that the strategies we employ to “help” clients make decisions may do more harm than good. Offering tradeoffs, for example, is supposed to help, but it has the opposite effect. Numerous studies Schwartz cites lead him to conclude that facing any kind of tradeoff makes people so uncomfortable that they may refuse to choose altogether. And the number of options offered need not be overwhelming: Adding even a second option of nearly equal value — with oak cabinets, for example, offering 8% less for cherry vs. 10% less for birch — introduces a conflict that makes it harder, not easier, for people to decide.
Similarly, most remodelers tend to believe that starting with bare-bones pricing and offering upgrades is preferable to offering a “fully scoped” price from which clients can subtract features. Not so. At work is something called the “endowment effect,” whereby the pain of a loss hurts more than the cost of a gain. An option that's already included in the price is part of the endowment; taking it away is more painful to clients than paying to add it.
It's not as simple as this brief summary makes it seem — Schwartz provides many more detailed examples. But it may be enough to justify spending a few minutes thinking about how the number and type of choices you offer affect the ability of your clients to choose. You can live with delays caused by client indecision, or you can change your process.
Sal Alfano, Editorial Director