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The downside of too many product choices on store shelves

Learn how to navigate the flood of options—and save money

Published: January 2014
Some of the 27 varieties of Crest toothpaste on store shelves.

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Once upon a time, there was a tube of toothpaste. It was called Crest, or Colgate, or maybe Pepsodent. You chose your brand and went on your way. Today their spawn and competitors occupy entire shelves. Do you pick a product formulated to freshen breath, control tartar, combat plaque, or attack gingivitis? Do you select another if you’re older than 50, have sensitive teeth, sensitive gums, or sensitive enamel? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We know, because those are just some of the 27 varieties of Crest we recently bought at a single supermarket. (For Colgate, we found a mere 25.)

Multiply our experience by other products on your shopping list, from mustard to shampoo, and you’ve turned a trip to the grocery store into a job requiring serious study. And the bewildering number of choices can obscure price disparities.

A new survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center confirms that option overload can be a hindrance as well as a help. Almost 80 percent of the 2,818 subscribers surveyed said they’d found an especially wide range of choices in the previous month, and 36 percent of those said they were overwhelmed by the information they had to process to make a buying decision. Consider what we faced at a local Stop & Shop: nine varieties of Pringles potato crisps, 11 flavors of Cheerios, and 25 formulations of Head & Shoulders shampoo. Campbell’s condensed soup? We eyeballed 53 varieties. According to the company, we missed 21 others.

Between 1975 and 2008, the number of products in the average supermarket swelled from an average of 8,948 to almost 47,000, according to the Food Marketing Institute, a trade group. (In the past few years, that number has fallen slightly, in part because of a growth spurt among smaller stores.)

“Consumers have always had choices, but today options have exploded beyond all reason,” says Barry Schwartz, author of “The Paradox of Choice” (HarperCollins, 2003) and a psychology professor at Swarthmore College. “It’s the ethos of American society; the idea that freedom is good, more is better, and you enhance those ideas by offering choice. Logically, you can’t hurt anyone by adding options. It makes no one worse off, and some better. That’s the theory, but in practicality it’s not true.”

'Things are getting out of hand,' says a Consumer Reports reader.

Schwartz contends that an abundance of choice can complicate decision-making, causing shoppers to freeze or postpone a purchase out of uncertainty and frustration. When they do make a choice, they’re more likely to be dissatisfied because they think an unchosen item might have been better. Our survey suggests that Schwartz has a point. Five percent of respondents who found too many options said they had walked away empty-handed because the scope of choices made selection too hard.

More troubling is that when faced with an array of complex options, consumers tend to throw reason out the window and pick a product based on what’s easiest to evaluate, not what’s most important, says Sheena Iyengar, director of the Global Leadership Matrix Program at the Columbia (University) Business School. “We stick to the familiar or go by price because we don’t want to deal with so many choices and scrutinize label claims or nutrition information,” she says.

Products might confuse shoppers further by touting health benefits with labels that sometimes don’t have a clear meaning. When evaluating eggs, the choices are no longer just brown or white, and medium, large, extra large, or jumbo. We faced cage-free, free-range, with omega-3, pasteurized, all-natural, vegetarian, and organic. Among Oral-B toothbrushes, we lost count at a dozen, each with its own claim (crisscross bristles that remove up to 90 percent of plaque, for starters). Even vanilla is no longer, well, plain. Breyers ice cream or frozen dairy dessert comes in Natural, French, Half the Fat, No Sugar Added, Extra Creamy, Homemade, Lactose Free, and CarbSmart. If all of that is enough to give you a headache, consider Advil, but you’ll need to decide among tablets, film-coated tablets, caplets, capsules, gel caplets, and Liqui-Gels.

Schwartz says that a “handful” of observational studies involving “relatively low-cost trivial supermarket products” suggests that most consumers can face seven to 10 varieties within a product line before becoming overwhelmed.

When we asked Consumer Reports Facebook fans whether there is such a thing as too much choice at the supermarket, some clearly thought so. “I don’t want to work at the grocery store,” one wrote. “Just want to go thru the aisles, choose more easily and be on my way.” Wrote another: “Far too many varieties, flavors, and fragrances shouting from the shelves. When I saw the salad dressing aisle expand to triple its former size, I realized that things are getting out of hand.” But a third fan wondered what the fuss is about: “More the better. Capitalism at its finest!”

And not all researchers are convinced that option overload is bad. “Variety exists for a reason,” says Brian Wansink, director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab. “You need it to satisfy everyone’s tastes. New products build excitement and bring much-needed zap to categories.”

Stuffed shelves?

Eleven Cheerios? Yup. And this list of choices at a local supermarket doesn’t even include size variations. For example, Tropicana Pure Premium Orange Juice comes in as many as eight sizes, from 8 to 128 ounces, in nine versions.

Product Versions
Cheerios cereal Original, Honey Nut, Honey Nut Medley Crunch, Apple Cinnamon, Banana Nut, Frosted, Chocolate, Multi Grain, Multi Grain Peanut Butter, Dulce de Leche, Cinnamon Burst
Stop & Shop french fries Straight cut, crinkle cut, shoestring, steak cut, waffled, tater bites, curly, extra crispy, seasoned
Dawn dish detergent Ultra, Ultra Antibacterial, Ultra Destinations, Ultra Platinum Power Clean, Ultra Platinum Oxi, Ultra Platinum Bleach Alternative, Ultra Hand Renewal with Olay
Tide liquid laundry detergent Original Scent, Plus Febreze, Plus Febreze Sport, Free & Gentle, Plus Bleach Alternative, Coldwater, Clean Breeze, Mountain Spring, Plus Downy, With Acti-Lift
Head & Shoulders shampoo Active Sport, Old Spice, Deep Clean, Hair Endurance, Refresh, Extra Strength for Men, Citrus Breeze, Ocean Lift, Dry Scalp Care with Almond Oil, Classic Clean, Sensitive Scalp Care, Itchy Scalp with Eucalyptus, Smooth & Silky, Extra Volume, Green Apple, Damage Rescue, Extra Strength, Clinical Strength, plus seven more
Thomas' English Muffins Original, 100% Whole Wheat, Multi-Grain, Light Multi-Grain, Health-Full 10 Grain, Original made with Whole Grains, Multi-Grain Fiber Goodness, Cranberry, Honey Wheat, Double Fiber Honey Wheat, Corn, Cinnamon Raisin

More products, more profit

From a business standpoint, there’s no question about the importance of new products, even if they’re line extensions rather than innovations. Almost three-quarters of all supermarket products languish on store shelves, selling less than one unit (a single package, can, or bottle) per week, according to Paul Weitzel, managing partner with industry adviser Willard Bishop Consulting. Just 20 percent of products account for 80 percent of total sales.

“Most new items are generated because manufacturers are under pressure to increase growth,” Weitzel says. “New items are the lifeblood of many categories, and without them both retailers and manufacturers would struggle.” Weitzel likened product proliferation to an arms race for shelf space. “Companies see themselves at a disadvantage if they don’t keep up with the Joneses. If a competitor has eight items and you have two, there’s a better chance the sale will go to your competitor.”

Consumer Reports survey respondents said that a top reason for product proliferation is that consumers will pay more for products with special features. Indeed, many buyers willingly add to corporate coffers. Wansink, whose work frequently involves studying consumers’ reactions to promotions, checkout lines, and product placement, says that about 25 percent of them qualify as “serial variety seekers” who constantly sniff out new products and are willing to pay a premium for them. Another 25 percent, he adds, are “selective variety seekers,” drawn to new products in certain categories.

The cost of products within a manufacturer’s line can vary substantially, perhaps because some have a shiny bell or whistle. On a unit-price basis, for example, one of the priciest versions of Crest costs more than three times as much as a more basic Crest.

We asked companies for the rationale behind their big assortments. “Each customer is unique, with their own tastes and preferences and budget,” says Keith Dailey, director of media relations for Kroger, one of the nation’s largest grocers. “We strive to meet all of our customers’ needs in one store. Our goal is to stock the products our customers want, plus a little. By ‘plus a little,’ we mean items that may surprise or delight them when shopping in our stores, to keep the experience fresh and fun, so they’ll want to return.”

Laura Dressman, a spokeswoman for Procter & Gamble’s Family Care division, explained why there are so many roll sizes of Charmin Ultra Soft toilet paper: Big, Large, Double, Family, Giant, Jumbo, and Mega. “Our product offerings are driven by ‘consumer is boss,’ ” she says. “Some consumers want a larger size roll for a bigger family or prefer not to have to change the roll as often. Others prefer smaller packs due to limited storage space.” (In case you’re wondering, mega trumps jumbo, with 352 sheets vs. 231.)

Are the differences significant enough to warrant all of those options? Once again, you’ll need to decide. Of four Arm & Hammer cat litters, a customer-service rep told us that Super Scoop is your basic clumping litter; Multi-Cat is similar but with extra-strength properties; Double Duty is the most powerful product, designed to kill odors on contact; and Ultra Last contains granules coated with baking soda to keep homes smelling fresh when pet owners can’t scoop regularly.

Smart shopping tactics

Choice isn’t as overwhelming if you know what you want. First make a list. Then “go with what you need, not what’s on the shelf,” advises Sheena Iyengar at Columbia. If a new product seems worth a look, research it before buying to assess differences from what’s already available.

  • Compare unit prices (the tag showing price per ounce, pound, and so on). New products might initially cost less than their mature counterparts to generate buzz.
  • When the product you want costs more than others, check company websites for special offers. If you’re comfortable with the privacy policy, you can receive samples, coupons, and other freebies.
  • Shop at a store with less choice. Warehouse clubs such as Costco and Sam’s Club carry a narrow selection within categories (usually one of the top brands in a single variety and in just one or two sizes). Limited-­assortment stores such as Aldi, Save-A-Lot, and Trader Joe’s are another supermarket alternative, with no annual membership fee. Even Walmart acknowledges that its 182,000-square-foot supercenters aren’t for everyone. The chain operates more than 300 Neighborhood Markets that average 38,000 square feet.

Different version, different price

Although many items within a product line cost the same, the local supermarket we visited had plenty of exceptions, especially because some niche products (such as Turkey Hill All Natural Ice Cream) are sometimes excluded from weekly discounts.

Here, the high and low unit prices we found for items within six product lines:

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the March 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
   

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