Thursday, August 21, 2014

Why it's time to rethink "choice"

I take a packed lunch to work most days. In part, that's because it's expensive to buy lunch in this city (and, indeed, most other places). But there is something else, too. There are so many options, before I've got as far as the end of the street, that selecting one takes more mental energy than I have spare in the tank, after a busy morning. I used to think it was just me that suffered from this choice-aversion. Now? I'm not so sure.

The big news in the retail sector, where choice has always been the only option, is the rise and rise of the discounters. Aldi and Lidl now have 8% of the grocery market, and rising, while the Big 5 flounder from one ill-advised price cutting gambit to the next. They won't beat them at their own game, but what if it's the only game in town? The price is right, so come on down!

When I first came into branding, the virtue of choice was received wisdom. Before "greedy" Andrew Lansley (to quote the viral song) and the great NHS privatisation push, there was Michael Howard, in opposition, banging on about giving more choice to patients - neglecting the fact that informed choice relies on knowledge, something which most patients (through no fault of their own) just don't possess.

My wife and I sat down in front of the telly this evening, and I pulled up the Youview menu with its smorgasbord of televisual cheese. Neither of us could be bothered to choose, so we flicked back over to regular telly. Weren't we all supposed to be watching on-demand now? It was meant to be the death of advertising. But it's not happened. Faced with almost limitless choice, people have chosen to let the broadcasters make the appointments to view.

Ironically, for a blog ostensibly about commuting, the one area of modern, mainstream, everyday life where consumers don't have a choice is on the rails, despite what the franchise model may promise. But that's okay, because it gives us no choice but to complain, and we Brits love a good moan, don't we? Which brings me back to the supermarkets.

Look "below the line" at the newspaper articles reporting on the discounters' expanding market share and you'll see comments such as "Limited choice? No problem, less chance to waste money" and "few choices, honestly priced." It's counter-intuitive to marketers, but it seems that consumers actually want less choice. Why? Perhaps because they have too many other meaningful decisions to make. So, an (over)crowded shelf, stacked with brands offering essentially the same product in a slightly different pack doesn't really provide a choice at all.

The rise of online shopping is well-documented, but the fact that its dominance increases when people are shopping for gifts less so. There are several considerations at play here - lower prices, lack of time, avoiding the shops at busy times - but it seems likely that the curated nature of online retail is surely a factor. Why spend ages on the High Street, agonsing over what to get a distant relative for Christmas, when Amazon, say, will make a selection for you based on a few vital statistics. It's bad news for sales of socks.

It seems we may have finally reached the point where we have too much choice. There are so many big choices to be made, the people are looking to avoid the small ones.

What does all this mean for businesses, and marketing in particular? Simplifying and streamlining may not be the answer. Those businesses that have been big news this year - the likes of Uber and Airnb - are offering something genuinely different. How does that work for a product sitting on a supermarket shelf? Innovation, not NPD, is the answer - innovation that starts with in-depth customer insight, and translates that into a genuine benefit, that offers the user not just more choice, but better choice.

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