The choice illusion

Sathya Mithra Ashok, Senior Editor, Computer News ME

Recently I went shopping for a laptop.

As a family, we have owned and still call ours a couple of laptops that we use for both work and personal reasons. The laptop that I went looking for recently was meant to become an ‘only for home use’ device, that will be used for simple stuff –like storing pictures and videos, connecting to the internet, simple blogging activities – you get the picture!

Being an editor of a technology publication, I did some research on product selections before heading out to the stores.

I went looking for the device in a minimum of five different stores, and I left each one empty-handed. Why? Because each shopping expedition only succeeded in completely confusing and befuddling me by the array of choices available – from the brand name and screen size, to configurations and graphic card inlays. I faced so many permutations and combinations in each store, that it just put me off.

And then I found out, that I am not alone in feeling lost in the consumer technology options of today.

The thing with choice is that it can be an illusion.

One of the basic precepts of American-style capitalism is that the more the choice there is, the better for the consumer. However, increasingly more research is finding that there is such a thing as too-much choice, and that such a situation can be demotivating for the consumer.

Consider this joint research conducted by students from Columbia University and Stamford University. In one of their field trials they laid out jam selections at a store, where consumers could taste either from a range of 24 jams or 6 jams at a time. While more people approached the table holding 24 jams, researchers found that a higher percentage of the people who tasted jam from the 6 choices actually went on to buy a product.

In other words, while as consumers we are attracted initially to the availability of a higher range of choices, these same choices are likely to put us off from finally buying a product.

While this particular research is restricted to non-technology choices, its findings can be easily applied to any consumer product bought off the shelves. Of course, there are a lot of other factors that affect purchasing decisions in consumer technology, but restricted choice might become one key reason for increased customer loyalty in the months to come.

Take Apple and the recent tablet hype, for example. Apple is a premium brand that has a cult following and its products are of a consistent, high quality – granted. But one of the reasons that a consumer is more attracted to Apple is because he has a single brand reference, giving him a single choice in product – the iPad. He/she can have either the first version or the second version – or wait for the third version – but the product, the brand and most of the features remain restricted to iPad and Apple.

Contrast that with a company like Acer. One of the better known names in the world, Acer in the recent past has lost on some of its market value and is still losing ground to competitors across the scale of products that it offers – from laptops and netbooks, to tablets and smartphones. At a recent press conference, Acer stated it is looking to launch more than 10 smartphone models across 2011. These phones will sport a range of operating systems – offering consumers more choice.

However, these same OSs will be available through multiple other smartphone providers – like Motorola and Samsung. If Acer does not differentiate itself enough in the market and does not clearly offer consumers grounded reasons to pick up its products, over and above everyone else’s in the market, it will only stand to dilute its brand value more and ultimately get lost in the choices that are available to consumers.

We will see issues related to choice play out in an intense manner in the coming year as more vendors enter the smartphone and tablet race, and more of these devices flood the market. And the winner, against all instinctive perceptions, might be the ones who stand out by offering less choice.

As for me, I am still looking for that laptop!

If you have thoughts on choice, consumer technology, or if you disagree with me, feel free to leave a comment here. Or write to me at

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