When Variety is a Bad Thing

Here is an interesting, and somewhat counterintuitive idea.

Traditional wisdom teaches that brands win market share by offering a wide variety of products, increasing the chance of appealing to a wider variety of customers. But how happy are you when trying to find a head cold remedy at the pharmacy amid an overwhelming number of competing formulas, each slightly different than the other? It's enough to give a shopper, well, a headache.

The belief that variety is good "is not always true," argues Harvard Business School professor John Gourville in "Overchoice and Assortment Type: When and Why Variety Backfires." The research paper, co-written by professor Dilip Soman of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, demonstrates that sometimes offering too many choices prompts the confused consumer to defer a purchase or run to the arms of a competitor with a less cluttered product line.

It's not a totally surprising conclusion. After all, one key to success is to make your product easy to buy, and when a consumer has a large learning curve just to purchase a relatively cheap product, the "easy to buy" rule is violated.