There is little that excites wine enthusiasts and professionals more than choice: just look at the awards that are handed out to restaurants and merchants for the breadth and depth of their lists. What, after all, could be more enjoyable for a wine lover than taking the time to decide on the most desirable vigneron, vintage and vineyard of the dozen or so Vosne Romanées on offer while their dinner guests twiddle their thumbs as they wait for something to drink?
Choice has been the subject of a mass of academic studies. Most famous of these was the ‘Jam Study’ in 2000, in which shoppers in a premium San Francisco supermarket were given the opportunity to sample a range of jams, and a voucher worth a dollar off the purchase of a jar. On one day of the test, there were six styles of jam on offer; on the other there were 24. The researchers – a pair of psychologists called Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper – found that offering fewer jams led to a tenfold increase in the likelihood of the consumers using the voucher and making a purchase.
The commercial reality of the Jam Study - often referred to as ‘Choice Overload’ or the ‘Paradox of Choice’ –is encountered almost daily. Perhaps most strikingly, in the international success of German discounters, Aldi and Lidl, whose small stores and stripped-down ranges are daily biting into the market share of traditional retailers like Tesco’s and Carrefour’s product-packed hypermarkets.
On the other hand, retailers that have deliberately sought to tightly limit their number of books, clothes or wines have rarely really taken off, and not all research into the Paradox of Choice has supported the Jam Study. Some human beings evidently want more of choice in some circumstances, some of the time. The challenge lies in understanding the parameters of that desire.
In an effort to rise to this challenge, in 2014 Alexander Chernev, Ulf Böckenholt and Joseph Goodman, researchers at Northwestern University in the US, published a paper called ‘Choice overload: A conceptual review and meta-analysis’ that took a closer look at 99 Paradox of Choice studies.
They focused on four situations
- When people want to make a decision quickly and simply - referred to as an ‘effort-minimizing goal’;
- When the decision making process is rendered difficult because the products are complex or because a lot hangs on making the correct choice;
- When the options are hard to compare (‘greater choice set complexity’); and
- When customers are unclear about their preferences (‘higher preference uncertainty’).
When one or more of these criteria are met, they found, a limited choice is clearly likely to lead to more sales. The implications for wine are obvious; all four criteria often apply to anyone who is not interested in and confident about the subject. Even the most ardent wine buff prefers an easy selection process when there’s important business to discuss over lunch, or when rushing into a shop after parking their car illegally outside.
Clever restaurateurs understand this and offer single-page lists as an alternative to their voluminous Cartes de Vin, but the industry as whole which is, after all, mostly run by informed enthusiasts, still often seems to work on the principle of More is Better. Maybe now’s the time to experiment with Small is Beautiful – at least for the customers and circumstances in which it may be more profitable.