University of Southern California

Less May Just Be More
More Consumer Choice May Lead to More Disappointment says Kristin Diehl, a USC Marshall Marketing Expert
June 15, 2009 • by Anne Bergman

Does an abundance of product choices really make consumers happier?

That's the question posed by USC Marshall Assistant Professor of Marketing Dr. Kristin Diehl in a forthcoming article for the Journal of Marketing Research.

The article is titled "Great Expectations?! Assortment Size, Expectations and Satisfaction" and is co-authored with Cait Poynor at the University of Pittsburgh.

"A lot of businesses have positioned themselves with these large assortments of products," says Diehl. "And that hasn't changed, even given the current economic situation. A lot of companies will continue to produce more options, particularly online, where there are no constraints. In the supermarket there are space issues, but online that’s not the case."

But Diehl said while a large selection is a benefit of online retailing, as it doesn't cost more to offer one more option, it may not be the optimal marketing strategy.

As an example, Diehl cited an online auto retailer that aired commercials highlighting its large assortment of cars.

"What we're saying is that's not really the best way to go about marketing your company because of unintended consequences such as raised consumer expectations. If you tell me you have the biggest assortment, I'll have a higher expectation of what I want, versus the different kind of expectations I’d have of a smaller store."

Indeed, Diehl uses herself as an example of a consumer who found herself "feeling a little disappointed" after an online shopping excursion for the ideal used car only produced two choices that matched her two most important criteria.

Given the large assortment available on the Internet, Diehl was unpleasantly surprised that she did not find an even closer match to her preferences.

In fact, according to Diehl, the present research demonstrates that even when consumers do make a purchase, the same item may generate lower satisfaction when chosen from a larger assortment, as opposed to a smaller one.

"What you don't want to do is suggest to consumers that because we are the biggest retailer, you'll find exactly what you're looking for, because that's unlikely," Diehl said. In addition, consumer regret may decrease satisfaction with items chosen from larger as opposed to smaller sets.

Diehl's research counterpoints books in the popular press such as Chris Anderson's The Long Tail, which extols the virtues of the infinite inventory.

To collect the data for their study, the authors conducted experiments with undergraduate students in an assimilated environment where participants were exposed to assortments of different sizes. "We asked people to evaluate how much they liked the options, and they were happier with what they'd picked from a smaller assortment of items than the larger assortment," she said.

These findings suggested that marketers need to carefully consider whether and how they evoke expectations without breeding disappointment.

"Instead of highlighting the absolute size of their assortment," the authors wrote, "marketers may rather want to highlight their market coverage. As such, instead of suggesting to consumers that a large assortment will provide them with a perfect match, retailers could assure consumers that they have access to everything the market offers. Such an approach may manage expectations and also reduce anticipated regret of missing out on options consumers may imagine being available elsewhere."

About the USC Marshall School of Business
Consistently ranked among the nation's premier schools, USC Marshall is internationally recognized for its emphasis on entrepreneurship and innovation, social responsibility and path-breaking research. Located in the heart of Los Angeles, one of the world's leading business centers and the U.S. gateway to the Pacific Rim, Marshall offers its 5,700-plus undergraduate and graduate students a unique world view and impressive global experiential opportunities. With an alumni community spanning 123 countries, USC Marshall students join a worldwide community of thought leaders who are redefining the way business works.