The Paradox of Choice, by Barry Schwartz; Harper Perennial, 304 pages

A specialty store ran a promotion in which they displayed several types of jam for customers to try. Anyone buying a jar got a coupon for a dollar off that purchase. The tasting promo ran twice, first with six varieties of jam, then with 24. The second time, traffic at the table increased. Both times, people sampled about the same number of selections. The difference came in the sales. Thirty percent of tasters in the first promo bought jam, but only 3 percent of tasters in the second promo did.

In his book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz contends that when people sampled the smaller selection and determined their preference, they did so with a sense that they “had sampled a range and knew which one they liked best.” When the range quadrupled, the sampling process led to a sense that “there might be another jam that I haven’t tried and I might like better, so I won’t commit.” Too many choices had immobilized the customers.

Schwartz groups shoppers into two types that will be familiar to jewelers. First are the “maximizers” who must try out every option available to be sure they make the optimum choice. They research each purchase as a major decision with an emotional dimension. They’re more likely to regret their decisions afterward because they “could have made a better choice.”

“Satisficers” tend to choose an item perceived to be “good or surely good enough” from a smaller sampling and then be happy with the choice. They’re not settling for less—they’re just not using the purchase as a way to manifest their self worth.

Schwartz gives examples of how his paradox applies to other decision making, from interpersonal relationships to careers to restaurant choices. The modern world gives us many more choices than we need, and he concludes that we may not be better off for it.

For the retail jeweler, the idea of having too many merchandise options inside a showcase might seem counterintuitive. Yet it’s possible that a customer walked away because we showed too many pieces, not too few, and her mind was overwhelmed. Perhaps more sales would result from jewelers’ showing fewer pieces, of some reasonable variety, in a more attractive setting that visually implies an informed choice can be made here, today, now. And don’t forget the dollar-off coupon!