More Choice Equals Less Value–for Consumers


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Everyone in my family knows the one-adjective rule applies when I’m making the grocery run: if a product name includes more than one adjective, I’m not going to look for it.

Why? When product descriptions expand into “high fiber” / “low cholesterol, Frosted/unfrosted, Rounds, Squares, and other permutations, my quick grocery trip expands into a frustrating prolonged game resembling hide and seek, where I am always it. The aggravation continues past the time I return, when the groceries are carefully stowed in the pantry. “Dad! I asked for heart-healthy organic fruit bars with blueberry filling. Not blueberry cream! I won’t eat these.”

Yesterday’s mission for low-salt rice cakes produced this text message exchange (I accepted the challenge only because I wrote lowsalt ricecakes.):

Me: looking at cakes at Harris Teeter. Have butter popped corn, caramel corn, apple cinnamon, white cheddar, salt free, cheddar cheese, kettle corn sweet and salty crunch. No lite salt. Any preference?

Wife: No just salted?

Me: No. How about salt free. You can add the salt?

Wife: They taste like Styrofoam.

Me: True. The salted one is kettle corn sweet and salty crunch. Want that?

Wife: No. Skip it.

Me: OK. I’m buying fruit. It’s on the list.

Six minutes sending and receiving text messages in front of the rice cakes section, recorded for posterity by the store’s security cameras. Hopefully they didn’t think I was a terrorist.

Two months ago I embarked on a similarly challenging mission for toothpaste. Here are the separately branded products that confronted me:

Advance Clean
Enamel Strength
Sensitive Enamel Protect
Advanced Whitening
Advanced Fresh
Max Fresh with mini breath strips
Max Fresh with mouthwash beads
Baking soda and peroxide
Baking soda and peroxide with whitening oxygen bubbles
Max White mini bright strips
Max White crystal mint
Max White minty sparkle
Sparkling White minty zing

That’s just Colgate. If you want to know what Colgate competitor Arm & Hammer offered in the adjacent space, you can check the company’s website to learn more about their toothpaste and “whitening systems.” But do consumers really need this much adventure from rice cakes and toothpaste? Do consumers value all this variety? Nope. My household probably consumes a paltry eight tubes of toothpaste per year, and my wife ended up with no rice cakes despite having seven choices.

If the connection between variety and value is unclear for consumers, the connection for manufacturers isn’t. Brand smorgasbords provide what today’s retail manufacturers slobber for: shelf space. More products, more space. And as long as adjectives are swappable, brands gobble up room on retail shelves. Plain-old Cheerios too narrow? Poof! Throw in some more sugar and flavor, and add “Honey Nut” or “Berry Burst” to the brand name, and you’ve got another three feet! Want to out-muscle Colgate? Get down to the lab! You’ll have to formulate more than thirteen toothpaste varieties to match their retail real-estate. In his book, Basic Marketing, E. Jerome McCarthy wrote about the value of “extending the product life cycle.” The concept has proven durable in today’s Wal-mart-inspired, down-and-dirty supply chain economics in which he or she who owns the most shelf frontage wins.

When I travel to rural towns in Virginia and elsewhere, I often see stores that fully cover one-third of a Main Street window display with one type of solidly-stacked toilet tissue, paper towel, or disposable diaper. Unsophisticated retailers wasting valuable window space? Maybe they have the right idea: a simple-to-understand billboard made out of real inventory! And it makes a buying decision easy.


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