The Jam Study is one of the most famous experiments in consumer psychology, and new research to be published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology supports the Jam Study’s controversial conclusion; offering consumers less choice can be good for sales. Critically, the study reveals when precisely offering less choice may enhance your sales.

If you’re not familiar with the original Jam Study, it’s here.  Basically, the study, which was conducted at upscale Bay-area supermarket Draeger’s Market by psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper, found that consumers were 10 times more likely to purchase jam on display when the number of jams available was reduced from 24 to 6. Less choice, more sales. More choice, fewer sales. Weird, huh?

This phenomenon, replicated in a variety of product categories from chocolate to financial services to speed dating, has come to be known as ‘Choice Overload’ or the ‘Paradox of Choice‘. It’s a paradox because rationally speaking the more choice you offer your customers, the more sales you should make simply because you’ll be satisfying more needs better. But research has showed that choice actually can be demotivating and get in the way of sales. Why?

Psychologically, the Paradox of Choice is not so much of a paradox because the more options you give people, the more time and effort they have to invest in making a choice – something they may not be prepared to do.  Moreover, giving people a smorgasbord of options puts a psychological burden on them because what you are actually doing is giving them more opportunity to make the wrong choice, regret it and blame themselves.

Nevertheless, the Jam Study and follow-up studies has remained controversial;  surely giving your customers more choice must be a good thing, right?  Indeed, a meta-analysis of studies in 2010 found that the inverse link between choice and purchase likelihood is far from consistent.

But now a new study, ‘Choice overload: A conceptual review and meta-analysis‘ by Kellogg researchers at Northwestern University Alexander Chernev and Ulf Böckenholt (and Joseph Goodman) has re-analaysed the data from 99 Paradox of Choice studies and isolated when reducing choices for your customers is most likely to boost sales

  • When people want to make a quick and easy choice (effort-minimizing goal)
  • When making the right choice matters/you are selling complex products (the decision task is difficult)
  • When you show options that are difficult to compare (greater choice set complexity)
  • When your customers are unclear about their preferences (higher preference uncertainty)

So the Jam Study strikes back; more choice can harm sales – but probably only when one or more of these four criteria are met.