The Oaks Ignore Their Pleas

The Challenge of Choice

Posted in Marketing, Product Development by Jeff Graves on January 27, 2008

There’s been a lot written about the so-called “paradox of choice”; that is, the idea that the more choices a consumer has, the less likely he or she may be to actually make a purchase.  A trip down the aisles of any grocery store highlights the fact that here in the US, we are blessed (cursed?) with an astonishing array of choice for even the most mundane items.  During my weekly excursion to the store yesterday, I found myself getting a little frustrated because the store had apparently not had time to restock a lot of the shelves, and a number of items that I usually buy were simply not there.  But, when I took a minute to reflect, as I waited for a shopping cart traffic jam to clear, I realized that we have it pretty darn good.  I mean, when you are getting upset because you can’t find the particular size box of a particular flavor of a particular brand of a certain type of breakfast cereal, you really have to step back and get a grip.

 But I realized something else during the weekly shopping trip.  I’m kind of a task-oriented person, and I typically can’t get out of the store fast enough.  I’ve got the store pretty much memorized, and I try to minimize the time I spend in the store, just focused on checking items off the list.  But there are a lot of people who take the time to browse the selection…choosing between the 10 different types and brands of canned peaches, or the mountain of pasta varieties.  Maybe they shop that way because they are overwhelmed by the choice, maybe they have nothing better to do, or maybe they just enjoy the act of browsing, and looking for something new and different.

And that’s where I think online grocery shopping sites fall down – that serendipitous moment when you discover something totally unexpected.  I once thought I was the perfect candidate for online grocery shopping, because for the most part, I buy the same stuff every week.  Once I established my list, I’d be able to save it on a service like Peapod, and then I’d only have to spent a few minutes every week placing my order, saving nearly 90 minutes a week.  And, for a few weeks, I used the service religiously.  But there were two things that I didn’t like about the experience. 

First, there was the issue of substitutions.  Anytime the store was out of the particular size/flavor/brand of an item, someone at the warehouse would choose a substitute, and many times, the substitute wasn’t really what we wanted.

Second, there was no serendipity.  Once a shopping list was established, it became so easy to just place an order every week with a few clicks, and the same items would arrive, week after week. But while that was very “efficient”, it also meant that we got the same thing, week after week.  Because I wasn’t walking about the store, I didn’t see the bucket of just-made chocolate chip cookies sitting on the table by the bakery, so no cookies.  There’s something powerful about seeing, or more accurately, smelling the bakery products to lend itself to impulse buys.  For that matter, simply walking down the aisles of a grocery store can lend itself to all kinds of impulse buys, which is why I brought home the Rosemary and Olive Oil Triscuits last week.  I suppose one could go searching for impulse buys online, but it’s much easier and much more powerful to actually see and feel the products sitting on a shelf. 

So what does that mean for online grocery shopping sites?  Well, if you’re someone who wants the same thing, week after week, or if you can distill your staples list down to a predictable list, online grocery sites can certainly be a time saver.  But to capture someone like me, a site needs to offer up ways for me to stumble across special treats.  Certainly, sites like eBay and Amazon have the ability to track a customer’s purchases, and make inferences about other products that customer might enjoy.  Maybe such an inference engine could drive the site to pop up items randomly for suggestion, but that still wouldn’t match the sensory experience of a bricks and mortar store. 

I think true foodies are always going to prefer the experience of a store where they can see, smell and feel items displayed for them.  And, to be honest, while I don’t think of myself as a foodie, I can’t see myself doing all my grocery shopping online either.   

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