written by
Valeria Witsch
Valeria Witsch
Food for Thoughts

When power becomes powerless

When power becomes powerless

For a person to be able to exercise as much choice as possible is a good thing. We like the idea of going into a shop or going online and finding a good selection of products. It gives us a feeling of power. But there is a downside: he who has choice can also be spoilt for choice.

The addition of only four letters turns power into powerless, and so it is when more options are added to a selection. A choice between two comparable products is simple and contributes to a feeling of self-determination, but not necessarily a choice between 47 products. When shopping offline for everyday products, where there is limited space on shop shelves, brands help us make that decision. Brands are in a sense a short cut to the trade-off. But online, this help often isn’t there. The shop itself is the brand and the "shelf space" is unlimited. Our purchase decision is a choice between an infinite number of comparable products. For example, search for black dress in an online fashion store, the search often returns up to 1,500 items – and that’s only in one shop.

Fascinating is that while everyone knows the saying „spoilt for choice“, few marketing managers actually apply it to their own product range. Rather, they think that if they only offer the customers as many products as possible, the probability increases that they will find something suitable for themselves and buy. But this is not true.

Too many options can quickly overwhelm us and thus make a (purchase) decision more difficult. We feel paralysed and the probability that we buy anything at all takes a nose dive.

While many options can inspire our imagination, so can the extent to which we can easily imagine all the possibilities that through our decision have slipped through our fingers. Result? Disappointment and buyer’s remorse. Who hasn’t looked longingly at their neighbour’s food in a restaurant and secretly imagined a meal swap? A larger selection also automatically raises our expectations and increases the pressure to succeed. The marketing manager thinks to himself: "With so much choice, there must be something there for everybody." Meanwhile, the individual customer ponders: "With so much choice, the right thing for me must be there! And if not, what on earth am I doing wrong?”Naturally, higher expectations are more easily dashed and the customer is less satisfied, whether he buys something or not. Finally there is the scapegoat question. If there is no choice and something goes wrong, the person responsible is quickly found: literally anyone else but me. However, if you have the choice of 12,753 options and you make the wrong decision, there is no excuse for your own failure.

Unfortunately there is no exact formula which tells us at what point choice becomes too much choice and when power becomes powerless.But the following advice remains: As students we were all encouraged to focus on our strengths. It’s time that (online) shops learned this lesson too.