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Is Choice Paralysis a Problem for Online Retailers?

Is Choice Paralysis a Problem for Online Retailers?


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In this post we look at the issue of choice paralysis and how online retailers can minimize the problem. 
Variety is great, and providing more choice for customers seems like the right thing to do, but too much choice can be a problem.
The theory of choice paralysis is that, the more options people have to choose from, the harder the decision becomes. We just can’t make up our minds.
This is a well-known theory, and something which is especially relevant for retailers with a wide range of products, supermarkets and department stores the most obvious examples.
Indeed, Tesco recently cut its product range by 30%, in the face of stiffer competition from retailers like Aldi, which have much smaller product ranges.
This isn’t just about choice paralysis – price and overheads formed part of the decision – but one aim was to make shopping simpler for customers.
The key to miminizing the problem of choice is simplicity, online and offline. It’s about making the product selection and purchase as smooth as possible.
According to James Gurd of Digital Juggler, this should happen but isn’t always the case:
“Choice paralysis rarely occurs in simple websites, it becomes an issue when the user has to make a series of selections before the website can confirm an order.
However, there have been examples even in simple websites where users are given an unnecessary complex process to follow to convert, for example displaying extensive shipping options in a format that makes it hard to discern between shipping types, let along pricing, or providing a large product catalogue and a poor site search tool and inadequate faceted navigation.”


What is choice paralysis? How big a problem is it?

To illustrate the issue of choice paralysis, here’s an example quoted by psychologist Barry Schwartz.
An experiment was set up where shoppers at a food market were shown a display table with 24 varieties of jam one day, and just six the next day.
The bigger display attracted more interest, but people seeing the smaller jam selection were ten times more likely to buy.

There are two issues here, which have possible implications for online retail:

  • Choice paralysis. Too much choice means purchase decisions are more difficult and some customers will not buy at all. For e-commerce, this can mean more abandoned sales.
  • Buyer’s remorse. Due to the choice on offer, people spend time worrying if the other options they rejected may have been better. For e-commerce, this may lead to higher returns rates.

While other studies have replicated and supported the theory of choice paralysis, it’s important to note that this doesn’t necessarily apply to every situation.
For example, while reducing form fields seems like a sensible solution to minimize form abandonment, it isn’t always the right thing, as these examples from Conversion XL show.
As with many things, there is no universal rule. Yes, choice paralysis can be a problem, but this doesn’t mean choice is a bad thing in itself.
Sites need to look at their own data to identify areas where choice may be an issue, and look to limit the problem. There is likely to be a happy medium somewhere where there is enough choice to satisfy most visitors but not so much that it deters them.
James Gurd thinks that choice paralysis is less of a problem than it used to be thanks to the good work of some of the big e-commerce sites:
“Brands like Argos, Asos, and House of Fraser have worked hard on simplifying and speeding up site navigation to give people search and browse tools to drill down into hundreds of thousands of SKUs to find products relevant to them.
There has been a lot of investment in site performance to deliver speed and front-end UX optimisation to provide an intuitive and easy to use interface across devices.
My experience is that choice paralysis is less of an issue in 2017 because people are getting smarter at optimising the customer experience and understanding where bottlenecks are, and then fixing them or using CRO techniques to learn how to improve.”

How can retailers reduce the risk of choice paralysis?

Reducing choice paralysis ties in with other e-commerce best practices such as keeping the customer journey as simple as possible, and reducing clutter.
For example, a good call to action works better when other elements on the page aren’t competing for the user’s attention. So the CTA on this Airbnb page is easy to see thanks to colour and contrast.

Help Users to Differentiate Between Choices

James makes the point that choice paralysis is typically highest “when you don’t help people make the decision and rely on them to do all the work.”
“Over the years sites like the big insurance aggregators have worked hard on simplifying the selection process by using smart product configuration and filtering, helping customers pinpoint what’s right for them with the minimum of clicks and decisions.
If you check the process on a site like, the UI design has been cleaned up, the process shortened and UX techniques like tool tips used to help people decide.”

Choice can be a good thing when customers feel they have had a chance to weigh up the options and come to an informed decision.
This is easier for some products than others. Let’s take laptops for example – there’s a lot to compare between various models and shoppers may need some assistance.
Comparison tools like this from Best Buy can help a lot, as they allow shoppers to easily compare features and specifications side by side.
It saves the work of visiting individual product pages and helps them to come to a more informed decision, having weighed up the pros and cons of various models.

In addition a customer who makes a purchase having had access to all the information they need is less likely to ‘suffer’ from buyer’s remorse.
Another way to help customers to decide is to pick out and recommend particular models, as in the ‘our experts love’ products here. If recommendations are sound, this provides a useful shortcut for shoppers.
Note also that Curry’s presents key product information and detail in a way that makes quick comparison easier.

Product Filters

[one_half]Filtered or faceted navigation is one way to help customers to gradually reduce the number of items shown until they find a smaller, more manageable number to choose from.
When implemented well, it allows shoppers to limit to scope of their product search to the handful of products that match their preferences.
Here’s an example of some of the filter options shown on Home Depot’s lawnmowers page.
It could be argued that, with more than 15 filters, this could in itself be an example of choice paralysis. It does ask the shopper to make an effort, but the tools should enable them to refine their selection effectively.
Matthew Curry, Head of E-commerce at Lovehoney, makes an important point about filters and their adoption:

“Choice Paralysis is an issue I see frequently. Users don’t typically filter product selections; in user tests they simply scroll through entire product listings pages until they see something they like the look of. The challenge here is how to introduce filtering as part of the natural selection process, without making it obtrusive.”

Matthew Curry, Head of E-commerce at Lovehoney


Reviews are a great way to help customers to decide. Many people may not know about, or are prepared to dive into the technical details, but they do need some help to find the product that suits their needs.
The reviews and question sections on Home Depot’s product pages are excellent for this.
Customers can either see very general review data such as overall rating or ratings for factors such as ease of use, or they can ask some very specific questions of previous buyers.

Again, this helps customers to come to an informed decision.

Limit Choice, or Presentation of Choice

You may have 100s of products in a particular category, but presenting them all at once can be overwhelming.
For example, some Amazon categories contain a staggering number of products. For example, a search for ‘iPhone charger’ returns 86,653 results.

The filters and featured ‘best sellers’ will help shoppers to decide, but it’s still a daunting prospect.
This approach may work for Amazon, as shoppers are familiar with the site and how it works. However, the same product choice can easily be overwhelming elsewhere.
Reducing the number of available products isn’t necessary, but reducing the initial choice can help.
One example of this is simplifying primary navigation, as Ben Davis demonstrates on Econsultancy.
Here’s one such example from Asda. Here’s the primary navigation options from 2015:

And now the current version, which now just funnels customers into one of four options without showing any dropdown menu options.

Another way to simplify the process is to show the most popular categories and products, and ‘hide’ the less used options.

Review data and identify areas for concern

One important step is to identify whether choice paralysis is an issue on your site, as James Gurd explains:
“Ensure you have a robust data programme in place to capture qualitative and quantitative data to learn what is happening throughout user journeys and most importantly, why.
Ensure there’s a regular process for reviewing data and translating it into action. Then you need to invest in CRO to build a testing capability to improve performance and KPIs through iterative improvements.
Never forget the importance of feedback from real people. Stay on top of what people think, how well the website supports them and how well you understand this dynamic.”

Data-Driven Product Recommendations

Showing relevant products at the right time to the right customer is one way to deal with possible choice paralysis.
Retailers have the customer data at hand to do this: browsing and purchase history and more. Amazon’s recommendations are a prime example.

This principle also applies to cart and browse abandonment emails. Presenting the products customers had added to their baskets in addition to related items helps to narrow the choice for customers.

In Summary

As with any theory, or best practice in retail, it’s important to approach choice paralysis with a critical eye.
Yes, it can be an issue for e-commerce sites, but it’s important to use your own site and customer data to establish the extent of the issue, and whether there is a problem at all.
There are examples where too much choice can be something which prevents customers from making a purchase decision, and others where providing choice can actually help the decision making process. It’s all about the context.
Some of the potential problems can be solved by good design, simplicity being a key factor. Pages with a single goal, less-cluttered pages and more simple and relevant emails all help.

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Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is Editor in Chief at SaleCycle. He's been covering ecommerce and digital marketing for more than a decade, having previously written reports and articles for Econsultancy. ClickZ, Search Engine Watch and more.