Will ‘less is more’ or ‘more is better’ online merchandising drive bigger sales?

Photo: @g_dezigner via Twenty20
Jun 18, 2021

A university working paper finds online shoppers often use one coping mechanism to manage the exhaustion that comes with endless choices online: They take a break.

In a statement, researchers from NYU and UCLA said abundant search choices lead many to adopt a “search/rest/search-some-more” approach to online shopping. The rest period, dubbed “search gap,” can “restore our shopping mojo, and even slightly increase the likelihood of finally making a purchase.”

A study of online Dutch shoppers over a 10-week stretch found over 40 percent who visited popular fashion websites ended up taking a break before returning to their search. Less than 15 percent, however, ended their shopping sessions with the original site. The average break time was about one week. Those taking a break averaged three respites.

“What typically happened is that the shopper toggled over to a social media site or some other online ‘leisure’ activity,” researchers said. “That suggests they weren’t pressured by work or other claims on their time to stop shopping. They just needed a break.”

Reducing search fatigue led shoppers to head to additional sites, benefiting smaller, less popular websites. Shoppers taking a fatigue break stuck to popular sites.

“While businesses want a quick transaction, the research suggests that in a world where fatigue seems embedded — rare is a shopping website that presents a carefully curated tight universe of options — the search gap can actually improve the conversion rate of shopper to buyer,” concluded the researchers.

The finding works against the “Choice of Paradox” theory that contends that “choice overload” discourages purchasing. It may also explain Amazon.com’s success despite having more than 350 million items (estimated) available for purchase.

A Stanford University study from 2016 likewise found abundant options can be desired based on need.

“Every decision is really two decisions,” Itamar Simonson, a co-author and Stanford marketing professor, told Insights by Stanford Business at the time. “If your first decision is about whether you want to buy, then having more options is conducive to buying. But if your first decision is on which specific product to select, then having a big assortment can make it more difficult to identify the best option.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Does the Paradox of Choice theory (choice overload discourages purchasing) apply to online merchandising? How can merchants determine when “less is more” and “more is better” online?

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18 Comments on "Will ‘less is more’ or ‘more is better’ online merchandising drive bigger sales?"

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Neil Saunders

Choice is good – to a point! When it becomes overwhelming it means more work for the customer, who has to sift and evaluate the various options. Great site design and personalization can mitigate this online, but without some degree of curation neither are perfect. Of course, tolerance levels for the amount of time spent on sites will vary by category and by shopping mission and this is why it is important for retailers to understand their customer needs.

Rich Kizer

Right Neil, the Claustrophobia of Abundance does create stress in making choices.

Ian Leslie

I agree and is an issue we had at my previous gig in the furniture vertical with 5,000 SKUs. We want people to explore, but also want to push what we wanted to push. Also, only had so much bandwidth to control the levers.

Dave Wendland

I believe that the Paradox of Choice definitely applies to an online environment. Overwhelming choices may very well a contributing factor to abandoned shopping carts and delayed decisions. As the study suggests, carefully-curated and presented assortments will drive better results (I’ve been advocating for this for years and see few activating it). Mountains of data are available to help retailers guide shoppers and focus on the items most likely to fit their preferences — while still building the basket. This study proves it is worth that investment!

Suresh Chaganti

The Paradox of Choice is real. But it is also true that many brands have created browse, search, and discovery experiences that are a joy to use.

The problem is for retailers who don’t put in much thought and just add items to their website. Irrelevant results, poor descriptions, lack of associations with related products, lack of product photography – each one of these increases the frustration and angst when there are too many products to review.

Georganne Bender

Let’s be honest: Isn’t having a gazillion choices the entire point of shopping online?

Liza Amlani

As a former merchant, I have seen it all. Too much choice, online or offline, is bad for business. It also means the merchant is not doing their job and curation is a big part of the strategy of buying. An endless aisle with choice overload can leave a customer abandoning a cart with frustration – that means loyalty is off the table. Curation is the beauty of being a buyer and the more you know your customer, the better merchandising decisions you will make.

More is better should never part of a merchandising strategy unless you are a transactional retailer or Amazon.

DeAnn Campbell

Retailers are investing in AI and data heavily for both online and offline shopping for the purpose of understanding the choice dynamic. Because brands or retailers who get closest to reading the customer’s mind to serve up what is most desired will be the most successful.

Jeff Sward

Shopping is a choice. Buying is a decision. And deciding in a universe of choice overload can quickly become confusing. One of the biggest mistakes physical retailers make is “more.” More choices increase the odds that the customer will buy something, right? Only up to a point. And that point is when great story telling disintegrates into just offering stuff. The “endless aisle” presents the same dilemma. Curation and story telling need to rule the day rather than overwhelming the shopper with “more.”

Dick Seesel

As a former merchant who spent his career in a brick-and-mortar environment, I believe that narrower assortments are generally good for business. The customer in the visual setting of a retail store needs to see fewer choices in order to make the selection easier.

You can make the same argument about e-commerce, although some retailers (most obviously Amazon) have been rewarded for offering huge variety and executing on that brand promise. But for the most part, it’s not worth the risk of shopper fatigue through poor navigation, overassortment or bad inventory management.

Tom Ryan

No one’s touched on whether the concept of “fatigue breaks” makes sense. I think that makes sense for many categories, People love and have grown accustomed to abundant choices, get overwhelmed (despite curation that helps narrow the decision process), take a break and come back to the same site (because they know they know they have great options.) I definitely recently did that with a pair of headphones (yep, back to Amazon a few times). I’m also pretty sure online shoppers have come up with other coping mechanisms after all these years to manage the Paradox of Choice that comes with online shopping.

Ryan Mathews
I think it is wrong to conflate how the “Paradox of Choice” is experienced online and off. If I’m looking for shampoo for example, in a physical store I may be staring at dozens to hundreds of SKUs — shampoos, conditioners, two-in-ones, various sizes, formulations, and fragrances. Let’s say there are 200 SKUs. That means I have one best choice and 199 choices that are suboptimal. The visual overload and the promiscuous proliferation of products overwhelms me and can create confusion and anxiety. Now, lets assume I’m shopping online. Those hundreds of choices suddenly become thousands of choices, but I have the ability to sort faster for what I want — organic, fragrance free, scalp treatment, two-in-one, at a certain price point, or whatever. What starts out as choice overload suddenly becomes more manageable than standing before a physical shelf. And, as Georganne points out, that’s sort of the point. So it seems to me that online retailers need to focus more on ease of navigation, clarity of search terms, intuitive suggestion, etc. more than… Read more »
Dick Seesel

Great point about the ability to narrow one’s search online. And great alliteration! (“Promiscuous proliferation of products”…)

Dave Wendland

You’re absolutely right, Ryan. Filtering and personal selectivity is far easier online. That said, there is a long way to go to separate the fluff from the stuff.

In other words, too many online sites still bombard me with pop-up ads, “featured” items, and other noise that does not help me to complete my purchase. I don’t believe Ecommerce retailers can have it both ways — personalization and proliferation.

Trevor Sumner

If all things are presented equally, the paradox of choice is real. The nice thing about eCommerce is it is easy to curate and personalize smaller selections for presentation to the shopper, as well as provide needs analysis tools to guide them to the right products. Retailers should be doing the same in-store in end caps. The combination of selection and curation can be incredibly powerful.

Craig Sundstrom

The problem is relevancy: Amazon would have very few sales if every search took you thru 350M items … or even 350. I have the feeling that many websites still operate on the X, Y OR Z principle — rather than the X,Y AND Z principle — with the idea being it’s better to return too many items than too few, or none at all (i.e. admit you don’t have what the customer wants). The results often backfire.

Of course people themselves contribute to this problem when they begin with vague criteria. This may be one area where a (good) sales person — and an actual store — has a distinct advantage over an algorithm and its online site.

Venky Ramesh

Too many choices at too many price-points puts too much of processing burden on the shopper, that they’d rather not take up. That is why, in the offline world, Costco is so popular. Even on Amazon, people usually gravitate towards “Amazon’s choice.”

Ian Leslie

Having used SaaS like Nosto for on-site personalization and Klevu for personalization in on-site search, I can attest to the fact that they work! Right product at right time without a doubt works. But there has to be a balance between that and the customer’s desire to explore. Sounds crazy to say Netflix has failed at something, but I do get frustrated that my aunt’s recommendations look so much different than mine. There are things recommended for her that I would love to watch and will never shop up for me on my queue. So with that, I think Netflix has gone too much on the side of personalization and haven’t enabled people to explore. Retailers/merchants/ecommerce purveyors need not do the same.


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