Decision exhaustion


Googling “little black dress” yields in excess of 5 billion results — seriously. Where does one begin? For most women, a search that yields that many results is a non-starter; they quickly close their browser and turn their attention to another task.

Andrea Bell, director of insight and executive editor for the Americas at WSGN, characterizes this time-pressed, decision-averse cohort as “the compressionalists.” Speaking to attendees at NRFtech in San Francisco earlier this year, Bell said compressionalists crave ease of purchasing far more than price discounts.

“Pressure, time affluence and an overabundance of choice are creating a culture of decision exhaustion,” Bell said, recalling a Columbia University study that found the average American makes 70 conscious decisions daily.

At first, I thought 70 sounded like a lot — until I tried to keep track: From which Nespresso pod to which exercise class I had time for to which newsletter to read that morning … I was more than halfway to 70 before lunch.

Then I started applying the theory of decision exhaustion to some recent purchasing decisions. Why did I choose that white button-down shirt from a startup? Obviously, I could have purchased it from thousands of retailers. Still, I choose the startup, and I’m convinced that part of what drew me to this item was the brand story and the details of why this shirt was different from other options. It was available in just three styles, a handful of colors and five sizes. It was a simple, uncomplicated decision. It wasn’t inexpensive, but I did consider it a value for the price — a statement that rings true for so many startup products.

What portion of the success of companies like Away and Allbirds is tied to a well- defined product offering? It turns out that a “less is more” mentality is indeed part of the attraction. Bell cited a study from Diffusion that found 33 percent of U.S. consumers plan to do at least 40 percent of their shopping from direct brands within the next five years. Finely tuned product assortments are fueling those findings.

Bell left attendees with two action points to consider adopting. First, she stressed that visually overloaded websites hurt conversions. Shoppers’ attention is now a commodity; meaningful attention is imperative. Her solution: Invest in a decluttered user experience.

And she shared some proof that it works, pointing out that Lululemon logged 48 percent online growth in 2018. It was largely attributable to a website redesign that focused on decluttering product images and speeding up load times.

The second takeaway: “Embrace a ‘less is more’ mentality and use artificial intelligence and machine learning technology to streamline the shopper journey,” she said. The one-time model that more product equals more sales is being eschewed for a more thoughtful product offering. It’s time for retailers to truly leverage the data they’ve amassed to anticipate shopper preferences and respond with shopping solutions that are more tailored.

In a world where consumers articulate feelings of time-famine and decision paralysis, it’s advice worth heeding.

Susan Reda


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