Choices and Preferences — in the shopping aisle and online

A few weeks ago, I went to an HEB, the popular grocery chain in Texas. HEB is a lot like most grocery stores in terms of selection. They do a good job all around and their prices are solid–and thus they have a loyal customer base.

As a bachelor, I went to the store in typical single male fashion–needing a few essentials like diet coke, beer, and hair gel, I wasn’t going on an adventure. I was running an errand.

During the drive to the store, I decided to get some spaghetti sauce…I had recently noticed a ton of dry pasta in my pantry. So as I maneuvered through the store grabbing my items, I eventually got to the aisle with the sauces. I now know that, like the “cereal aisle,” this one might as well be called the “sauce aisle.”

sauces

Confronted with a baffling number of choices, I picked up a jar of Prego and ran.

But this past week, I returned for a little more study. I was able to count 48 unique brands, each with a few to a few-too-many varieties. Different sized jars (and cans and plastic containers) were offered by the bigger brands, ie Prego and Ragu. I would guess there were over 300 unique spaghetti sauce choices.

The ~24 oz jar is the standard “spaghetti jar” size. At this size, the cheapest sauce was Hill Country Fare (a private label) at $1.02 and the priciest was Storletta at $8.99, almost a 900% premium. A “Lucini” sauce came in $6.99, but its jar was only 19.5 oz, so technically its $0.36 per ounce takes the cake.

As consumers, we generally want a “good deal.” In fact, I’ve long called this “The Good Deal Rule.” It doesn’t matter whether we’re shopping high end or low end, we hope the money we trade for an item is money well spent. Personally, I know that for my own eating habits, buying a $9 jar of spaghetti sauce isn’t exactly “high end” because it can produce about 4 meals, most of which I would otherwise have to spend much more on at nearby restaurants.

Back to the story: the first time I realized how many choices there were, I went with Prego because I had eaten it before and recalled it was “okay.” I didn’t recall whether the okay was really “just pretty good” or “really quite great”; I just recalled enough to know it would be at least okay. Having no knowledge of the more premium offerings, I couldn’t know if I could get a “Good Deal” on the higher end. Even though I was intrigued by the other choices, I didn’t have enough information.

Later, turning online, I googled “favorite spaghetti sauce” and started to get some answers. After a little message board scouring, I started to get a feel for the market. I also realized that those in the know say “marina sauce” or even just “tomato sauce” in describing the category. Italians on the Eastern seaboard just call the stuff “gravy.” I couldn’t find a popular ratings site for spaghetti sauce a la Amazon or what Bazaarvoice offers its clients. But after a while, I had enough to know I should try Rao’s brand even though it’s pricey and Barilla’s Tomato & Basil because it’s a great sauce for a bargain price. I am now armed to try something besides Prego!

This little anecdote isn’t really about spaghetti sauce. It’s about the fact that we have an abundance of choice. This abundance is increasing in terms of raw numbers, of category, and of availability/accessibility. “Raw numbers” is self-explanatory. In 1970, an average grocer stocked 7,800 items. In 2005, that number was 45,000. — reference Google Answers

By category, I simply mean categories that didn’t have so much variety now do, and there are new categories as well. For example, cereal has come in a great deal of varieties for a long time, but now “Toaster Strudels” come in over a dozen varieties. Toaster Strudels goes in the “handheld” frozen breakfast food category. In case you were wondering, frozen breakfast foods represents a billion dollar market (closer to 2B). I wonder how big it was in 1970!

By availability and accessibility, I want my use of these words here to be interpreted softly. I just mean that generally, choice is everywhere, goods come from everywhere and are available everywhere. Distribution of goods is better than ever. In the case of restaurants, in cities that have a critical mass, choice is equally impressive. By no means is this phenomenon limited to food. I went to Ulta and started counting different choices of nail polish. I stopped at 50 after realizing I wasn’t making a dent. (Yes I did look funny and got funny looks.) Netflix offers 75,000 movies most of which are always immediately available for rental. Itunes offers 3.5 million songs for immediate download. And it’s a good thing I can go to shopzilla and choose from over 60 brands of men’s jeans of countless cuts and features.

My observation of this stuff is not new. There’s such a wide selection of books on the topic (just “amazon” abundance, customer choice, customer attention, and the like), that you’re literally confronted with the same abundance of choice when looking for a good book about abundance of choice.

Beyond just preaching the same gospel, here are some of my thoughts:

-I like it. Others apparently do, too.

-I wish there was a source that made these choices easier, all the time.

-I have the above wish, for several reasons. I generally want to try different products all over the spectrum of high and low end, but always with the Good Deal Rule in effect. But I have a scarcity of time and resources to “find out for myself” through trial and would prefer to minimize the downside (both frequency and magnitude) of trying products that end up violating the Good Deal Rule or simply end up not being good for some reason that I could have known beforehand.

-Preference is a social topic (this is a thesis for its own book)

-Arriving at choice and preference is tricky before and after initial trial. In regard to initial trial in particular, one food critic’s opinion might be more valuable to me than one random consumer’s, but not more valuable than one friend’s opinion, and certainly not more valuable than 100 random consumer’s opinions if aggregated into something meaningful.

-Choice overload may result in a negative customer experience. When I first bought my Prego I was annoyed at the abundance of choice, even though, rationally, I’m glad HEB offers me that abundance. I have been annoyed for years at the way Dell presents their “abundance of choice” in their laptops. It’s not that I don’t like choice with computers, it’s the confusion and frustration that comes with it.

-What is an honest, reliable opinion really worth? The value of information that can help me make a choice with confidence is worth something. How much? I’m not quite sure, but I’m pretty darn sure the value is growing.

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