How choices affect choosing

A quick look into why your restaurant might put some 'curatorial' efforts to work on your menu.

How many silly, film-junket interviews has Harrison Ford done in his life? At least enough that someone once asked about his taste in jeans. His answer:

Really, what are the options? Levi's or Wranglers. And you just pick one. It's one of those life choices. Harrison Ford

I'm sure Harrison Ford would have done fine with either pair - but his quote reflects an actual reality. Given fewer choices people choose more easily.

They enjoy their choice more and also don't spend much time pondering what could have been. An interesting set of studies in California recently put a point on this.

First, some background.


According to the Food Marketing Institute, the average US supermarket today carries almost 50,000 items. Head back to 1975 and that number wasn't even 10,000.

As a single example, in 1975 Doritos came in three flavors. Since 1975 Doritos have cycled through 121 flavors, with a current 12 available.

The explosion of options is no secret. Most everyone is familiar with entire supermarket aisles dedicated to chips or bubbly drinks. For a city-dweller, heading to a suburban supermarket can feel like a visit to a blimp hangar. There is even an amusing Simpsons episode where Marge takes Apu to visit a new supermarket called Monstromart whose slogan is "where shopping is a baffling ordeal".

Proliferation of choice is a topic of interest at OrdrUs because we encounter some very long menus. For some restaurants - such as diners - that comes with the territory.

But as cuisine has expanded in the US to reach every nook and cranny of flavor, preparation method, and price point, the temptation of stuffing a menu with 'something-for-everyone' has become alluring in a new way.


Here's how the aforementioned experiment worked: sampling tables for jam varieties were set up in an upscale California supermarket. And the experiment was run twice, on two similar days.

During the first day, the sampling table had 24 different jam flavors available for customers to try. On the second day, the number of jam flavors was reduced to 6.

In either case, shoppers who stopped to sample any of the jams were then given a coupon right on the spot. The coupon could be used immediately for a discount on the purchase of any jam that had been offered.

The table with 24 jams proved attractive. More shoppers decided to stop and sample jams at that table. But only 3% of those shoppers followed through with a purchase.

At the table with 6 jams the sales numbers were much higher: a full 30% of those shoppers followed through with a purchase of jam.

This study and similar ones (the same researchers got equal results testing with chocolates) have revealed something that can have real effects in a restaurant: while customers are initially enthusiastic about choice - even attracted to it - they also find having many options demotivating.

Instead of reacting quickly and instinctually to what they want, many people faced with choices worry more about what they're missing out on.

Even collecting information simply to make a choice ("Wait - are chipotles earthy or spicy?") is a burden. As options multiply, the effort required to figure out between alternatives overwhelms the simple pleasure of an interesting choice in the first place.


Most restaurants know instinctively that 'too many items' are a bad idea - both for customers and operationally.

But the fact of this study and similar ones clarify how fewer choices can also lead to greater customer satisfaction. Rather than thinking about how many options form a 'ceiling' on reasonableness, a restaurant can exercise an unexpected thing customers might actually really enjoy: curation.

Essentially, a restaurant can select the best of the available choices rather than giving customers every choice, every time.

Take a beer list for example.

When presented with a long lists of beer options, customers often choose from amongst the first or last few. Is it because they like those best? Or is it because at some point in the list they give up trying to compare options and just 'give in' to what they already know?

A better way, instead, may be to have some portion of 'what's available' be on a non-permanent basis. A handful of choices - beer, salad dressings or whole items - whose availability is defined in whatever way can make sense to your customer. This can be seasonally, weekly, daily, or freely up to your imagination.

Knowing that something isn't always available gives customers an inbuilt reason to try something new and move on. It's choice for the fun of choosing, rather than for the search for the elusive 'perfect' outcome.

And that's a unique joy that a flexible restaurant can provide. And a tied-down corporate restaurant cannot.

L'Astrance, a three-star Michelin restaurant in Paris's upscale 16th arrondissement, takes this to an extreme. They offer no choice at all on their menu. Instead, the chef Pascal Barbot dreams up the standing menu each day, based on what he selected in the greenmarket that morning.

That's certainly not a mainstream option, but it highlights how with some curatorial muscle, even the average restaurant can turn choice into something that is fun and interesting for customers again.

In New York alone we apparently have enough single-item restaurants to merit our very own Top 5 list.

As always, your mileage may vary. But don't be scared of keeping it simple - good science says you might be right!

Published on