Sometimes, too much of a good thing is just too much.  There’s an argument to be made concerning over-assortments of consumer products in one category after the other. A recent article in Toronto’s Globe and Mail notes, “In store aisles, less is more, but customers can still be particular” and examined this problem at retail.

A gem of a quote sums up the situation. Wal-Mart Ontario chief merchandiser Duncan MacNaughton says, “Folks can get overwhelmed with too much variety. With too many choices, they actually don’t buy.”

Many marketers know that, of course. After the recession began in 2007, retailers made a concerted effort to pull slow turning SKUs from their shelves. The thought process is a good one. Trim costs, reduce customer choices to minimize confusion, and actually boost sales since consumers presented with fewer choices actually buy more.

But even when armed with sales data, culling products from assortments is a tricky business. It’s a hit or miss proposition because a product may not have legions of followers, but the consumers who do love it are likely to revolt if it’s taken off the shelf. The backlash that results is not a pleasant one for the retailer—who is likely to experience lost sales. In many cases, retailers restock a number of those items directly based on customer “feedback."

On the other hand, expertly weeding out assortments leads to good results since it improves customers’ shopping experiences. Unilever’s director of marketing for household products, Rob Persiko, says, “Consumers have a hard time finding what they’re looking for because there’s so much on the shelf.” Isn’t that the best reason to reassess retail assortments?

The article reports that even CPG leader P&G “recently reduced the number of soap and other skin care offerings by about one-third at one retailer, while cutting the array of detergents and other fabric care products by about 20 percent at another chain.” And P&G isn’t alone. Many large consumer product companies are narrowing their assortments as well.

Result of the cutbacks? Sales grew in each category. With customers scanning the shelves in a precious few seconds, having fewer choices definitely makes it easier to shop. The newly merchandised product selection is more visible and clearer. Fewer choices, depending on the category, actually encourage consumers to select and purchase.

Wal-Mart found that out after discontinuing thousands of slow sellers in the United States recently. In fact, the retailer ended up restocking about 300 items it had culled because customers started to shop elsewhere. Yikes! Some categories are just more sensitive to limiting assortments than others, it seems.

• Do you feel overwhelmed by too many choices when you shop? Or do you prefer seeing a lot of new brands and having more choices?
• In which categories do you prefer fewer choices? In which do you prefer more?
• Have you ever stopped shopping in a store that offered fewer products? Or has a store that is packed with selections overwhelmed you and turned you off?

I’d love to hear from you.

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Don't Confuse the Customer: Limit Choices, Make More Sales

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Ted Mininni is president and creative director of Design Force, a leading brand-design consultancy.

LinkedIn: Ted Mininni