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Study Says Choice Overload Leads to No Sale



product groupingTake a run around the internet and you’ll spot the trend right away – images, images, images with very little text. Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram, image sites are hot but that doesn’t mean it will work for your ecommerce store.

A new study from the University of Miami School of Business Administration shows that, if your goal is selling products online, image overload might actually work against you.

The researchers began by studying consumer preference while performing typical online shopping tasks. They then asked the participants whether they’d prefer to have an assortment of products shown as a group of images or as a group of descriptions. They ran the test with a variety of product types and the result was the same; from crackers to mutual funds, everyone preferred the visual presentation.

I hear you saying, “well, there you go. I’m just giving customers what they want when I show them ten rows of huge photos.” But I’m going to put on my mother hat and say, “just because they want something doesn’t mean it’s good for them or for you.” I want chocolate for breakfast, lunch and dinner but that’s probably not a good idea.

Size Matters

In the second half of the study, the researchers played with the numbers. They presented the shoppers with small groupings (4 or 8 options) and large groupings (14 02 24 options) made up of images or text. They were then asked to do several things:

a) rate the variety and complexity of product choice sets

b) to make a choice from the choice sets

c) to perform a surprise recall task where they had to identify the options previously presented.

The researchers also used eye-tracking tools to quantify the amount of time individuals spent on each part of the page.

The final result?

When larger assortments of products (i.e. many options) are displayed with images rather than text, shoppers are less likely to purchase a product.  When it comes to a smaller selection of products displayed (e.g. four types of crackers or eight different nail polishes), it makes no difference in the likelihood of purchase whether or not visuals or text are used to share the information.

Why did this happen? Because when they were handed a large set of images, the shoppers spent less time looking at each product. “They also become more haphazard and less systematic in their examination compared to when words are used to describe the choices.”

The study calls this “choice overload.” The end result was an empty shopping cart – no purchase.

The researchers see this as an even bigger problem on mobile where graphics have almost completely taken over for text.

Claudia Townsend, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Miami School of Business Administration says,

“Because consumers prefer to see products visually, we suggest that online retailers design a home page that uses visual information upfront, emphasizing ease-of-purchase and variety. They should then make the product offering pages more text based in order to cause the shopper to slow down, review each option more carefully, and buy.”

That slow down is the key. We want consumers to spend more time on our pages examining our products. The more time a consumer invests in checking out the details, the more likely they are to buy in the end.

I conducted by own, very unscientific study quite accidentally yesterday. I wanted to send Christmas flowers to a family member so I went to one of the major online retailers and was immediately overwhelmed with choice. Not only were there eight rows of flower photos. I was then prompted to look at eight more rows of holiday plants and. . . oh by the way we have holiday gift baskets (more and more and more photos).

Each photo had a few lines of text which included a price range, so apparently even my options had options. I left the page without buying anything.

Now, here’s a bonus nudge – I still needed the flowers, so I went back to the same online seller later in the day. I was determined not to let the abundance of information scare me off. I picked my bouquet then logged in. (Wrong password) I logged in using Facebook (Nothing.) I logged in with a different password (Wrong). I said I lost my password (It didn’t send me a new one.) I tried registering all over again. (Sorry, there’s already an account with this email.)

Guess what I did next. I went and bought the flowers from a competitor where I logged in without an issue. I tried very hard to give that first seller my money. But in my opinion, they did everything they could to keep me from buying.

Don’t do that to yourself. When was the last time you bought something from your own store? Do it today. You might be surprised by how difficult you’re making it for your customers who want to buy.

  • http://wideeyedconcepts.com/ Sean Roulston

    I agree with the results from the study. I too have had the same trouble with ordering flowers online. I wish they wouldn’t over complicate things? If I have the option to purchase locally, I will.

    I think websites such as Amazon, knock the simplicity factor out of the park. Their search options are simple to use. They provide you with some suggestions, and once you click on a product, they show other suggestions below it. It’s incredibly user-friendly, and the one-click checkout option is dangerous. Ha!

    Thanks for shedding light on this. Great post.