Showrooms Benefit from the Internet’s Wealth of Choices

We all know the quote from Henry Ford, "You can have any color as long as it's black." Today that attitude seems shocking and downright wrong. We’ve been taught that choice is a good thing. Choice is often associated with freedom. We want to have the choice to decide with whom we associate, the jobs we can hold and the products we sell. When people have freedom of choice, it enables them to control their destinies.

Malcolm Gladwell explains in a famous TED talk that having multiple options is a good thing, because there is no one perfect product that meets everyone’s needs. Gladwell reinforces this theory by relating experiments conducted by psychophysicist Howard Moskowitz who is best known for reinventing spaghetti sauce.

Moskowtiz was hired by Campbell Soup to help its struggling Prego line. At that time, Ragu dominated the bottled spaghetti sauce market. Campbell Soup was perplexed. It believed Prego had superior quality ingredients and better flavor and adherence to pasta than the market leader. Yet, consumers were not buying it. They tasked Moskowitz to fix the problem.

Working with chefs in the Campbell Soup kitchen and conducting tastings of different options around the country, Moskowitz concluded that there was no such thing as a perfect spaghetti sauce. Instead, he found that there are perfect spaghetti sauces. He discovered that Americans fell into three spaghetti sauce groups. There are people who like spicy, there are those who prefer plain and then there were those who like extra chunky.

In the early 1980s when Moskowitz was conducting his experiments, no one produced extra chunky sauce. When Prego introduced it, extra chunky took the market by storm and generated $600 million in sales.

Starbucks offers nearly 80,000 drink combinations. Whole Foods has more than a half dozen types of salt. Do spaghetti sauce producers, Starbucks and Whole Foods know something others have yet to discover about consumer decision-making?


Too Many Choices?

Many choices are expected in both our personal and business lives. However, what happens when there are too many choices? How do kitchen and bath customers respond when they enter a showroom and see 15 different mushroom-shaped cabinet knobs or a wall of faucets available in 32 designer finishes?

Search for farmhouse sinks on and you will have to sift through 77,000 different options. How can the Internet researcher make heads or tails out of 77,000 farmhouse sink choices? Most consumers who cannot find what they are looking for in the first few clicks move onto something else or give up their search.

The number of choices available in almost every decorative plumbing and hardware product category is staggering. Choice gives us freedom to select, but too many choices make our heads hurt and can actually drive us away. That is the theory behind psychologist Barry Schwartz book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. Published more than 10 years ago, Schwartz argues that too many choices have a counterintuitive effect. Instead of providing a sense of well-being, too many choices increase levels of anxiety, depression and wasted time.

Schwartz’ theories were reinforced by Robb Best during several presentations he made at DPHA Annual Conferences and regional meetings. Using the principles of neuroscience, Best offers guidance on how to structure sales approaches that correspond to the way the brain operates. He relates that when showroom sales professionals offer too many choices, the brain shuts down. The result is paralysis.

Best explains that consumers overwhelmed by too much information can’t process all of the options available to them. They simply walk away. Best’s conclusions were reinforced by a Vanguard study of 1 million employees in approximately 2,000 different workplaces. The study found that for every 10 mutual funds an employer offered in employee 401K programs, participation declined 2%.

If an employer gave its staff 50 fund choices, voluntary participation would decline by 10%. That meant 10% of employees were willing to bypass employer contributions to their 401k plans – free money. Why? Because choosing from among 50 options was simply too difficult and took too much of the people’s precious time.

Now what is the Internet’s number one calling card? We have it all. Our selection is second to none. If you know what you want, we will get it for you right now, ship it for free and without sale tax! But what if you’re not sure what you want? This is why the Internet, once considered adversarial to brick and mortar showrooms, is rapidly becoming a retail showroom’s best friend.

Where does a homeowner turn when faced with 77,000 different farmhouse sink options? They search Google for farmhouse sinks, find a local showroom and visit that showroom to obtain qualified guidance to help them walk through the selection process and pick the best suited farmhouse sink for their home or project.


The Showroom’s Role

Now that the tide is turning in the favor of bricks and mortar showrooms, we have to stay focused on presenting the right products and preparing showroom staff to work with overwhelmed clients. In many showrooms, sales professional let customers select products. They are often viewed as order takers. It’s not that these “sales” professionals do not have a superior knowledge base. Most do, and know more than their customers regardless of how much time a customer has spent doing independent research. They either voluntarily or involuntarily leave the decision to the customer.

They don’t want to be accountable for directing customers to a wrong decision or, in most cases, the best decision. It’s easy to simply put the burden on the customer and say, “Which product do you want.”

There’s also another factor to consider. Too many choices can be confusing, but the complete absence of choice can be equally detrimental to purchasing decisions. Daniel Mochon wrote in the Journal of Consumer Behavior about phenomena he called the "single-option aversion."

Mochon explains that Williams-Sonoma did not understand why its customers were not buying its $429 bread maker. It was the only bread maker that Williams-Sonoma offered and yet it mainly sat on shelves. A funny thing though occurred when the company brought in a second less expensive bread maker that sold for $289. When the second machine was introduced, almost nobody bought the $429 model, but sales of the lesser-priced version doubled. 

Is there a reason why sales of the cheaper model started to take off when a more expensive alternative was put on the shelves? The answer is yes.

Williams-Sonoma customers most likely did not know what a bread maker should cost. Was $429 too much? Customers did not know until they were offered an alternative. The higher priced bread maker served as a reference point so that the cheaper model was perceived as a better value or a good starter product. But that's not the case most of the time when higher-priced items are compared to lower-priced items. Even though consumers have access to pricing information, few will come to your showroom understanding why one product costs $500 and a similar looking product has a $1,000 price tag.

When consumers are presented only one option, especially products with premium and luxury price tags, they are hesitant to buy. However, Mochon discovered that when a choice is available, consumers are comfortable pulling the purchasing trigger.

Consumers want choices, but not too many of them, because when consumers stare at a wall of faucets or 24 different cabinet knobs, they get confused and can't process differences. Conversely, too few options create similar purchasing reticence. Even if consumers find something they like and want to buy, they may be reluctant to make a final decision without considering other options.

This is why there are 36 different mustards at Whole Foods and hundreds of different televisions at Best Buy. Choices can be confusing and exhausting, but a carefully selected offering can also reduce buying anxiety by providing clues that eliminate stress and create comfort zones. And this is the real opportunity for savvy showrooms and sales professionals. Their role is not to provide more information but to curate the information that customers relate. That’s why Daniel Pink writes in To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, “In the new world of sales, being able to ask the right questions is more valuable than producing the right answers.”

When customers come to the showroom armed with mountains of research, sales professionals should lead first with their ears, then with their mouths and guide customers to the best options.

Showroom customers are looking for professional guidance. They want their hands held. They want to be assured that their decisions are the right ones.

With so many choices available to customers, they are looking for showroom professionals to relieve their anxiety and to create comfort levels that make purchase decisions easy, enjoyable and without remorse. Your role is to simplify the process. That is not a service that Internet sites can provide.


Sarah Jenkinson serves as the US Agent for Barber Wilsons/Sterlingham. The UK-headquartered company has been manufacturing lavatory and kitchen faucets, shower systems and other plumbing fixtures for more than a century. Jenkinson also serves as the Immediate Past President of the Decorative Plumbing & Hardware Association.

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