the paradox of overchoice | Pinnacle Promotions

The paradox of overchoice: how many options are too many?

by Dave Weintraub, CEO

Luckily, I do not go to the grocery store very often.

When I do go, I usually spend three times what I was planning on spending and often I forget what I was originally supposed to buy and have to go back. Recently, I came home from work one night, and my wife asked me to go to our local Publix to get pasta sauce. “No problem” I replied, grabbed my keys and headed down the street thinking it would be a quick in and out.

Wow, was I wrong. How hard can it be to buy a jar of sauce at a grocery store? How about 45 minutes hard.


Jars and jars and jars....

I walked into the store and immediately headed for the pasta aisle. Prego. That was the name stuck in my head. My thought was to walk right over, grab the first jar I see and then head straight to the express checkout. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

First, Prego has about 35 different kinds of sauce. You have to make a choice. Do you want a Favorite, a Classic Italian, or a Premium? What about a Prego Farmer’s Market version with organic ingredients? There was traditional, tomato basil with garlic, fresh mushroom, homestyle, meat-flavored. Seriously!? I was absolutely overwhelmed...and that was just one brand. There’s also Newman’s Own, Bertoli, Ragu, Barilla, and the private-label Publix versions of all of these. With all of the combinations, there had to be at least a hundred different options staring back at me.

"This is what you want."

I was just standing there staring at the shelves for 10 minutes when the stockperson came up to me and asked me if I needed help. “I don’t know” was all I could say. The reality of the situation was that I was actually scared to choose something because I knew that if I came home with the wrong jar my wife would just send me back out again.

The stockperson and I went back and forth for another 10 minutes. Did I want garlic? Vegetarian or meat? Peppers and onions? My head was spinning until suddenly I heard a familiar voice, “What are you doing?” Thankfully, it was my wife’s best friend. She lives down the street and happened to be shopping. After begging her not to tell, I explained my predicament. She laughed, reached over my shoulder, grabbed a jar, and said “This is what you want”. I took it, said thanks, and ran.

Overchoice defined

In the car on the way home I started to wonder what just happened. I don’t usually have a tough time making decisions, but this was different. It wasn’t that there was a right or wrong decision to make – I would imagine that all of the sauces pretty much taste the same. The question is, what do you do when you have to make a decision between items that all seem the same?

That is the paradox of choice…or what psychologists call the phenomenon of “Overchoice”. The simple definition is that people have a difficult time making a decision when faced with too many equivalent choices. The process was first named and written about in 1970, but there have been numerous studies since then that document the struggles of choice.

We’re all faced with this every day from college options, to career options, to romantic relationships. Modern technology makes our increased options even greater, with easy access to information. We’ve all been there. When was the last time you went to Amazon with the intent to buy something you were certain about and ended up leaving the site with nothing? It happens to the best of us. We read the reviews, look at “similar” products and then just get frustrated and overwhelmed and can’t bring ourselves to press 1-click to order.

How many choices are too many?

A few years ago researchers put together a study to gauge just how many choices are too many. They went to a grocery store and put out six jars of jelly. Forty percent of the shoppers stopped to take a look at the selection and a whopping 30% actually purchased something. The next week the researchers put out 24 varieties of Jelly. Just as you would expect, it attracted more people! Sixty percent of the people stopped to take a look at the layout – a huge number. But, surprisingly, only three percent of the shoppers actually bought something.

The researchers concluded that having such a large number of equally good options is too mentally draining because each option has to be weighed against the others. Initially, more choices leads to more satisfaction, but as the number increases, it peaks and then people tend to feel more confusion, pressure, and potential dissatisfaction. A smaller number of choices leads to increased satisfaction and less regret. The pressure of choice is even more extreme when you add in limited-time constraints.

The solution: how to overcome overchoice

My sauce-choosing experience was just a small example of what a typical consumer is faced with during the day, but I also see it a lot at work. At Pinnacle Promotions, we sell imprinted promotional products and corporate apparel. As a distributor, the choice options are almost endless. We literally have access to about 700,000 different products on which a company can print its logo.

We have a phenomenal website with hundreds of categories, tens of thousands of products and a multitude of imprint methods. But what do you do as a client when your boss tells you to find products that you can give away at a trade show? It can be simply overwhelming. You can go to 10 different websites and everything looks the same – Overchoice in all of its glory.

Here’s the thing, though. My wife’s friend knew what I wanted because she knows me and my family. She spends enough time with us to know what would satisfy our needs, fit in our budget, and make me look good. This is how you overcome the Overchoice dilemma – with individuals who understand what you are looking for, know the questions to ask, and people that you can trust to help narrow down your choices to a manageable level.

And that's exactly what we do at Pinnacle – we train our staff to be product experts so that they can help you find exactly what you need at the right price.

The stockperson at Publix was there to help, but he didn’t really know what I wanted, so his suggestions only made me more confused. It took someone who had a relationship with me and my family to get me where I needed to go. Easy access to products and information can give you more choice, but is it the right choice?

My suggestion: make choices easier in your business life and surround yourself with partners, vendors, and suppliers that take the time to learn what your business is all about and learn about you as a human being, not just a potential sale.


Dave Weintraub started Pinnacle Promotions with his brother Mitch in 1994. In the ensuing years, he's seen the options for branded merchandise – and the access to those options – expand dramatically. His goal with Pinnacle is, and has always been, to take all of these options and narrow them down to just the right ones.


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