Commentary by Jonah Bloom

Starbucks Offers Too Many Choices

As Barry Schwartz Explains More is Sometimes Less

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Twenty-eight minutes. That's how long I stood in line at the concession stand in Regal Cinema's Battery Park 16-screen multiplex. Twenty-eight minutes of anger-managing,
Jonah Bloom, executive editor of Advertising Age.
fist-clenching, curse-muttering frustration. Twenty-eight minutes of missing ads, trailers and opening movie scenes. Sure I should have quit and gone popcorn-less into the movie, saving myself six bucks, the stress and wedged corn in the teeth. But I am dogged by an inability to admit defeat in such situations -- that and an addiction to butter.

You might also say I should have better anticipated the length of time required to get to the front of the line. But there were five registers open, and, when I picked up the gauntlet, no more than a dozen people in any of the lines. Even factoring in folks' inability to get their cash out before they get to a register, I figured no one could take more than a minute to conduct their simple transactions.

But there was nothing simple about the transactions. First, the array of options proved bewildering for many. Faced with candy (available treats differed from those on display), nachos, hot dogs, pretzels, ice cream, sodas and popcorn, customers, particularly the kids, found their minds waffled uncontrollably. Then the size, flavor, diet, and accoutrements questions had to be answered: "Large? With cheese? No, sorry, no jalapenos. You wanna soda with that?"

Add in at least two promotions, one based on

Regal Cinemas and Starbucks are not unusual. They are typical of the marketers that offer consumers a glut of choices.
a coupon clutched by several customers, another advertised on a piece of cardboard above our heads, and you might as well have asked each customer to ship a fox, chicken and bag of grain across a metaphorical river.

But it's a little unfair to pick on the otherwise excellent movie theater. It's not as if this situation is unusual: I suffer it daily at Starbucks. Boasting 19,000 possible drink configurations and a language all its own, the king of customization has turned five-minute coffee breaks into 10-minute endurance tests.

While I wait in line to be overcharged for my black coffee, I watch befuddled customer after befuddled customer struggling to communicate with the equally baffled "baristas." The line has grown longer not simply because people need 15 or 16 words to describe their choice, but because non-regulars -- the regulars are groaning along with me -- are frozen in their tracks by the possibilities.

Barry Schwartz, who wrote for Ad Age earlier this year, tackles this topic in his book, The Paradox of Choice. Schwartz explains that we live in a world where choice often overwhelms us. While the Schwartzian consumer is better off objectively for the choice, they feel anxious making the decision and regret it afterward, as it might not have been the "right" one. The lesson for marketers is that by offering so much choice they might be leaving their customers ultimately feeling less satisfied.

I'd go further, in the case of Starbucks or movie theaters, in saying their "choices" are ruining the experience for loyal customers who want to purchase their core (and most profitable) products. I know several people who've abandoned Starbucks for quicker options, and I should follow suit.

Just as smart supermarkets have a quick checkout, so Starbucks' bigger branches should have a "Just Coffee" line and Regal Cinemas should have a "Just Popcorn and Soda" line (one size fits all). Would doing that be adding choice or taking it away? I don't know, but I'll bet it'd save me time and save them customers.

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