Want a Bud? A Coke? Sorry, you'll have to be more specific

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Asking the bartender for a Bud just got more complicated.

Anheuser-Busch's Budweiser Select, rolled out nationally Feb. 21, is the sixth brew on the market bearing the Bud name. That doesn't count the new caffeinated B-to-the-E beer, which uses Budweiser iconography.

And that's still nothing compared to the soft-drink aisle, where shoppers can find 14 varieties of Coca-Cola and 11 different Pepsi-Cola labels. Both beverage giants are expected to flood aisles with new diet versions this summer.

It's line extension madness. And while proponents assert the dizzying array of drinks is necessary to generate excitement and appeal to changing tastes-not to mention gain shelf space and fend off competitors-critics contend marketers risk confusing customers. Confronted with too many choices, they might just choose another brand.

"How can you order a Bud with all these different products?" said Jack Trout, president of the consultant Trout & Partners and a critic of line extensions. "Which Bud?"

In his book "The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less," Barry Schwartz, a Swathmore College psychology professor, argued that too many choices-in everything from shopping to selecting a retirement plan-create stress.

`bad business'

"You do get to a point where you have too much and you choose none of the above," he said. Rolling out too many extensions "is bad business."

There's no question that line extensions have exploded. During the four years ended 2004, the number of soft-drink varieties and package sizes more than doubled to 791, according to figures from Mintel's Global New Products Database. In the same period, the number of beer line extensions nearly tripled to 54.

As a result, consumers are spending more time in the beverage aisles, according to Craig Childress, director-prototype design research at retail researcher Envirosell. The average shopper spends 40 seconds or more in the soda aisle, compared to 25 seconds six to seven years ago. Beer shoppers added about five seconds to their aisle time in the same period.

"People still grab and go, but there's a fairly large percentage of people having a difficult time finding their product or making a decision at point-of-sale," Mr. Childress said. The diverse range of products on shelf facings means brands are actually getting smaller presence. "We're big believers of products working as a [billboard] and when you break it into 11 different products it reads differently than when you have one product."

That waters down the impact of launches. More than half of consumers surveyed failed to recall a single new product launched in 2004, according to Insight Express. Among the products that were memorable: Coke's C2 (24% of consumers remembered it) and rival Pepsi Edge (17%). The viability of those extensions is still in question, however.

They can handle it

There are those who believe shoppers welcome the spinoffs.

"Consumers can handle a lot more choice than marketers give them credit for," Tom Vierhile, executive editor of ProductSCAN Online and ProductSCAN said, noting that choices have grown in everything from cars to TV channels. "You've got a lot more market segmentation than you had 20 years ago. From a consumer's perspective there's unlimited demand for products that are really new and different."

Larry Krauss, VP at Eric Marder Associates, a market-research supplier, contended that choice is good for consumers because there's a greater chance one of the line extensions will meet their needs. "If there's too much to look at in the aisle ... it's not going to ruin anybody's day," he said.

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