A Store With Only 3 Products And Other Cases For Simplicity

Less products, less choices, more impact? How keeping things simple can bring success.

There's a jewellery store in Old Town in Zurich, Switzerland. It specializes in finely crafted rings, bracelets, and necklaces adorned with the most precious of stones. The shopfront window is huge—measuring about 15 feet wide and 4 feet deep. You'd imagine there'd be a range of dazzling wares on display, but think again. This vast shopfront area displays just one small item at any given time. Every day it changes: One day it might be an emerald ring, the next a gold bracelet, or perhaps a diamond pendant.

This single object of beauty is an antidote to our world of cluttered inboxes, texts, Tweets, and Facebook updates. Our television shows are regularly accompanied by news headlines scrolling along the bottom. There are weather updates, share prices, as well as the current temperature in 50 states. One can't help but wonder what, in the end, actually penetrates. Is this barrage effective?

I recently interviewed a leading executive at a major sports channel. I was curious about the trend of displaying animated graphics on screen. She explained, "It makes us feel in the moment—important and active." Then, much to my surprise, she continued by describing a phenomenon that had not occurred to me. She said, "We've learned the busy screen makes men feel more masculine, and fuels our addiction to distraction."

According to a study the network had carried out, men are feeling increasingly emasculated, and exciting graphics helps reassert their masculinity. She went on to describe our growing addiction to noise. If there's no noise, we feel something is missing. It's uncomfortable and can lead to feelings of loneliness.

These surprising discoveries were made when the channel attempted to remove all the peripheral graphics from the screen. As the latest scores, updates, and breaking news stories disappeared, the men being observed behind the one-way mirror reached for their cell phones to check on, well, who knows. Then as the endless data reappeared, so the BlackBerrys and iPhones were placed back in their pockets and their eyes were once again drawn to the screen.

So: is more ... more? Or has the jewellery store in Switzerland missed the point? The question intrigued me. Over the next two months I set out to discover if more is indeed more, or if in fact less is more. In other words, does our purchasing increase when we're presented with more options, or do we purchase more when there are fewer options? By enlisting 250 volunteers and presenting them with chocolates in neatly packaged boxes I was soon to find out.

During the first round, the volunteers were offered a box with 30 different flavours of chocolate. They could choose as many pieces as they liked, but they had only one minute to make their selection. Twelve percent chose just one. This might strike you as low, considering they were free to take as many as they wished. However, their responses were peppered with the usual excuses—"I'm on diet"; "It's not good for me."

In the second round, the volunteers were only offered six flavours to choose from. Surprisingly, their reaction was completely different. Working within the same time frame, 28% took a single chocolate—more than double the results of the first round.

As I pondered these results, it began to make sense. The selection of these chocolates is akin to our attraction to Top Ten lists. I must confess that I'm a sucker for these sorts of lists because they kind of help categorize and prioritize life's many choices. I scan lists like "Top Ten Beaches" or "100 Places to See Before You Die," and feel a sense of satisfaction if an entry tallies with my choices, or alternatively, I file the information in the recesses of my brain for future reference.

A few years ago Japan's largest online retailer @Cosme—a cosmetic website with more than 6 million, mostly female, members—decided to extend their online services offline. @Cosme established bricks and mortar stores featuring all the same products they offered online in a physical environment. But there was a single revolutionary aspect that differentiated them from other retailers: Only their top three products would be on display. Every hour an employee sweeps through the store and changes the position of the products according to their online sales. When Elizabeth Arden's latest blusher moves from third best-selling position to first, the product is moved up two shelves. Furthermore, on surrounding screens you can monitor online chats discussing that same blusher. @Cosme has become one of the most popular stores in Japan.

I was born and raised in Denmark, a country far from Japan, but one where design is part of its DNA—even the most banal toilet brush becomes an aesthetically pleasing item, and simple things like salt-and-pepper shakers require a manual to know which side is what. I am well familiar with overkill. Denmark's a place where perhaps the design pendulum has swung too far. On a different note, it brings to mind that old line attributed to Mark Twain (among a few others), "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead."

Advertisers, TV producers, magazine editors, shop-window stylists, art directors, Facebook programmers, web designers, product innovators, and bankers take heed. I know you all lead busy lives, but so do consumers. If you had the time, I'm sure you'd make things simpler, but perhaps the time has come to do just that. The evidence speaks for itself. It's as simple as that.

Martin Lindstrom is a 2009 recipient of TIME Magazine's "World's 100 Most Influential People" and author of Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy (Doubleday, New York), a New York Times and Wall Street Journal best—seller. His latest book, Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy, will be released in September. A frequent advisor to heads of numerous Fortune 100 companies, Lindstrom has also authored 5 best-sellers translated into 30 languages. More at martinlindstrom.com.

Read more by Lindstrom: Bottling The Past: Using Nostalgia To Connect With Customers

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7 Comments

  • Leslie Stompor

    Several choosing-among-many-choices experiments are described in the book "The Paradox of Choice: Why Less is More" by Barry Schwartz.  The results are basically that, when confronted with more choices, one is less likely to choose anything.  Irene, Barry also mentions the effect of "the one that got away" as an explanation for this.

    Doug, you might be interested in another limited-format store by the people that started Trader Joe's: ALDI.  It is a discount grocery retailer in parts of the U.S. and throughout Europe.  Luckily, they are in my part, Chicago!  :-)  Their philosophy seems to be (if I may paraphrase Henry Ford) "you can have it any way you want, as long as it is the one way I offer it."  For example, milk is sold only in gallons, only one "brand," only 3 types (0%, 2%, 4%).  The dairy selection at our local big-name markets makes me dizzy, in contrast!!

  • JL Gordon

    Great article about having a clear brand message. Highlight quality over quantity. Yes, simplicity is elegance and passion for quality resonates. I love experiencing brands that get it right: Rolex, Scott Skis, Ferragamo, Boss, etc. Is it a coincidence these brands are based in Europe? @nglobaltime:twitter

  • Brady Sadler

    Thanks, Martin. I think you're spot on with the less is more philosophy.  I've taken a stab at this in the music and fashion space with 1band 1brand . 

    I believe this goes hand-in-hand with the idea that we'll eventually need even more filters to help us cut through the clutter, especially when it comes to the content we consume online. I've been following an interesting debate regarding the value of our social networking connections to help with this filtering. However, it turns out most of us have a diverse group of friends in terms of tastes and interests, leading to mixed results. I think Hunch is one of the more interesting companies tackling this challenge and developing algorithms that leverage collaborative filtering (think Amazon recommendations). Would be interested in hearing your thoughts on this. Perhaps you'll address it in Brandwashed. 

  • Irene Etzkorn

    I also question what conclusion to draw from the "chocolate" study. I think the total number of chocolates that were presented would affect how many were selected as well as the number of different flavors. When only 6 flavors were offered, I might also have thought the total supply was more limited and been hesitant to infringe on the available supply for others. It is also a different dynamic when a person is sampling flavors rather than making a purchase. In general, though, there is good research to support the premise that shoppers are more satisfied with their choice when there are fewer options presented (less angst about "the one that might have gotten away").

  • Doug

    I think this is one of the reasons Trader Joe's is so successful.  By being physically so much smaller than a standard supermarket, they typically only carry a one or two of each type of item. So there's not a lot of time spent pondering choices a, b, c, d, e, f, and g.  It's either a or b, or just a.  Simple. 

    Plus, because they monitor their products so closely, and can compare data from stores country wide, every item on their shelves has to justify its existence. If it doesn't sell, it goes.  So the cool part is that pretty much every thing they sell IS good.

  • Peter Mills

    I wish the evidence did speak for itself, as this is an important topic. The result that 28% chose just one chocolate when only six flavours were offered seems to indicate that less choice results in fewer goods being chosen. Or am I reading this incorrrectly?

    Can we rightly assume that those who didn't choose a single chocolate actually helped themselves to more than one chocolate?

    I'd love to know what really happened, as I'm in a position to advise clients on the ideal size of their product ranges. I'm also interested in knowing whether simplicity or complexity works best in advertising and website design.