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