As the years have passed, the challenges posed by choice, both to customers and to managers, have only grown. In 1994, the year I had my first inkling that there might be such a thing as too much choice, over 500,000 different consumer goods were already available in the United States. By 2003, the number had increased to nearly 700,000, an upward trend that shows no signs of letting up. Technological advances frequently introduce new categories of products into our lives. Some of them — cell phones, computers, digital cameras — become indispensable, and soon enough the options proliferate. Just as importantly, not only are there more goods on the market, there are more ways to get at them. The typical supermarket, which carried 3,750 different items in 1949, now boasts some 45,000 items. Walmart and other "big-box" retailers offer smorgasbords of over 100,000 products to Americans in just about every part of the country. And if you don't find what you're looking for within a few blocks, you'll certainly find it with a few clicks. The Internet extends your reach well beyond local venues, providing access to the 100,000 DVDs on Netflix.com, 24 million books (and millions of other products) on Amazon.com, and 15 million singles on Match.com.
The expansion of choice has become an explosion of choice, and while there is something beautiful and immensely satisfying about having all of this variety at our fingertips, we also find ourselves beset by it. We think the profusion of possibilities must make it that much easier to find that perfect gift for a friend's birthday, only to find ourselves paralyzed in the face of row upon row of potential presents. Which one is really her? Which one is truly the "perfect" gift? This one is good, but how do I know that there isn't something better someplace else, and have I, by now, looked hard enough for it? We exhaust ourselves in the search, and something that should have been a joy — celebrating a loved one — becomes a chore. But can we really complain? This abundance, which many of us take for granted, is not available to everyone. When we question it, we might be accused of looking a gift horse in the mouth, or somebody might offer to play us the world's saddest song on the world's smallest violin. Moreover, whatever our reservations about choice, we have continued to demand more of it, and one can't deny that all this choice does come with certain benefits.
From the book The Art of Choosing Copyright (c) 2010 by Sheena Iyengar. Reprinted by permission of Twelve Books/Hachette Book Group, New York, N.Y. All rights reserved. Read an interview with Sheena Iyengar.